Grassroots Football: End of Season reflections.

As the curtain falls on another year of grassroots football I thought I’d reflect on what has been an eventful season. The prevalence of Covid-19 has had a major bearing on how the season has run, but then when you factor in all of the usual ups and downs of running any kind of sporting team, it’s safe to say that things have been demanding in the extreme!

A little bit of background: regular readers will know this already, but I coach a football (soccer) team for under 12s. I’ve done it now for the past four years and it’s a source of great joy and satisfaction as well as fatigue! The highs are right up there, but the lows can be an absolute pain.

The global pandemic wrecked the previous season (2019-20), but you’d hope that this type of thing would prove to be a once in a lifetime event. Unless of course you are a Hollywood actor, or you live in the Bible. Sadly though, with wave after wave of the virus hitting, grassroots sport was paralysed again and we found ourselves back in lockdown and unable to train or play for large spells of season 20-21. In fact at one point it genuinely felt like the season would be abandoned and we’d be looking at waiting 7 or 8 months before a ball was kicked in anger again. And then, just as we were beginning to lose hope, the rules were relaxed as vaccinations took effect and we were able to get going again, albeit with tight restrictions in place.

So what are my reflections on the season gone by? Well, they’re a funny old mixture of satisfaction and extreme frustration. We finished 7th in a 10 team league. 7th in Division 7 of 8. So, it’s safe to say that our performance overall wasn’t what I’d hoped for. There have been times when we’ve played wonderful fast moving, flowing football, but there have also been times when we’ve played like a team of strangers, both to each other and to football! It’s the kind of inconsistency that leaves a lot more questions than answers and has also meant a lot of time spent trying to figure out what the problem was and how we could be more consistent as a team.

When I started coaching the team they were Under 8s. We were the 2nd team and even then there were a range of abilities. My goal – no pun intended – was always to coach my players so that they were comfortable with a ball at their feet. I’d like to think that with the majority of my players I’ve achieved that. I’ve always wanted to instill the importance of playing a quick passing game into my players. Pass to a team mate, move off the ball, look for space and look for angles; play the game on the grass, in the right way. I think that for a large proportion of the season we’ve got there with these goals, but a lot of the time physicality and focus have cost us.

So these are two areas that we need to work on with pre-season and next season in mind. I still feel like some of my lads are very immature and prone to just switching off in games and that’s when mistakes happen. Since we started playing again after lockdown in January we’ve been competitive in every game and only lost one by more than one goal. In all of these games we’ve had spells of playing wonderful football; we’ve been good to watch. And yet, there’s always the risk of a mistake.

Teaching the boys the value of a team ethic has been more important than ever this year. For a few years previous there had been a bit of a tendency for boys to mix with only the people from their primary school and it caused problems. The feeling that this was everyone’s team and that everyone was a team mate took a lot of getting through. And while I don’t think we’ve quite got the message through, we’ve definitely made great strides with it this season. You can hear it on the pitch with the encouragement that they give each other and the positivity. Rather than criticising a team mate who takes a bad touch or misses a chance, now we’re more likely to hear one of them shouting that it was “unlucky” or “just keep going, don’t let your head drop.” They’ve never been the loudest of teams, but we’ve improved vocally this year and it’s something I’m genuinely happy about.

The team ethic has come into play with our physicality too. While some teams have fielded several players that look like fully grown men this year, we’re still quite a small bunch. It’s meant that we’ve been bullied off the ball at times over the years and worse still, we’ve allowed it to happen and simply complained, rather than trying to be stronger. That changed a little in the period since around April this year. We’ve talked and talked about it in training and before, during and after games and the message seems to be getting through – don’t cheat, but fight for the right to keep the ball and win football matches. This is definitely something that we need to keep working on as well as carrying it forward for next season.

Next season will be a big step up for my team. They move from playing 9-a-side football to 11-a-side and that means playing on a bigger pitch with bigger goals. We’ll have to adapt to new positions and different formations and all of this presents a real challenge. I’m hoping that the size of the pitch will help us because we pass the ball well. However, I’m conscious that it should help others too who rely on how well their stronger players can run with the ball. With this in mind, part of our build up to the season will be spent working much more on fitness and trying to improve players strength, pace and stamina. If we can get closer to teams physically, the way we play the game might just give us an advantage.

