Paul Fairclough – Masterclass

Paul Fairclough – Playing Through the Thirds

Paul Fairclough, the Manager-Coach of the England 'C' Team, (i.e. the team comprising the best English non-league players), gave a very motivating and informative session on playing through the thirds of the pitch.

Paul introduced his session by saying that he likes players to discover and learn. He said that it was his belief that there was not too much difference technically between a good English player and a good continental European player. Where he believes the European player is superior  is that, on receiving the ball, he has at least five or six solutions to the problems   which  he faces to make progress, but the English player has a maximum of three.

So it is the work that the  young player is doing in his formative years that is critical and must be aimed at improving his decision making.

It is all very well saying that a young player must practice for a total of 10,000 hours during those early years, but it is what is being done in those 10,000 hours which is crucial. Paul believes that coaches who make decisions for their players  from the touchline are a problem because they are taking the problem solving away from their players. Players learn by playing in games and so we must create training games for them to learn and discover.   

The problem that Paul has with the England 'C' Team is that the players come from clubs where they play to a set plan but he wants to encourage them to express themselves and show bravery in this respect. He gave the example of a centre half who he picked for his squad and who, at his club, was required to just make long clearances downfield whenever the ball came into his possession. But with encouragement from Paul, this player proved to have good skill and ability on the ball which had never been utilised and he was capable of bringing the ball out of defence to start an attack.


Once Paul got started on the session he said that the players were completely new to him and so he had no idea of their ability levels. So he set up two practices to gauge their ability and give them a few ideas which would be useful during the rest of the session.

For the first practice he made a circle of the players and gave three footballs to players at various points of the circle. The practice is called 'Miss a Man' and the ball is passed to the next but one on your right and then the ball is set back to the player who was missed out who is in a supporting position. He in turn then passes to the next but one player who sets it back to the player who was missed out and the practice continues around the circle. The three balls are going at the same time so the players must stay constantly alert. Paul gradually introduced technical points into the practice as the players got used to it. He told the player receiving the ball, to set it back and get on the half turn as it came to him. He told him also to check his shoulder just before receiving the ball and then to make a little run away to check back as if marked, to therefore get free of the defender. If there was a danger of a ball from a different part of the circle catching up with another one and causing confusion then he wanted players to take responsibility to slow down and perhaps rest on the ball until the other one had made it's way a  bit further round the circle.   So he wanted players to take responsibility for the success of the practice by their observation and decision-making, in the same way that he would want this kind of responsibility and decision-making during a match.   At various times, Paul shouted out for the ball to go round the circle in the opposite direction, so the players had to react and adjust quickly.

The second practice was directional and involved the players in groups of six. We now saw the main element of  the session  because the players were in pairs  with the ball travelling between three pairs, ten yards apart with fifteen yards between each set of pairs. The practice began with a square pass between the two end players and then a diagonal pass into one of the middle pair. He then set the ball back with a straight pass who made a diagonal pass to the other player in the middle. He opened his body as the ball approached so as to be able to play the ball forward to one of the players at the end and then this sequence of passing continued with the ball now coming from the other end. The players were getting used to playing into and through areas of the pitch which were like the thirds on a normal pitch. To get the pattern of passing right, the players just had to remember that a straight pass always followed a diagonal pass and vice versa. Each pair changed positions at regular intervals so that everyone experienced playing in each third of the pitch.

This practice now led into the main part of the session where a pitch with goals was marked out and the thirds were shown by cones. Fourteen players were used including two goalkeepers, i.e. 7 v. 7. The players were set out as in the previous practice, with each team having two outfield players in each third. The ball started with one of the keepers   and he rolled or passed it to one of  his defenders who had to try and free himself from one of the opposing forwards. The players had to try and work the ball from one third to the next and it had to be passed from one third to the next without missing any out.


As the players became more confident and understanding of the objectives, Paul introduced more flexibility.  He allowed the two midfield players, when one of their defenders had the ball, to go into the attacking third but then drop out again in an attempt  to find space to receive a pass. He also wanted to create a situation where the two midfield players go wide and then drift into a central position and get free to receive a pass.

Paul then allowed a striker to drop back into midfield to create a 3 v. 2 overload, when his defender in the first third had the ball, and then, if he gained possession, to burst forward with the ball into the final third  and shoot. Good things were now happening and the players were increasing in their understanding all the time. Paul complimented a defender for finding space out wide to receive a pass from the keeper, where previously he would not have been looking for that kind of ball. Paul emphasised to the keepers that the modern keeper has to be good with his feet.

Paul then said that one defender could now go forward into the middle third when his team had the ball but he had to make the decision if it was the right thing to do. Similarly, when his keeper had the ball a midfield player could drop back into the defending third to make a 3 v. 2 situation.


At various intervals the blocks of players were moved from one third to the other so that everyone became familiar with work in all thirds of the pitch.

Finally, Paul removed the cones from the pitch and the players played the game in a free-moving setting without the boundaries previously set by the cones. However, because the players had understood and progressed in the practise as Paul had structured it, they continued to play in a similar manner on an ordinary pitch.  

Paul was extremely impressed and pleased with the players for their ability to take so much of the work on board so quickly and he expressed his thanks to them at the conclusion of the session.

In the debrief with LFCA members afterwards Paul clarified various points of his session and there was some interesting discussion. He made the point again that in non-league football so many players are so regimented at their clubs in being told what they had to do, but when they are allowed to express themselves so many find this a great release. He also made the point that with those players, after the  age of 17 – 18, you are not going to make much improvement to their technique but you can improve their understanding, with the kind of work we had seen that evening.

When asked about coaches who had inspired him, Paul mentioned the German coach, Horst Wein. Originally a hockey coach for the German Olympic Team, Wein has written books on coaching young footballers,  which have been translated into English.   Paul also expressed the suggestion that the England 'C' Team should be entered for the Olympic Football Tournament, as used to be the case with the England Amateur Team,    when the term amateur embraced football at the higher levels.

It had been a superb session which all members who  attended  had found of great benefit.

Steve Haslam

Photos by David Cumberbatch