Having studied both world wars in my time in education I never thought I’d see the like of such change across the planet. I never imagined that my life – about as typically suburban and dull as they come – would ever be turned upside down in such an unexpected way. Sure, we all face family crises and unless you’re under the illusion that you’re part of the Marvel universe, you know that death will come knocking at your door at some point, whether it’s for you or someone close to you. And similarly, while I was aware of words like ‘pandemic’ I never expected to be part of one. This was the stuff of Hollywood as far as I could work out. But then came the rude awakening. Corona wasn’t just a foreign beer. A pandemic was actually happening and life was changing beyond all recognition.
It seems trite to start writing about football. I’m classed as vulnerable to this virus. I have elderly parents who are even more vulnerable, as well as being quite a long way away. I have a family to support and many vulnerable students to care for. Away from my own personal circumstances thousands are dying not just in our country, but across the globe. But then maybe trivial things like football are the kinds of things we need during such a stressful time.
I never thought I’d miss football, especially if it was taken away to help save lives. Sure, it’s a huge part of my life and always has been, but I’ve found that taking it away also removes the amount of stress that it causes. It’s simple when you think about it! As such, I usually quite enjoy the international breaks because they take away Newcastle United related worries and just allow me to watch some football that I largely don’t really care about.
On 23rd March, via a WhatsApp message from the chairman of the league, the coaches of the Garforth Junior Football League were notified that our season had been voided. It was inevitable and we were probably all prepared for it, but it was definitely very sad news. There were still about 8 or 9 matches to play. As much as it was expected, I imagine that there wasn’t a coach among us who hadn’t hoped it wouldn’t happen.
Us coaches are all probably of much the same mindset. As volunteers we have to be! Optimists, that’s what we are. Maybe not in terms of football as a whole – I mean I’m a Newcastle fan, so optimism does not come easy – but in terms of the teams we coach, we probably all feel the same. Optimistic. Hopeful. Positive.
From my own point of view it hadn’t been a great season. Satisfactory, but not great. I’m the coach of a team called Glen Juniors Whites Under 11s in Morley, Leeds and it’s been a season of upheaval for us. We’ve lost several good players from last season and brought through a number of new players with not a lot of experience. As such, we’ve had ups and downs. However, it’s generally been enjoyable and as a result, it’s not taken long for me to realise that I’m really missing football. So I thought I’d write a blog and compile a bit of a list. It’s a not quite top Ten, and I’ve been unable to put it in any sort of order. These are just some things that I really miss about my involvement in football and I thought I’d put them out there and see who felt the same.
First up come Saturday Preparations. We play on a Sunday, but over the years I’ve got into the habit of being prepared on a Saturday. That way I know that despite an early start on Sunday mornings, I’m almost certain to be ready. I say almost certain, because my son can often be found, oblivious to the warnings he’s been given to be ready, absorbed in a YouTube video on his iPad, with bits of kit missing, no water bottle and no boots on! Dad’s ready to leave, but the kid that’s actually playing won’t be ready for another five minutes or so! It’s always a good look to have turning up late as the coach. And so, I prepare on a Saturday as much as possible. The bag is taken from the shed and put in the car overnight. The practice balls for warm-ups, the same. The boy’s kit is out, my kit is laid out. My boots are in the car. I’ve filled in my team sheet, written up the team, written down some notes as to what to mention before kick-off. Sometimes I’ve even thought about substitutions too, as I have a bad habit of getting a bit confused on the sidelines and suddenly everyone becomes a right sided midfielder in my head! Needless to say, if it’s an away game I’ve had a good look at the route and either written stuff down (I’m still a bit old school!) or programmed the sat nav, regardless of how much I know it’ll irritate me.
Preparing on a Saturday means that I have longer to savour the whole experience as well. So, while no football means I have free weekends back, given the amount I put into it all, I really miss those Saturday preparations. It’s a routine that I wasn’t quite ready to get out of and it’s made me feel at a bit of a loss.
Next up, I miss the sheer obsession of being involved in grassroots football. And I know that every coach who reads this will feel exactly the same. To illustrate exactly what I miss I thought I’d write up an anecdote that might just go some way to helping explain. It concerns grass.
At Glen Juniors, although we have our own pitches, they are actually council playing fields. Thus, everybody is allowed on them. And when I say everybody, I mean everybody. It wouldn’t surprise me if one day a coach pulls up and it’s full of people and their dogs come to sample what it feels like to empty their bowels on a different field for once – the dogs that is, not the humans. This is a massive source of frustration for me, but that’s something to vent about at another time. My obsessiveness is shown well – and at its most embarrassing – if I tell you about recent events on our pitch.
