As a long season in the Under 10s section of the Garforth Junior Football League draws to a close, and every coach’s minds turn to next year and how we step up, I thought it right to have a little look back. A moment of reflection or a review, if you will.
There’s nothing self-important here, by the way. I coach a team of Under 10s and while in my mind they’re a very special bunch of lads, in truth we’re nothing special at all. Not to be disparaging to my boys, but there’ll be hundreds, possibly thousands of teams just like us around the British Isles. The thing is though, these boys and this team have brought me so much joy over the last year that it’s more than worth a few thousand words. And it’s been a hell of a season.
I took over the coaching of the team part way through last season and while I’d like to think I got the boys a lot more organised, we still weren’t winning games. We were undoubtedly more competitive, but we still ended the season with just the single win.
Needless to say, I was desperate to see our fortunes improve this season. We organised some friendlies in June and July and having attracted a few new players, for once not only did we have numbers available, but we were actually improving. We quickly developed a noticeable style of play and identified key players for key positions. And the results were improving too.
Despite the optimism, we started the season with a 2-0 home loss, but it was clear for anyone to see that we’d got better. The team we played, North East Leeds, had dropped down from the division above us, so we took quite a bit from the game and although we didn’t score, we went close. And not too much short of a year previous we’d conceded 18 goals in a game, so a 2-0 loss here was nothing to be alarmed about!
A week later we travelled to Horsforth for an away fixture against a team who we’d played a few times last season, losing all but one where we’d equalised with 8 seconds to go! I must admit though, even early on in the season, I felt fairly confident. However, I wasn’t expecting quite what happened. We were fantastic that day. The desire to win was evident from the very start and we were passing the ball beautifully. By half-time we were leading 3-1 and ended up winning 4-2; a huge win for us. This was only the second time we’d scored more than 2 goals in a game since I was put in charge! It was only our second win ever! I think we were all a little shocked. This winning thing felt strange, but great!
And so began a four game unbeaten streak. We won the next two and drew the fourth game. Suddenly getting lads to turn up and want to play wasn’t a problem. In fact, by the last game of this particular run we had 6 subs. At times in the previous season we’d turned up with just 6 players! Now we had more than enough players and every last one of them with smiles on their faces. That said, you should try getting 6 subs on a field and giving everyone a decent time!
Next came one of the most disappointing parts of our season though. We lost 4-2 away from home against the team who’d beaten us in the first game of the season, but the worst of it was that we were 4-0 down at half-time having performed really poorly. For some reason the boys looked unfocused and a little overwhelmed. We rallied a bit in the second half, making sure that we were as positive as possible with our half time chat, but nothing would shake the memory of that first half performance. I sulked for the rest of the day and couldn’t stop thinking about it for the rest of the week! It’s funny how, even as a calm, rational adult, such things can affect us.
The next game brought a change of emotions and in many ways summed up what grassroots football at this level is all about. It was another away game and I was tickled to see that our opposition played in black and white stripes, like my beloved Newcastle United. As the teams were warming up though, the opposition coach came over for a quiet word. He explained that his team were having a poor season and had been getting hammered every week. He’d taken over just before the season started when they only had 6 registered players and the whole thing was a bit shambolic. He asked if we’d sub one of our players should we get too far ahead in the game. Knowing how things had been for us the previous season, I quickly agreed.
We won the game 7-1 and were excellent. We were fair, our players encouraged theirs and it was a pleasure to witness. I have to admit I felt guilty though. I felt sorry for their boys. This team were exactly what we had been the season before and I was pleased that, although we won in a one-sided game, we were magnanimous and mature about it. The best part of the whole morning came when our opposition scored. Every spectator, every coach and every player cheered. A lovely moment that got lovelier at the end of the match when all players shook hands. Our opponents left the field with some pride and something positive. Yes, we’d won at a canter, but it had clearly felt good not to be mocked and even better to have scored.