At the moment though our main concern revolves around the recruitment of players. the 12-13 age range is a tricky time with junior footballers as lots of them start to explore new interests and the drop out rate is quite high. So far, having asked parents who’ll be signing up next season I’ve had only 11 positive replies, which basically means we haven’t got a squad yet. Our goalkeeper has decided to drop football, leaving us without anyone to fill what is a really key position, so we’re on the lookout for a new keeper! It promises to be a crucial next few weeks, with the simple fact being if we can’t get enough players then the team will have to fold. I’ve already heard whispers of other teams that are in the same position, so it’s going to be a case of putting out adverts, relying on word of mouth and crossing everything that’s crossable in the hope that we can attract bodies! If not, I’m going to have to find something else to fill my everyday thoughts and Sunday mornings!

The other thing that I need to think about now is sponsorship. Grassroots football clubs are not organisations that are awash with money. But the kids that populate them tend to grow fast. So when it comes to kit, my lads have grown out of what they’ve got and we are in dire need of a new home kit. The last time we got one we could only secure sponsorship to pay for just over half of what we got, meaning that the club had to stump up money to help out. I’d like to avoid that this time round.

That said, schmoozing potential sponsors is not my thing and that is yet another problem. My assistant coach is usually pretty good at that kind of thing though and as well as this, we have parents of some of our players that have tried to get sponsorship in the past. In fact, our last home kit sponsorship was achieved by one of said parents badgering a business owner who drinks in the same pub as him!

If we do get the money then we need to get the kit, which shouldn’t be a problem, but again is something that irks me. Our club committee insist on sticking with the same supplier for all teams and frankly, I don’t rate the supplier. Our home kit for the last two seasons has been plain, dull and unimaginative, so I’m hoping that this year there might be a bit of flexibility.

A couple of years ago I used an online kit designer to come up with some ideas from a different supplier. I then put the idea to the club. You would have thought I’d just arrived at the meeting riding a sea horse while holding hands with a mermaid. Suffice to say, we stuck with our usual way of doing things.

A year later however, we decided that we’d buy a training kit that could double up as an away kit because our home kit clashed with several other teams in our league. We went with a neon yellow and grey number and it blew a few minds. And then, a coach from one of our younger age groups got in touch to find out which kit it was, as he wanted to order it. Gradually more groups did the same and now several of our age groups wear the same snazzy kit that we introduced. So there’s hope for a quiet kit revolution yet!

Overall, it’s been a season of highs and lows and it’s left us with lots to work on. I think I have a team of players that are capable of a great deal more. I think their potential is a lot greater than they realise and happily, I think the penny might have dropped a little with this. I’ll be going into the season with some targets for them, both individually and as a team, but in short I’ll be looking for a much better league finish. This season we finished 7th out of 10 clubs. Next year I’ll be pushing my boys for a top three finish (if we get the players and actually still have a team, that is…) and if results in the final four or five games are anything to go by, we can achieve just that.

We lost to the teams that finished 2nd and 3rd in the league, but were competitive in both games, particularly against the 2nd team. We defeated teams that finished higher than us in those final games too, most notably against the team that won the league. In fact, we were the only team to beat them over the course of the entire season; the only team to take any points at all off them as they won every other game that they played. And it wasn’t just a win; we made them look very ordinary and dominated all but the final five minutes or so. If we can take that performance forward, then we’ll be OK.

So here’s to another year of football with all of the challenges it brings. Let’s just hope that the pandemic isn’t going to cause the chaos that it has for the last two seasons though!

Back on the grass again…for an actual game! (Part 2 of 2)

So after two training sessions in a week, numerous messages over WhatsApp and several pep talks with my players, we were finally, properly back on the grass today. An actual game with points at stake. Some competition and the adrenalin of a serious game of football, albeit at Under 12 level.

Sunday 11th April marked our return to competitive football and the sun was smiling on the Garforth Junior Football League as teams re-started the season once again. We woke up to an absolutely glorious day, if a little chilly, and frankly perfect conditions for football.

As stated in the first part of this blog, my team restart their season with more than a few worries. We play in Division 7 of 8 and at present are third bottom of the league. It’s safe to say that wins have been hard to come by this season, Indeed one of our wins was actually expunged from the records as the team we beat decided to drop out of the division after lockdown. Not because we beat them, by the way. I think it was down to the availability of players, but it still cost us valuable points.

We were playing the team beneath us in the league and so the importance of the game had been stressed by myself all week. And as we arrived at the venue for the match, I felt confident that we’d give a decent showing of ourselves.

