Picture the scene. It’s 11.50 am on a Saturday in early September. The sun is high in the sky and it is already an unreasonably hot day. In the middle of one of 5 football fields in Morley, West Yorkshire three men are chatting. All are tired, having only just completed a week at work, as well as running an hour and a half training session each for our respective teams. One of us has also only just finished an hour long fitness session for some of the members of both teams. Two of us are recovering from operations, although mine was a few months ago and so it’s safe to say I’m over the worst. All are hot – that’ll be the sun for you; not always a regular visitor to these parts. And as a result of the heat, two of these three men are wearing shorts. The other – me – really, really wants to wear shorts, but is sticking to tracksuit bottoms, the legacy of long, skinny, hairy legs that resulted in many a cruel childhood taunt as well as being the butt of my father’s best and most hilarious joke about putting them away because, ‘there’s a blackbird up there, feeding her young ‘uns, she’ll mistake them for worms’. I believe that young people nowadays call this banter. I just always wondered why my dad couldn’t get a new joke. Suffice to say, I prefer the safety of the heat to the peril of shorts.
“…Saturday has almost gone.”
We’re eight days away from the opening day of the season for Under 10s teams in the Garforth Junior Football League. Our pitches need to be bigger and we’re moving to a flatter area, so this means that we’ll have to measure both new pitches out, before marking the lines in white paint. I’ve been told that this will take around three hours, but I reckon that’s quite the over-estimation, given that I’ve marked three pitches out before in less time than that, on my own. I’m wrong. We finish just over four hours later. I’m tired, hot and I haven’t eaten since breakfast – it’s now 3.30pm and Saturday has almost gone.
I’ve only been involved in grassroots football for 10 months now, but already I’m addicted. I started out as just a dad, taking my then 7 year old to train with his first football team. This was a task I’d dreamed of doing from a young age – I always wanted to be a dad, taking his son to football. It was too late on in the season for him to actually sign for the club – and frankly he was way behind almost all of the other boys in terms of ability – so he trained every week. We were there come rain, hail, wind and snow. It didn’t matter. I watched him develop and get a greater idea of what was required of him on the pitch. By the time he was asked to sign on he’d improved enough to hold his own and when the moment finally came for him to put on his first match shirt I almost shed a proud dad’s tear, even though he was almost drowning in every item of the kit. The socks would have comfortably pulled up around his waist.
Two months into that season, however, and I was asked to take over the running of the team. Turns out other parents and club officials were unhappy with the coach and so, when I did OK filling in when he went on holiday, that was enough to convince people of my qualifications for the job..
I must admit, I had no intention of ever coaching the team. The thought hadn’t even entered my head, even as I watched on, frustrated at some of the training sessions being put on. However, when I was asked to take over I couldn’t say no. As a teacher, I’d coached before. As a football fan I would regularly watch matches, screaming at the telly about the wrong pass or a terrible tactical decision. As a man, the offer was way too good for my ego to resist and as a Geordie, well, we invented the game and are born with an encyclopedic knowledge of it, so denying the kids of that would have just been cruel!
I’ve been ‘officially’ in charge of Glen Juniors Whites (Under 10s) since the middle of November 2017. My team are what we call the ‘development’ side, essentially the kids with less ability in the squad that makes up the two teams within the age group. However, what my boys might lack in skill, they more than make up for in desire, togetherness, hard work and spirit. But they’re adding more and more skills as the weeks go by.
“…half the squad gawped as if a pterodactyl had just swooped past.”
Training sessions have often been spent working on basics – can we stop the ball and pass it, can we take a touch and get a shot on target or can we sprint from one cone to another? But even then this throws up some unlikely and often amusing scenarios. On any given Thursday evening I can be preparing to give instructions when I notice that four or five of the boys are engaged in something other than listening; important stuff such as ‘dabbing’ or ‘flossing’. Just last week a boy rode past on a bike and I had to stop the session while half of the squad gawped as if a pterodactyl had just swooped past. And my worst fears were confirmed when, as we played a match on a field near the airport, one of my defenders nudged the other one and they both turned their eyes away from the game going on around them and pointed in wonder at a passing low flying jet! It doesn’t matter how many times you tell them to stay focused you can guarantee that there will be at least five moments in any one match when you catch someone, switched off and gawping open mouthed at something remarkably unremarkable.
Our ‘development’ status has also meant that our team has not been successful in the traditional sense of the word. To put it bluntly, last season we played 17 games, won one, drew one and lost the rest. For a couple of months we simply weren’t competitive. And yet still we made progress. In our second game of the season, facing a team whose senior side actually play non-league football we were trounced to the point of ridicule from our opposition. I was ‘just’ a parent that day, but still it was difficult viewing. The home team’s parents were brutal and openly mocked our boys. The home team themselves swapped goalkeepers, giving their regular keeper the chance to play outfield – the ultimate act of thumb biting to your opposition – and he promptly scored a hat-trick. Two of our boys left the field sobbing, refusing to carry on. However, when we scored our first goal of the season – our consolation in that game – their coaches were visibly angry, shouting at their 8 and 9 year old defenders for losing their man and costing their team a goal. That was progress. We’d broken our duck and to paraphrase the great Kevin Keegan’s infamous Sky TV rant, told our mighty opposition, ‘we’re still fighting for this game’.
