It’s Sunday 13th September. The sun is shining and the temperature is set to hit 24 degrees. It’s a beautiful day for football and in the Garforth Junior Football League, the excitement is palpable.
This day has been a long time coming. It’s been six months since a ball was last kicked in competition and I imagine every grassroots coach will say the same; it’s felt more like years.
When the season was shut down in March 2020 the majority of people probably felt that it wouldn’t last that long. I thought we’d be away from training for a matter of weeks rather than half a year. In fact, where some other coaches were telling anyone who’d listen that they didn’t know how they’d get through without football, I was actually quite glad of the break. We’d been having an indifferent season and didn’t seem to be able to find any kind of consistent form, so perhaps the break would do us all good. Maybe I would have time to think and figure out exactly how I could get the message across about passing the ball to one of your team mates! In fact, I had more time to think than I could possible have wanted. So much time in fact that the government very kindly suggested I take a daily walk, while maintaining a Netflix habit and re-discovering a dangerous addiction to crisps.
By the time August rolled round and we were allowed to start training again, I was more than ready to get going. COVID restrictions would mean cutting down drastically on working with a ball, but there was always fitness. My lads love fitness work! I’ve adapted some of the exercises from fitness routines I’ve been doing over lockdown and it’s safe to say that I was not a popular coach after the first couple of fitness sessions. Watching some of your team struggle to lie flat while keeping their legs lifted off the ground is both a hilarious and heartbreaking thing, but I know that we’ll benefit from the strength and fitness that will build up. I’ve already reminded them of the good it does during a recent friendly when we came back strongly in the final ten minutes and ‘outfitnessed’ our opposition. (That’s not a term you’ll find in any coaching manuals, by the way, but feel free to use it. Trust me, I’m an English teacher).
Gradually, we were allowed to work more with a ball and less in small bubbles, while retaining certain guidelines like using hand sanitiser and disinfecting equipment. So it’s been a drip feed of footballing fun, if you like. We’ve been allowed to get back to something like football, but nothing quite like normal.
But even then, COVID-19 and the footballing gods still weren’t finished. There was still a little bit more trouble to throw at us and complicate things further. Just at the point that we were told things could get a little more competitive and that we could start organising friendlies, the proverbial spanner was thrown in the works for some of us.
Just when we got the go-ahead to play matches and attempt something a it more competitive, Leeds City Council announced that if you played on council owned playing fields, which we do, they would be just that until Saturday 12th September. That meant no pitches were allowed to be marked out and no games to be played. Now every team in Leeds was left searching for friendlies elsewhere. Last pre-season we hosted 6 friendlies – now we’d host none. And with places to be play being in greater demand than ever before, it seemed that organising a friendly game was going to prove impossible for some of us.
Eventually, after about two weeks of trying, Wakefield Owls were kind enough to host us. Even that proved tricky. Keen to get away and experience something a little different from the same four walls where they’d spent lockdown, parents were taking their kids away on holidays. So for a while, every time I got the sniff of a friendly, I’d be apologising on WhatsApp groups hours later when I couldn’t get the numbers to play!
On the night of our first friendly it felt brilliant to be around an actual game again and the mood was great among parents, players and coaches. In the end, it was a fantastic game of football with both sides giving it everything. In order to take the necessary COVID precautions we played four 15 minute sessions which meant that posts, footballs and other equipment could be sanitised during the break. Unfortunately our rust at having not played for so long showed and with only the final 15 minutes to play we were 5-1 down.
Brilliantly though, all that fitness work paid off and we came storming back to level at 5-5, before conceding again. However, we simply pushed forward again and managed to pull the score back to 6-6! You don’t get action like this in the Premier League!
It was brilliant to be back. In many ways the performance wouldn’t have mattered and nor would the result. As it was, we salvaged something of a result, we played well – even when we were 5-1 down – we didn’t give up and most importantly, we enjoyed ourselves. And this should be what junior football is all about. I’m a big believer in my team enjoying what they do and this game was right up there in terms of enjoyment. Animated coaches, players giving everything and supportive parents watching soemthing brilliant unfold in front of them. Football – the game we all love – was back!
Our next friendly game was a week later. This time, although some of our number enjoyed themselves, I really didn’t. One of the things that frustrates me most about being a coach reared its head and left me unhappy with what I’d witnessed. We won comfortably, but abandoned shape, movement and passing; stopped following instructions in favour of chasing a long ball forward in an attempt to score more goals. It was like going back to when they were 7 or 8 years old and everyone just wanted to play up front! And I understand that kids love to score goals, but in terms of a performance, I felt we’d learnt nothing at all. Football – the game that has the tendency to frustrate the life out of us – was back!
And so, after 6 frustrating months, thousands of football related WhatsApp messages, countless hours of thinking and planning and possibly even more of just dreaming about games, the sun rose on Sunday 13th September – the first day of the Garforth Junior League season. It was sunny, warm and practically without wind; the footballing gods were smiling.
We had what promised to be a tricky away game against an excellent Beeston side. I was up early; shaved, showered and ready in what felt like no time at all. Breakfast was wolfed down and before I knew it we were getting in the car to head to the game (As an aside, I’d been so excited about the game that I’d packed all of our equipment in the car the night before, just to be sure we’d be ready!)
When we arrived we met up with other parents and players and walked around to the field where we’d play. Everyone was in high spirits – not because we were favourites to win, but just because we were ‘back on the grass’. There was a definite buzz of excitement and that carried on as we warmed up. As we jogged and stretched and then went through a passing drill everyone on our side of the pitch was smiling.
It would be an understatement to say that the game didn’t go quite to plan. We were 5-0 down at half-time and it ended up as an 8-2 defeat. Not the start to the season that any of us had dreamed about! And while it was frustrating, it was clear that everyone – myself included – had thoroughly enjoyed the game. It was fantastic to see my team out there playing football. It was amazing to see how calm they stayed, despite the pressure they were under. It was even more amazing to see them wearing the away kit bought last season that they were never able to wear due to Covi-19 cutting their season short!
In terms of the game itself, we kept everything as positive as possible. We spoke about positives before the game; about being grateful for the chance to play and not ruining it with tantrums or blaming team mates when something went wrong. We told them to go and enjoy themselves.
At half-time, 5-0 down, we kept it positive, re-iterating certain tactical points, telling them to keep going and in fact to up their work rate because fitness would tell in this game and that they were fit as a result of all the strength and conditioning work we’d done in the previous few weeks. We told them that despite the scoreline, they’d done very little wrong. We told them to treat the second half like the score was 0-0 and to go out there and have a go. And it was easy to speak to them like this because, after a long time without it, it was a joy to have football back.
Late into the second half we had got the score back to 5-2 and were unlucky not to have scored at least another. I think we all knew that we’d never get back to being level and that we were going to lose the game. But it was brilliant to be reminded of how well my team can react to encouragement. It was brilliant to be reminded of what a great bunch of boys I coach and what a great bunch of people I get to mix with in terms of coaches and parents.
It’s been an incredibly tough 6 months or so for everyone. People have lost so much and our way of life has changed in ways that we could never have imagined. In contrast to what we’ve lived through, football seems trivial. But, its return has meant that for some of us, we’ve got back a massive slice of normality and enjoyment – and you can’t underestimate the importance of things like that.