Speaking of the venue, it was the kind of place where I always feel my lads and me might look a bit out of place. We’re a team from Morley, a market town on the outskirts of Leeds and let’s just say that there are areas that we visit for away games where the locals are a bit more refined than ourselves. Sometimes, as we park up outside a row of enormous houses with Range Rovers and Aston Martins in the driveways, I feel like we might be in danger of having our collective collars felt by the local constabulary. It certainly makes me conscious of my Mazda and the scruffy bags that carry the team’s equipment!

Today was one of those days. The area was relatively rural, with some rather plush houses around. We were also playing at a quite splendid private school where they even had a steward to make sure you drove round the car park the right way! The pitches were like bowling greens and the facilities clearly nicer than ours, where only last week two teenagers drove a motorbike over our pitch at speed as we trained. So walking through the grounds of the place made me feel slightly inferior at the very least! We’re the kind of team that my dad would refer to as ‘Raggy Arse Rovers’ and it’s exactly how I felt today.

Once we’d found our pitch we warmed up and went over the basics once again; don’t panic on the ball, don’t just boot it downfield at every opportunity, try to pass and move, use the width of the pitch, take responsibility, encourage each other and anything else that sprung to mind as kick off approached. I was able to take a moment just to have a look around and for a few seconds was mesmerized by the sight before me; the bright green of the pitch and the contrast of those thick, untouched white lines painted in, the bustle of parents, the excitement of the kids taking part in three separate games on the sight and the distinct tension brought about by the fact that we all want a positive outcome this morning. And then, before we knew it we were lining up around the centre circle for a minute’s silence to mark the passing of the Duke of Edinburgh. After that, it was over to the boys on the pitch.

It doesn’t take long to remember how helpless you can feel as a coach. In fact, I’d safely say that in the months of being away from football, it’s something that I’ve not missed at all.

We quickly took hold of the game and yet, for every mistake made or chance missed, my mind was ticking over with questions. Why has he done that? Who told him that was OK? What was he thinking there? As I say, as a coach you feel helpless. You’re screaming inside, yet still trying to find the balance between letting your team think and act for themselves and telling them what to do and what or who to look out for.

I don’t want to take you through each and every kick of the game. That’s not the point here. So, I’ll let you know that we lost in the end, because it helps with explaining the process that you slip into so easily despite the amount of time spent away from doing what you love.

We lost with virtually the last kick of the game, having came back from 3-1 down with about 5 minutes to go, to level it at 3-3. As our opposition re-started the game at 3-3 I was prompted to warn my team, “Don’t do anything silly now!” only to watch on in horror as a series of inexplicable mistakes happened across a timespan of about 10 seconds and we conceded the last goal. While it’s pointless playing the blame game, it was more than difficult to paint on a smile and talk to the ref, the opposition, their players and mine about what a great game it had been. Blame lockdown, blame a lack of fitness, blame me, blame whoever or whatever; we were poor. And yet we still should have won. It’s been like this for a large part of our season and again, it’s not something I feel deprived of by lockdown!

After wards we discussed the need to learn from mistakes and the need to stay calm on the ball. We have another important game next weekend and it’s crucial that we’re better. Talking to parents in the car park afterwards, I was adamant that I wouldn’t have time to put on an extra training session this week, partly due to work commitments and partly down to just feeling ridiculously unhappy with our result! Sometimes, even as an adult it’s hard to hide the disappointment and not react a bit like a child! However, as the afternoon wore on I found myself asking my wife if she’d be alright with me being out for another evening in the week so that I could run an extra session. She was just surprised that I hadn’t already sorted it out!

So, we’re back on the grass and living with all that it brings. The highs, the lows, the surprises and the disappointments. Nine more games to go, until barring further lockdown measures, we finish the season in early June. Already, it’s like we’ve never been away. Training sessions are coming thick and fast and we’ll be counting down the days until our next game this weekend. That love that I have for football is being rewarded once again and I wouldn’t change it for anything.

Back on the grass again…for now (Part 1).

As grassroots football returns once again and my car becomes a magnet for mud, grass cuttings and various bits of kit, I thought it might be nice to write a couple of blogs about how things went on our return. I’m starting with this one about our first few training sessions and will write Part 2, about our first match, as soon as it happens! I hope you enjoy reading about it all.