The progress continued throughout the season and we were rarely trounced again. We were generally competitive and almost always scored. My boys were happy playing football and I found that I was also making progress as a coach. But I quickly learnt that there are always surprises in grassroots football.
One of the biggest (and dullest) surprises about becoming a coach at this level has been the admin. Before each game last season we would have to line the kids up, with their ID cards ready to be scrutinised by the opposition coach. In turn, I would have to take a long hard look at their team to check whether all was on the level. I lost count of the amount of times I cracked the same joke – that they couldn’t play a particular player because he was obviously not the kid in the photograph. The coaches all saw the funny side, but judging by the faces of some of the kids, they genuinely believed that I wasn’t going to let them play. Sometimes, 9 year olds just don’t have a sense of humour.
“I’d hand mine over looking like I’d got a four-year-old to fill it in.”
On top of this we’d then have to fill in team sheets, ticking off the kids that had played. At the end of each game you’d get them signed by the opposition coach, note the name of the referee, award a Fair Play mark – we once got marked 97 out of 100; what had we done to merit a 3% deduction? – and then swap sheets with the other team, making sure that we only swapped the right colour sheet. And let me tell you, filling in one of these sheets in the middle of January when your hands are frozen is nigh on impossible. I’d hand mine over looking like I’d got a four-year-old to fill it in. These sheets would then have to be photographed together and emailed to the league for them to verify what had gone on, like if they hadn’t seen a bit of paper the game hadn’t actually happened.
This system has now changed into something that should be a great deal easier – an internet based system, backed up with the sending of a text to confirm your result. However, neither are available to me due to the fact that the FA are yet to issue me with a log in and still haven’t sent me the text. The season, however, is almost a month old! I’ll never learn to love admin.
Easily one of the most unpleasant things that we have to put up with in grassroots football has to be the weather. Standing on a touchline means that you’re left wide open to the elements. Steve MaClaren’s time as England manager means that there’s no way in the world that I’d dare to use an umbrella, so I’m frequently soaked to the skin. And I never thought I’d buy another pair of football boots once I’d got into my forties, but warming up on park pitches often means puddles and mud and trainers simply don’t cut it. Yet still, I’m regularly getting back into the car and having to drive home with soaking wet feet! Our referee sometimes wears wellies (and probably has lovely dry feet as a result), but I’m afraid that male vanity won’t let me go that far!
On top of the rain, this winter we were blighted with quite a bit of snow and although this meant the postponement of several games – and the bonus of a warm Sunday morning for all involved – we couldn’t avoid training. Our club trains at a local high school during the darker months, as they have a 3G pitch and floodlights, meaning that we can train through even the most inclement weather. Great news! This is bad enough when the cold is bitter and the wind blowing in from across the moors brings with it an element of ice. Layering takes on a new meaning! However, coach a session through a storm and you will truly know the meaning of cold. Shackleton, Scott, Hilary and all the other Polar pioneers were amazing explorers, but could they do it on a wet and windy Thursday night in Tingley?
“…have you ever tried tying someone else’s laces with frozen fingers?”
The cold weather, combined with a team full of kids under 10 can also bring another problem that, at first, I hadn’t reckoned with. I’m regularly asked to tie their laces! Now here, we have a bit of a problem. From what I can gather I was taught to tie laces in a rather peculiar fashion – one so peculiar that my wife has asked my kids to ignore the way I show them! So when I tie the laces of my team it quite often results in some very funny looks – and they can’t even tie laces! Furthermore though, have you ever tried tying someone else’s laces with frozen fingers? Let me tell you, it’s quite the conundrum and there have been numerous times when I’ve considered asking an adult for help, before remembering that I am an adult.
At the moment the weather is good. We’ve barely had a spot of rain during training or games and some of our pre season friendlies were played in baking hot sun. Wonderful as you stand and bask in the glorious heat, but terrible when you get home and look in the mirror to realise that, yes, you are receding, otherwise those livid red patches of sunburn on your increasingly large forehead would never have appeared. But the sun will fade and soon, as with every season, we’ll be out there, every Thursday and Sunday getting soaked, frozen or both. We’ll walk across pitches and simply sink into a puddle, because after all this is grassroots football and our pitches are often at the mercy of the local council. Our games may be played on pitches where there are no lines, just cones to give players a rough guide as to when the ball goes out of play, because the coach hasn’t had the time to mark the lines given the fact that he’s a husband and dad and has a full time job. And barring the generous help of parents, this is all the responsibility of the coach. Again, I hadn’t realised that I’d have to be doing this before accepting the role and probably imagined that the football fairies were responsible for white lines, Respect barriers, goals, nets and corner flags. Thankfully, the parents of our boys are quite willing to rally round and help out, although I think some of this is done more out of pity than anything else, as they watch me wrestling with a set of goals!
