Grassroots Football: The Gala Experience

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On Sunday 7th July I took my Under 11s football team to compete in the Wakefield Owls Soccer6 Gala, a tournament for various age groups across Yorkshire. This is our story. From previous experience I know that galas are a frenzied affair. There are teams as far as the eye can see, accompanied by parents, close relatives and coaches. And as an actual coach you’re attempting to be in several places at once, coaching your team, instructing subs, keeping parents informed, finding out what’s going on and where you’ll be off to next, as well as trying to stay composed and focused. This may well be what they term ‘mini soccer’ but at a gala it’s like the circus have come to town…and brought the auditions for Britain’s Got Talent with them. And on closer inspection, some of the under 7s do have more than a passing similarity to both Ant and Dec. Gala day begins early in our house as we need to be there to register our team by 9am. Having attended a family wedding the day before, this getting up early lark is not going to be easy. I struggle through a shower and make breakfast for the kids, while intermittently attempting to sort out my coach’s bag and footballs. We load up only the essentials today – first aid kit, bibs, etc and just the 5 footballs so that we can get some practice in without spraying dozens of footballs all over other people’s pitches; after all this isn’t the usual herding cats scenario that we know as training on a Thursday night, with 17 kids and footballs being relocated from anywhere within a half-mile radius. It’s strange how none of our boys can spot the bright yellow football that they themselves have just kicked onto a neighbouring pitch or a patch of grass 50 yards away on a Thursday! Away games can be chaotic in terms of travel. Despite living in Leeds for over 20 years I’m still not that well versed on its geography or that of the surrounding areas and so we’re often screeching up to pitches later than the majority of parents. But today, we’re early, negotiating the journey with no wrong turnings and easily managing to get parked. It helps that we’ve played here several times before, of course. I meet up with my assistant coach and his son. It’s not even 9 ‘o clock and we already have two players present, which is a relief. Just the other six to tick off now. We wander down to the clubhouse and meet some other parents and players before registering the team’s attendance. One of the mum’s makes herself the least popular adult with our squad by producing suncream from her bag and liberally lathering it all over the necks and faces of the boys! There’s an outcry that can probably be heard back in Leeds, but it’s better to be safe than sorry though, right? At this point there’s always a shared sense of determination and optimism. Football at this level is meant to be fun, but in truth, none of us have turned up today to lose while maintaining inane grins all over our faces. We all want to win and nobody is looking to be humiliated. It’s a nice, positive atmosphere to be part of and it’s even nicer to see the undisguised excitement of our boys. Before we know it, we have a list of fixtures and the excitement is ramped up a notch. There’s a managers’ meeting where rules and expected conduct are explained and in almost the blink of an eye we’re on our pitch, sitting the boys down to explain tactics, rules and teams. We’re feeling quietly confident; we have a good set of boys, all of whom can be trusted with the ball and all of whom have shown that they can hold their own against decent opposition. We’ve played three of the teams in our group before and again, never looked out of place. We do still have one nagging problem though. Our goalkeeper still hasn’t turned up. I’ve checked my phone and the text was sent on the previous Thursday, but not replied to. It’s looking increasingly like we’ll be re-arranging the team and start with one of keener outfield players in nets. It’s not ideal, but we’ll have to cope. And then, just as I call my new ‘goalie’ over to give him the shirt, I take one last hopeful look at the entrance to the gala. It’s a miracle. My goalkeeper is jogging somewhat dishevelled and shame-faced over to us! It turns out that they’d lost their door keys, but they’re here now and we can all settle down! Games are one half of ten minutes. It’s only six-a-side and there are no offsides. It’s generally quite hectic, end-to-end stuff and as a coach it can be quite stressful to watch. Usually, if there’s a mistake you’ve got plenty of time to try and put it right, but a game of just ten minutes puts the pressure on somewhat and you have to guard against casual mistakes as you might not have time to put them right. Our first game is against Allerton Bywater, a team we’ve never played. It’s quite an even match, but at the end I feel like we should have won it. Our boys look a little taken aback by the pace and despite warnings they’re fussing over corners and throw-ins, rather than just getting on with it. We snatch at a couple of chances, but defend well at the other end. It ends in a frustrating nil nil draw. We’ve got a point on board, but it could easily have been three. With five teams in a group we get to take a rest next as the other four play each other. It’s a baking hot day, so in one way the rest is welcomed, but it also means that we face three games back to back after this. With that in mind we’ll need to rotate. The rest does give a coach a little bit of time to think though. So I spend the next 5 or so minutes going round my players trying to stay positive, but also reiterating a few key messages and instructions. With that done and dusted there’s time to take in a little bit of the gala. It’s an amazing sight if you love your football. We’re surrounded by games going on and the sound of encouragement fills the air. A glance across at the under 7s brings a flash of nostalgia too and I think back to my son’s first games where he wore a kit that was more like a tent and he barely looked able to run, let alone dribble with or pass a football. The excitement across the site is tangible and it would be easy to get carried away and just wander off to take in some games, but before I know it we’re back to business and our next game. We play a Beeston side from the league above us next and again it’s close. I’ve brought our two subs in to start, the idea being to give everybody a rest, while also making sure that everyone gets a decent amount of football. We lose the game 1-0 though and again have enough chances to at least get a draw. But it’s not to be and if we’re going to qualify for the main trophy we’ll have to win at least one of our last two games. The