Ask Simon Hewitt what are the most important lessons he teaches any youngster who comes into one of his Manchester City Football Schools coaching clinics wanting to become the next Raheem Sterling, Sergio Aguero or Kevin De Bruyne and he won’t nominate tactical awareness, correct tackling technique or even ball skills.
He will simply say teaching them to love the game.
Hewitt, head of football operations for the MENA Region at City Football Group (CFG), has worked with literally hundreds of young players, some as young as three years old, since he opened the City Football Schools Abu Dhabi in 2011 – and for everyone who passes through one of his sessions he tries to teach them three basic tenets.
“I think football can sometimes be too serious,” he says, “and people kind of pigeonhole (what makes a player great) – is it technical ability, is it tactical awareness, is it the skills, is it a physical presence that kids have?
“I would always say the first and foremost lesson is to have fun.
“The second one would be to play with freedom and be creative.
“Don’t be scared of making mistakes.
“Life’s all about making mistakes and learning lessons, so I think the more creative children are the better.
“And thirdly just to live a healthy and active lifestyle as well because sport is a natural provider for that platform.”
Modern professional football is a cut-throat world with every club trying to find that winning edge by discovering the next superstar or converting the next generation of fans – but that desperate quest is something Hewitt does not buy into.
“There’s natural competition in any sport,” he adds.
“I think it’s just how you present yourselves as a football club and the way you go about that.
“There’s obviously a lot of football clubs globally but this is about the methodology that we want to present to these children.
“We want them to feel part of the club and we want them to enjoy the journey that we’re all on now moving forward.”
Hewitt knows that Manchester City are living in the shadow of some other legendary clubs in the battle to win young hearts and minds.
“Clubs like Manchester United and Liverpool have had years of success and they obviously have a global fanbase because of that success,” he says.
“I suppose when you look at Manchester City as a team and Melbourne City and New York City – they are quite new really and obviously Sheikh Mansour when he took over the vision was to make them successful.
“With success comes more visibility and with more visibility comes more fans.
“So there’s a need for us to get out in countries globally and give young children the experience with the club and hopefully they can become fans as we continue the journey with the group going forward.”
The advantage that City have over many other clubs is the top-to-bottom approach in both coaching philosophy and personnel.
“Where we are very unique is the team of coaches we actually have in the Middle East are from Manchester City’s Academy,” says Hewitt, who has been based in Abu Dhabi seven years. “So we didn’t just recruit these guys through an interview process.
“These are guys that have worked and breathed the club life for a number of years now.
“We have to make sure that link is fluid and very authentic, because otherwise we could say that it’s Manchester City but it wouldn’t be.
“We have to stand by our guarantee of these programmes being Manchester City related and to do that we have to keep in touch with the club and make sure everybody gets the best possible outcomes.”
Like Pep Guardiola and his superb City first team there is a generosity of spirit running throughout City Football Schools’ interaction with the next generation, summed up by the holistic approach of Hewitt.
“You are just trying to engage with children to drive the passion of football,” he says.
“Obviously we’ve all been blessed with football, we’ve played it all our lives and if we can give the kids a little bit of the excitement and enjoyment then for the rest of their years they will enjoy sport along with us.
“If a kid’s playing sport me personally I’m delighted, whether that’s football or basketball or tennis or golf.
“It doesn’t bother me too much which sport they play because a kid that loves sport will play a variety of sports throughout their lives and if we can play a part of that journey and share our passion of football then fabulous.”
A mantra you can imagine Guardiola himself would be proud to stick to.
The Egypt icon has plundered 30 goals in 36 appearances this season and is on the tail of Tottenham striker Harry Kane in the Premier League’s goalscoring charts.
The 25-year-old has been a sensation since joining from Roma in the summer but Salah has reserved praise for Klopp, explaining a positional switch and work on his weaknesses has been key.
“With the boss here, I play a little bit closer to the goal, more so than at any other club or more than any of my other coaches have asked me to,” Salah told Liverpool’s official matchday programme (h/t Sky Sports).
“So I am always in front of the goal to give me the opportunity to score. The manager is always telling me to stay close to the goal in training.
“I don’t want to say too much because we still have a long way to go in the season and I don’t want to give too much away. But yes, it’s something we have worked on in the training sessions.
“You cannot score 10 goals from 10 balls – that’s impossible and I know that I have missed many chances too this season. But I am trying to improve.
“I am always trying to see my weaknesses and then work on them and I am always trying to score in different ways.
“The coaches help me so much to do that and I also work hard alone after the training sessions.”
Winning all four trophies always seemed an unlikely prospect but it was becoming more realistic with each passing week as City powered ahead on all fronts.
Not only is that no longer a possibility, but City could be knocked of both domestic cups within the space of a few days if they do not lift themselves.
In that sense, a big Wembley final against Arsenal on Sunday could provide just the shot in the arm they need for the remainder of what has still been an outstanding season so far.
That the Carabao Cup should become a source of inspiration is remarkable, given that in September City manager Guardiola seemed to care little for it. Indeed, he even formed an unlikely alliance with Jose Mourinho in voicing his criticism.
“For the managers it is a lot of wasted energy,” said the Spaniard when it was put to him his Manchester United counterpart was no fan of the early rounds. “It is a title that when you win it is OK, but after that people don’t give too much credit.”
The evidence of City’s run to the final suggests, however, that Guardiola’s opinion of the competition may have changed long before Monday’s humbling at the DW Stadium. He certainly seemed to do little to dissuade his players from ‘wasting energy’ as the prospect of Wembley neared.
Admittedly, unlike City’s apparent charge towards the league title, their route has not entirely been smooth. They needed a late winner to see off West Ham and they were then taken to penalties by Championship high-fliers Wolves, a hard-fought victory Guardiola followed up with a bizarre complaint about the weight of the ball.
Penalties were again necessary to overcome Leicester in the quarter-finals but if there was a turning point in Guardiola’s feelings towards this cup, it perhaps came in the post-match celebrations at the King Power Stadium.
Guardiola was hailed the by fans and he responded, pumping his fist in tune to their chants.
By the time the semi-finals came round, City were fully focused. Championship Bristol City tested them over two legs but, with more senior stars on show than previous rounds, it always seemed likely they would prevail.
City should still head to the national stadium buoyed by their 16-point lead in the Premier League and with a place in the last eight of the Champions League being all but secured.
Yet it remains to be seen how they react to what was a shattering night at Wigan and that could give Arsenal something to exploit. The Gunners also have plenty of recent trophy-winning Wembley experience in their favour, as well as good memories of beating City there in last year’s FA Cup semi-finals.
Three FA Cup final wins in the past four years may have not won over Arsene Wenger’s detractors, but the long-serving Arsenal manager’s overall trophy haul underlines the fact his team should not be taken lightly.
The League Cup is actually the one piece of domestic silverware missing from the Frenchman’s CV and, after two final defeats, he will be anxious to correct that omission.