“…scoring goals is always the dream.”
Another surprise – which really shouldn’t have been – is the number of 9 year olds who only want to play as a striker or a midfielder. Now I understand that almost nobody wants to play in goal, but in our team that stretches to defence as well. Even our best defenders are reluctant to say the least. In training, before a game, mid game and after a game you can be sure to be pestered by the same’ish question – ‘Can I play in midlfield/as striker?’ Playing regularly is sometimes not enough – scoring goals is always the dream. It’s understandable, I suppose. I mean, who wants to be John Stones or Kyle Walker (or God forbid Phil Jones) when they could be De Bruyne, Lingard, Ali, Kane or Aguero? And while it can be irritating, especially during a game, to be asked, I have to say that my boys are always good enough to accept the my decision. It never stops them asking again though!
Recently I managed to have a morning that encompassed many of the plus and minus points of grassroots football. So let me end by telling you about it.
Picture the scene. It’s 8.45am on a Sunday in late September. It’s no longer sunny and in fact it’s getting more and more like winter as the days pass. Two men stand on adjacent football pitches. We’re both tired. We’ve both been at work all week and one of us was out inspecting the pitches yesterday afternoon. Despite the coolness of the air one is wearing shorts, while the other, sensibly, has opted for tracksuit bottoms. There are sparrows feeding their young ‘uns nearby, after all.
We’re three weeks into the new season in Division C1, for Under 10s, of the Garforth Junior League. Our pitch is bigger and flatter and the white lines have recently been re-marked by one of the other coaches. One coach has managed to erect the first of his goals and is busily working on his corner the flags. The other, me, has managed to get all of the parts of his first goal out of the bag and has laid them out, as per the YouTube video he watched last night so that he’d finally know what he was doing. Unfortunately he’s forgotten the drawings he did in order to remember. He doesn’t know what he’s doing. Is the cross bar three long sections or two and a small bit? Are the posts two long sections high? Has he got enough connectors? Hang on, is someone secretly filming this? Can he expect a visit from a heavily disguised Ant and Dec any time soon to eventually tell him he’s been pranked and he’s going to look like a total fool on live TV some time soon?
“The other coach is done. The pressure is on.”
Twenty minutes later and he has assembled some sections of the goal. But they clearly don’t actually go together to make a goal. So he’s just randomly put some bits together. Maybe he’ll just make a raft? He’s quietly cursing. The other coach is done. The pressure is on. He has a thought. He’s missing a bit that he needs. So back he trudges to the clubhouse to hunt among the other goals for the missing section. Five minutes later it’s clear that the other section doesn’t exist and he has made it up. Back he trudges to his raft.
It will take another fifteen minutes before he has two working goals. He has to take a look at the other coach’s complete goals in order to work out where he’s going wrong. And by that time some parents and team members have turned up and helped out. Corner flags are being placed in the ground, the Respect barrier is being put out. Kick off is in about 20 minutes and he hasn’t even said ‘hello’ to his team, let alone started warming them up. And then he spots something that will delay things even longer. A kindly dog owner has allowed his or her pooch to poo on the pitch and then pretended not to notice. He quietly curses some more. Oh well, at least it’s a new experience. Digging a carrier bag out of his kit bag he proceeds to remove the offending sloppy brown calling card, before trudging back over the fields to place it in the bin provided by the council for such things. It’s a shame that the dog’s owner didn’t know these things exist. Maybe someone should paint them all bright red and put pictures of dogs on them. He reminds himself never to get a dog.
With about ten minutes to go before kick he is finally ready to warm up his team, before giving a quick team talk. The team still don’t all have shirts due to an order taking way too long, so some will play in borrowed club hoodies. The game, somewhat bucking the trend of the day, will go well and our team wins, despite being 1-0 down at half-time. However, there’s just time for one more moment to leave the coach looking to the skies for the kind of divine intervention that he knows doesn’t really happen. From somewhere, during the game, a goalkeeper’s shirt arrives and it’s decided that one of our subs can go around to the goal and, when the ball is down the other end of the field, get our keeper to swap his outfield shirt for the keeper’s top. Easy, yes? In the hands of two 9 year olds, no and the coach is left to watch on in sheer horror as first, the message is totally confused and our sub starts to wander back carrying the goalkeeper’s shirt. Then, deciding that he needs to carry out the instructions our keeper takes his outfield shirt off and is left without a shirt for a moment as the ball approaches. Luckily it’s cleared away and he can put on the right shirt. But no. No, he can’t. The boy simply cannot get the shirt over his head or his arms through the arm holes, due to wearing goalkeeper gloves! The coach quietly curses. After what seems like an eternity though, the problem is solved and we have a goalkeeper wearing the correct shirt. The goal is intact and we go on to win. It’s been a hell of a day, but I’ve absolutely loved it!
Welcome to grassroots football!