change in format doesn’t seem to be helping our boys. The pitch is much smaller than we’re used to and the length of game much shorter. And yet, every time we get a corner we’re over-hitting them, lofting them into the air and out of play on the other side of the field. Similarly, when we get a throw in we’re fussing about who should take it or taking an age trying to be ever so precise about where it goes, rather than just getting it taken quickly, down the line as instructed. We’re making mistakes and piling pressure on to ourselves. And we’re yet to score a goal. This changes in our next game. We’re playing one of the host’s teams – Wakefield Owls – and it feels like we are dominant. It takes us a while – which is the very definition of things being relative with a ten minute match – but eventually we get our goal. It’s a scrappy affair, with the ball bundled in at the back post, but they all count. It feels like we can go on and win from this position, but within a minute we’ve presented our opposition with the ball and they’ve scored. Suddenly the tables turn and we’re under pressure, but we ride this out and in the end (again!) we’re unlucky not to grab a winner after we hit the bar once and slam a few chances narrowly wide. It feels like we’ve finally gotten into our stride though. The games seem to be kicking off at different times and so we’re left waiting for our final group opposition, which gives me a bit of time to go around the lads once more, passing on instructions. We eventually sit them down and give them the big pep talk. That’s pep as in building the boys up and trying to make them feel more positive, rather than being any kind of tactical genius with a Catalonian accent. This is a big game for our boys. Exactly twelve months ago to the day we played the exact same opposition at the exact same stage of the gala and lost in a bit of a bad tempered game. It meant that we didn’t qualify for the latter stages of the trophy and a few of the boys ended up in tears. As it turned out we went on to win the less prestigious cup that the teams in the bottom end of each group played for, so the tears soon turned into smiles. But we really want to win now! It seems churlish and perhaps a little immature to talk about revenge, but then again, if we’ve not come to win football matches then why have we even turned up? The game is close, but frustratingly – again – we have more of the ball. We’re fairly dominant, but again we just can’t seem to score. We force the keeper into saves and we hit the bar, but that ball just will not go into the net. I’m struggling to retain any sense of professionalism by this point and each time we go close I’m either sailing through the air ready to celebrate or dropping on to my haunches like some kind of over emotional teenager. But that’s football. I don’t go along with the theory that we’re better coaches because we stand there saying very little. And I don’t think that it’s a case of the more vocal the better. We just all have different styles. I can’t help but get involved. I’m not negative, but I’m not particularly quiet either. And at this point on Sunday I was struggling to maintain control! The game ends in a 0-0 draw. This almost certainly means that we will drop into the lower end of the knock out matches. After a few minutes of standing around I head down to the clubhouse to try and get some more information. This is a well organised gala, so it’s easy to get our finishing position confirmed. And it’s exactly what we thought. However, some games are running over and so we’re faced with an anxious wait to see who our semi final opponents will be. I say ‘anxious’ but it’s of no interest whatsoever to my team who proceed to spend the next ten minutes or so practising elaborate corner kick routines. They even devise a celebration to fit the corners! That’s the brilliant thing about football at this level. Yes, it matters, but the emphasis has to be on enjoyment and my boys are definitely enjoying themselves. It’s getting the balance right, again, that’s key. Meanwhile, I’m having no fun whatsoever, sweating over the team for the semi final and fretting about how we’ll react to the pressure! We play another side from Beeston in our semi final and in the end we make too many mistakes. We lose 2-1, despite some frantic attacking once we’d gone two goals down. We pepper the opposition goal and manage to scramble one in but we run out of time. And that’s it. We’re out. We encourage our boys to shake hands, but for some it’s a step too far. There are tears and sullen faces everywhere I look. We try to get around each player, staying positive, congratulating them on all of the good things that they’ve done today and reminding them that they should feel proud. But it’s to no avail. These boys care deeply about this team and I have to admit that this makes me feel even more proud of them. As I walk around the pitch I hear a distinctive sound. It’s the sound of one very upset little boy and it’s a sound I’m only too familiar with. Like many coaches, I coach my son and for now he’s devastated. Despite the fact that he scored our goal he’s blaming himself as he misplaced a pass in the lead up to Beeston’s second goal. So the coach has to be put to one side and dad takes over. I want to scoop him up like I did when he was much smaller, but I know that he’ll be mortified. So, I crouch down next to him, give him a big hug and talk to him, telling him that it’s not his fault, that it’s no one’s fault and reminding him what we all learn in the end; this is football. We decide to watch the final as a team at the boys’ request and again, like we’ve witnessed all day, it’s a brilliant competitive match. Again there are tears at the end, but thankfully not from our boys who by now, my son included, have moved on. Afterwards we make our way down to the clubhouse where our team are presented with medals; a lovely touch from the organisers. By now, all of my boys are smiling and have their team photo taken holding medals aloft proudly, like they’d won the tournament after all. And there’s that lesson again; this is football. One minute your as low as you imagine you can be and then next you’re flying high. Whatever you feel, it’s an utterly brilliant game to be part of. Thanks to Karen and all at Wakefield Owls for their hospitality and another fantastic gala. We’ll see you again next year!

Author: middleagefanclub

Man, husband, dad, teacher, coach, Geordie. Former street dancing champion of Tyne and Wear, guinea pig whisperer, developer of the best-selling fragrance, Pizzazz and alleged liar. Ex male model and a devilish raconteur. No challenge should be faced without a little charm and a lot of style.

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