Our pitch hasn’t been cut for months. It feels like years. The council only cut it at certain times of the year and because of the wet weather the private company that the club have employed won’t cut it because their vehicles can’t get purchase in the inevitable mud. Further to this, despite several pleas, we’ve not even been able to get use of a petrol mower. So, as a result, for what feels like an endless amount of time, our pitch has been allowed to grow. And grow. And grow. Subsequently, in lots of places it’s several inches thick, meaning that we’ve played games where it’s been difficult to make the ball roll at times!
Cue me. The least that I’ve been able to do over the last few months is to make sure that the lines are kept fresh. If the grass is far too long, at least I can make it look as much like a football pitch as possible. But I haven’t been able to let it end there. Oh no. When I can, I’ve been getting there very early to mark the lines, but with an ulterior motive. Some days I’ve sank low enough to find myself on my hands and knees ripping grass out of the pitch, especially in the corners. I’ll kind of crawl along, ripping handfuls of grass out and throwing them away quickly so that anyone watching me from nearby houses might just think that they’re seeing things. Because no one’s that ridiculous right? Wrong. I have indeed been giving our pitch a kind of hand cut, if you like. Sadly, when my son has accompanied me, I’ve had him doing it too!
At other similarly shameful times I’ve taken our garden shears down – both the lawn edgers and the actual hedge cutters – and furtively stood there cutting as much as I could without taking so much time that I look too stupid and get caught by loads of dog walkers. I’ve genuinely considered just taking scissors to it, so that there was a bit less grass, but also a bit less chance of being seen! However, I’m not quite daft enough to imagine that several householders have watched me, intrigued, from their bedroom windows while slowly shaking their heads. I have no explanation to offer them or you other than to say that I’m obsessed by my part in grassroots football (and I know that there’s a joke in there somewhere), but it’s a level of obsession that I genuinely miss.
And while you try to rid your mind of the sight of a bloke on his hands and knees crawling around yanking grass out of a massive patch of grass, I’m sure you’ll enjoy the fact that about a week ago, around a week or so after the season was actually stopped, the grass was finally cut!
The third thing that I miss horribly about grassroots football is the social side of things. I’m a quiet, shy lad, but while I’ve been a coach I’ve been forced to talk to parents. And I’ll be honest, I don’t always enjoy talking to my own parents, let alone anyone else’s! But I genuinely feel that the social side of the game has really helped me as a person. The parents of my team have become quite a close-knit bunch and they are incredibly supportive of me, something that I appreciate hugely. I try to make a point of speaking to as many people as possible on matchday, time allowing, and I love just getting round people and saying ‘Hello’ and asking about their day or their week. Who knew this actually bothering with folk could be so nice?!
This season, as a group of parents – my son also plays for our team – we’ve sat in meetings planning various next steps for our team as well as fighting their corner within the club and the support has been genuinely heart-warming. Having been deprived of their company, I’m finding I miss them terribly! And I really barely know any of them, but this thing we have in common has absolutely united us over the last few years. It’s been a real surprise to find out how much I miss this social aspect of my grassroots life.
I even miss the social side of preparing for a match. I’m joined for every home game by Nigel, one of the other parents who coaches and helps me out. He’s invaluable. But we chat and laugh and joke when we’re putting up the goals – mainly about our inability to put up the goals – and it’s something I find I’m really missing about early Sunday mornings.
On a similar social note, another thing that I find I’m missing is the WhatsApp groups! During the season it would feel like my phone was almost constantly buzzing with notifications. As a member of several football related groups there was always someone wanting to relay a message and this multiplied when trying to cope with the constant rain and storms we seemed to be having earlier in the year. At that point it was rare that a day went by when you weren’t updating the opposition on the state of the pitch or letting people know that as far you knew the game at the weekend was still on. Or more likely, that the game at the weekend had been cancelled, yet again.
Now, these groups are eerily quiet. If there is a message on one of them, I invariably get a bit of a shock. Thoughts turn to next season and then you open it up and it’s nothing of any real consequence.
Strange how things change so dramatically. Sometimes, being so snowed under with messages to read, respond to or just send got a bit much. There were times when it was just an irritation, something that while trying to do a job and be a dad and husband, I just didn’t really have the time or patience for. Now, in the midst of a lockdown and with the prospect of any football still a long way beyond the horizon, it’d be lovely to send the weekly message about our game at the weekend, where we were playing and when we should get there!
Of course one of the main things to miss about being involved in grassroots football is the actual coaching. Watching the progress of my lads when at times they’ve been so up against it this year has been great. And it’s always a pleasure watching players develop. However, I think what I mainly miss about coaching is watching it all go wrong. And that’s easy to say now when I’m not in amongst it. I certainly haven’t enjoyed it while it’s been happening. But now, when every day can feel a bit of a matter of life and death, it’s just funny to remember the things that can and will go wrong.