Our next two games continued the pattern we were setting. We played the same team – one league game and one cup – and won both well. Winning the second game also meant that we qualified for the Quarter Final of the cup, something that we wouldn’t have thought possible only months before. In their brilliantly naïve fashion our boys also took this to mean that we could genuinely go on and win the thing, which made me smile but also alerted me to a level of expectation that I’d not really felt before. A cup quarter final would most likely mean playing a team from a league above us and I feared that we could be in for a bit of a thrashing. Waiting for the draw to be made for the next round of games certainly had me tense though! I was relieved when we drew a team that we’d played before. We’d lost to them in the latter part of the previous season, but hadn’t been embarrassed, even though they’d stuck five goals past us. Maybe we did have a chance after all. This childlike optimism was catching!
As is the way with football we were brought crashing back down to Earth in the next few weeks. We lost our next three games and learnt a few lessons along the way. The teams we played were physical and pushed us around quite a bit. And we let it happen. My lads are quite the polite bunch when it comes to their football and so, when teams employed an under 10s version of the dark arts, we didn’t stand a chance. But this made me think. How could we combat such physicality? I didn’t want my team to start pushing people around and I wasn’t about to get the weights out, so how did we fight back, so to speak? I found myself scouring YouTube for tips and eventually stumbled upon some great ideas from Italy that looked like a bit of fun as well. I managed to ally these ideas with one or two of my own and for the next few weeks in training this is what we worked on. I’d recently gained my Level 1 FA Coaches badge and was brimming with ideas.
We’d have the boys pairing up and then working on their balance and their core strength while throwing footballs to each other. One exercise involved balancing on one leg while holding a football before pivoting the whole body forward so that you touched the ground with the ball. Then, keeping their balance, they’d pivot back up and bounce the ball to their partner who’d do the same again. Trust me when I tell you it was hilarious! The amount of our players who simply can’t stand on one leg is unbelievable. It was like watching the world’s worst flock of flamingoes!
Other balance games involved jumping over a line, landing on one foot and holding the pose until told to ‘Go!’ and sprinting five to ten yards. We’d also get them to sit down and balance with their legs out in front of them while holding the ball. The ball was bounced to their partner who’d balance and catch it after a few seconds. The drill would end with the pairs working on shielding the ball from each other, twisting and turning in order to hold their partner off and protect the football. It was amazing how quickly they started to use their new found strength and balance in games and extremely satisfying when we noticed it happening.
And then it was time for our Cup quarter final. Every available parent, sibling and even some grandparents travelled over to Wakefield with us and the excitement was tangible. Even at my age, I was desperate for us to win, desperate for us to put in a performance and compete and as a result I was feeling ridiculously nervous. The boys had worked so hard in training and in every match they played just to get to this point; where they could tell themselves, ‘We’re a good team.’ We warmed up, had a chat about our tactics, focus, work rate and supporting each other and we were ready to go.
The game went reasonably well, but in the end we were narrowly defeated. We fell behind midway through the first half when we didn’t close down and simply allowed our opposition to shoot and score. It’s something we have a tendency to do and probably common at this age. But we’d been the better side up until that point and I couldn’t help but be disappointed. Another sign of our progress though was that the boys didn’t let it get to them (unlike their coach!) and they carried on looking for an equaliser.
Not long before half-time, it arrived and it’s safe to say that the proudest man at the game was me. My son smashed in an equaliser, following up as the goalkeeper parried out a shot. I’d spent months sitting watching football with him and telling him that every good striker would follow the ball in, and he’d done just that. As he jogged back to his half of the field he looked my way and we both clenched our fists in celebration. It was one of those tiny moments of joy that you get as a coach and a dad, and as such, one of my favourite moments of the season.
We continued to battle on after equalising and for a short while we looked likely to get another goal. However, it wasn’t to be, and in the final few minutes we were first denied a penalty (home refs, eh?) before conceding a goal from a corner. Another followed and that was us done for. There were tears at the end. My boys had genuinely believed that they could win and this had hurt them. But they were quickly reminded that they’d done themselves proud and that this showed how far they’d come in a very short space of time.