Picture the scene. You’ve checked they’re all listening, got them quiet and you may even have made them all sit down, because that’s when ears work best of course! You explain the drill, maybe even three times because you want it to sink in, right? You’ve even given it a run through with one of the kids or another coach to demonstrate how it should pan out. And then you tell them, “Right, off you go.”
The responses at this point vary. But I’m sure we’ve all heard or witnessed every last one of them. Take your pick from,
- At least one player is stood, stock still, blank faced before asking, “Wait, what’re we doing?” And when I say at least one, we all know that it could be every last kid.
- A selection of kids or even every kid just does the drill completely wrong and much to your amazement some of what’s going on bares absolutely no resemblance to what you’d talked them through. With my team there’s even a chance someone’s pulled out a rugby ball. They might even be hitting it with a golf club.
- You realise that you explained it wrongly. You might even consult some kind of notes and see that what you’ve got them doing and what you’d drawn out and written down are two completely different things.
- A dog walks past/plane goes over/crisp packet blows by/literally anything happens that isn’t at all football related and one by one your players stop to watch.
- It’s a difficult drill – these ones usually don’t involve a football – and suddenly an abundance of kids needs either the toilet or a drink.
- Literally any scenario you can think of.
We know it’s not all like that though. I obviously miss the sessions where it all goes right – and we do have some of them! Some nights we’ll run a session where from minute one they’re all giving 100% effort, the passing is sharp, everyone’s eager and there are smiles on every face. You then have a practice game and everything you’ve worked on for the previous 45 minutes is there for all to see.
I miss making mistakes. And boy can I make them. We have a squad of 15 and there’s rarely a session or a game goes by when I don’t get names wrong. On more than one occasion I’ve sent a team out short of at least one player. Sometimes at the start of the game, but more often than not, for the second half. I’m an absolute master at losing track of the changes I’ve made at half-time and sending out a team of 8 for a nine-a-side game. Sometimes I’ve eve watched in horror as we have two players lining up in the same position before realising I’ve sent out one too many. The game’s never actually started like this, but there will inevitably be a time when it happens!
In the past – although I seem to be learning my lesson here – I’ve turned up for a game with no match ball. Luckily, I live around the corner form the pitches and have time to nip home, but it’s an interesting mistake to make. I’ve put the goals up wrongly, only to stand back to admire my handy work and find a ridiculously sagging crossbar or just some ridiculous shape that I’ve created. One of our players even managed to turn up without shorts this year, so I think my influence is clearly having an effect!
The final thing that I miss has to be game related. But I don’t just miss games. I miss the adrenaline involved. There can’t be many other feelings like this; not that can be related on a family friendly blog anyway. It’s that feeling as your keeper makes a brilliant save. Ours seems to specialise in saving penalties and it always feels amazing to watch. For me, it’s when my son scores a goal or even when he plays a pass that leads to the same for one of his team mates. It’s in the last ditch tackle from the kid you didn’t think would get there and it’s there in the minutes leading up to a kick-off, when optimism is at its highest.
This season we’ve had a lot of adrenaline fuelled times. During one early home game though, the adrenaline got unusually high. We were 1-4 down at half time and to be honest when we got them in to talk there weren’t a lot of positives. The lads were told in no uncertain terms to go out and prove a point in the second half. I knew that the game wasn’t beyond us and said as much, but what happened over the next half hour was stunning. We grabbed the first goal of the half and the second, but then conceded again to leave the score at 3-5 with around 15 minutes to go. However, my lads simply reacted once more and used this setback to push themselves further. Now, I’m usually reasonably calm on the touchline, if probably a bit too involved in terms of calling out instructions. However, my adrenaline levels were far too high at this point and as we scored again I was a parent more than a coach, just shouting encouragement as much as I could while trying not to jump up and down too much!
Amazingly, with around 5 minutes to go we’d levelled the score and our opposition looked out for the count. By this point I’d regained some composure and was able to look at the game from a more tactical point of view, but once we went ahead I was back to simply bouncing up and down and screeching.
We won the game 7-5 in the end and I found myself apologising to the opposition coach at the end, conscious of the fact that I’d been like Zebedee for the previous twenty minutes. I’ll never forget the following moments however as the adrenaline coursed through my system. My son nearly knocked me over as he came over at the end and it was an enormous dad and son hug. As we got everyone in afterwards – parents, family and players – it was like one enormous smile and although I couldn’t tell you what I said, it was all positive and felt fantastic to say. I miss those levels of adrenaline hugely.
So there we have it. In the midst of a global pandemic and with life as we’ve known it changing by the day, I find myself still missing football. Ridiculous when you think of it with your sane adult head on. Yet I know that many of you reading this will feel exactly the same.