We went the next two games unbeaten with solid performances, before a game that had all of the good and bad of grassroots football. We played a team we’d previously lost to and were 5-0 down at half-time. The pitch was heavy, but the light drizzle that greeted the start of the game quickly gave way to heavy snow and for the first time in a long time players were asking to come off. But it wasn’t just the weather. The opposition’s coach was ridiculously loud and quite aggressive and some of the boys commented that they couldn’t concentrate. If intimidating the opposition is your thing at Under 10s level, then get on with it and feel good about yourself, but it’s not for me. We kept the talk brief at half-time accentuating the positives of our team and telling them to win the second half. And they did just that. The game ended – still in snow – 6-3 to the visitors, but we’d made an impression on their overly loud coach and he’d asked us to finish early as the snow got harder and my boys were pressing for another goal. I agreed and we finished the game, but we’d made our point! Once again I was left immensely proud of my boys, even if I was soaked to the skin. We gathered together in the clubhouse afterwards – players, coaches, parents and siblings – and made a massive puddle together!
As the season ticked on we began to play teams from the division above. The FA seem to just thrown in these extra games without explanation. We still had league games to play and even as I write and the season is finished there are teams in our league that we’ve only played once or not at all. I’m sure the task of organising the games is both onerous and thankless, and I’m not criticising anyone, but I can’t fathom out why we don’t seem to play the right amount of games.
Against opposition from a higher league we lost both games. But narrowly and we always gave a good performance. In fact, it felt like we really should have won them, but a combination of factors seemed to get in our way. Most of this was down to missing chances, but there’s one moment I’ll remember for the rest of my days. At 2-1 down, going into the closing seconds of an away game against Division B opponents, our right midfielder found himself in the opposition box with the ball in front of him. As the goalkeeper advanced he pushed it past him and was sent crashing to the turf by a high kick that had more in common with events in the octagon than Wembley. Surely a penalty, right? Wrong.
But this is where things took a turn. A bizarre turn. That football fans reflex prompted me to call out – ‘Ref?’ I simply asked the question – was that a penalty? No aggression, no attitude, not even particularly loud. I think both of us on the touchline asked. So what followed was mildly ludicrous and really quite amusing for me. The ref in question literally jumped up and down and screamed at me – ‘He got to the ball first!’ (he didn’t). I actually found myself asking him to calm down. I pointed out that I was merely asking a question, that there was no aggression and that, as the coach, I simply had to ask the question. He was not amused. But then again, neither were my team of 9 and 10 year olds. My own son was outraged and in tears in defence of his dad – ‘He can’t talk to you like that!’ – but we wisely let it go. We hoped, like the pundits tell us, that these things even themselves out over the season.
This then left our final two games of the season. And if ever I needed an indicator as to how far my boys have come in just over a year it was with these two results. The first game was at home and we were back to a league fixture. We’d played this team a number of times already in both league and cup games and remained unbeaten against them. However, the matches had always been tight. This time was very different. We won 8-1. I was stunned. I was thrilled. But I couldn’t really enjoy it. This had been the type of walloping we’d been given for most of last season and I must admit, I felt sorry for the opposition and their coach.
Don’t get me wrong, it was brilliant to see the lads enjoying themselves. They just controlled the game from start to finish and I was able to rotate players in different positions and give everyone a fair chance. But there were times when the other team just folded. Whatever they tried just either didn’t come off or was snuffed out by our team and it didn’t feel that satisfying after all. I’d watched players, coaches and parents revel in beating us last season and now I was left wondering what possessed them. I actually apologised to the opposition coach at the end of the game and I wasn’t really that sure what for.
Our final game of the season took us back over to Wakefield and as we warmed up I allowed myself the customary glance over at the opposition. They were big, they seemed to be knocking the ball around with confidence. This would be a test. How wrong you can be!
After an even first few minutes we went ahead and never looked back. Again, I was able to give everyone a decent run out and also to rotate players into different positions. We also gave our goalkeeper some outfield time and he promptly scored direct from a free-kick! We won 6-0. Less guilt and sympathy this time however, as opposition players were vocally critical of our ‘physical’ approach when we came off. We weren’t physical. Never are, never have been. I encourage the boys to stay on their feet and not to dive into tackles and we don’t push and shove. Perhaps all the work on our strength had payed off. Or perhaps, after over a year of hard work, we’ve learnt how to pass and move, how to support and encourage and how we never give up.
So there you have it. The trials and tribulations of another season of grassroots football. My first full season in charge and what a season! Next up? A well earned break. I’m exhausted! Then later on in the month we’ll come together for the end of year presentation and celebrate what’s been an amazing campaign.