Rightly or wrongly, football has always been one of the major loves of my life. Of course family comes first and of course, I see the sheer stupidity of being so obsessed by a game. But it’s a habit I can’t break…and believe me I’ve tried.

However, about four years ago I found myself cajoled into coaching my son’s team and my obsession grew. It’s a brilliant thing to do though and one I’ve written about before, but these last few months – and in fact the stop start nature of the whole of this season – have been a lot to cope with both for us coaches and our players, as well as parents..

At the end of March though, the government began relaxing their Covid restrictions and grassroots football made its latest comeback. Unlike a lot of teams we didn’t jump straight back in though. While other teams at our club were back training on March 29th, the day that the guidelines relaxed, we waited until April 1st until we held our first session.

I have to say that it felt like a bit of an error on my part as I watched those first teams training on the fields at the end of my street! I couldn’t wait to get back and knew – via our WhatsApp group – that parents and players felt the same.

Just being able to be out of the house, mixing with team mates and testing their ability and fitness was going to be one hell of a change from what had happened since January. We’d tried to keep our boys fit by forming a training group on the Strava app with the aim of getting everyone to run a collective 50 miles per week, but it proved to be a difficult thing to do. Initially the group were running the distance every week. In fact in that first week we ran over 110 miles between us. But in recent weeks it had tailed off and while some of the lads were still running and have kept them in good shape, four or five out of a 14 player squad isn’t all that great!

On Thursday 1st April we returned to our pitch and actual football training. It was smiles all round, but just not many of them. For that first session we only had 8 players and one coach as 6 players and my other coach were required to isolate after being in contact with someone who’d tested positive. I split the lads into two groups and while we ran a few drills and did some fitness work, ultimately, given the numbers, we kept it as simple as possible. In the end, we set up some makeshift goals on the pitch, coned an area off and had a game of four-a-side. It was brilliant! Just end to end stuff, lots of goals, a blur of bright orange bibs versus neon yellow shirts and everyone involved with smiles on their faces!

At one point as I looked back up the hill that houses our pitches, we had the local amateur team playing a friendly and everyone from our Under 7s to Under 11s running around on various pitches. You don’t want to get too far ahead of yourself, but it felt like life might be getting back to some kind of normality.

At the end of the session though, I was reminded of something I haven’t missed at all. Parents arrived to pick up their kids and after I’d got the kids to collect cones and poles, I was left entirely alone to first pack it all away and secondly, to haul it all up the hill to my car! As the kit bag full of cones repeatedly banged up against my thigh and I struggled to balance the huge bag of poles so that they wouldn’t tip forward and empty everything out through the hole that’s been worn through, I was vividly reminded of what a pain in the arse being a coach can be! I passed probably 30 or 40 people standing spectating on various sessions and not one asked if I needed a hand!

With a game coming up and having missed months of football, I had a brainwave. Why do one training session in the week leading up to the game when you could do two? I messaged parents just to gauge opinion and availability and was met with a resounding yes. My own son had missed the first session as he was isolating and although he’s made an effort to keep up his fitness (that’s a polite way of saying I’ve been dragging him out for runs with me whenever possible), he’d barely kicked a ball for months. It was the same for many of the squad. So an added training session would do them all the world of good. Or at least tire them out so that they wouldn’t bug their parents so much for a couple of evenings!

Another reason behind this decision was our league position. We’ve actually lost points over the break as a result of a team dropping out of the division we’re in. This has left us 3rd bottom of the division and in real danger of finishing bottom if we don’t do well. So we clearly need to put in the hard yards before we kick off.

The differences between the first session we had held and this second one are marked. Firstly, I’m almost late! It happens on a regular basis. With only myself to organise on the previous Thursday, I was there with lots of time to spare and could set up and be ready as the kids arrived. Tonight though, my son has done his usual trick of being nowehere near ready. He can’t find various items of kit, despite being told to get organised, he’s labouring with his tea, he hasn’t done his water, he can’t find a hat, etc, etc.

The other difference is that we have almost a full squad. We still have one player isolating, but in all there are 13 boys ready to train. Plus the elder brother of one of them, whose team have folded, leaving him at a loose end. He asks to take part and we welcome him and hopefully his calming influence with open arms!

Before the session we have a long chat with the lads about how we’d like to finish the season. We have 10 games still to play and, as I mentioned, the very real possibility of finishing last! I, for one, don’t want that. While I always want my team to enjoy playing and am more than happy to be inclusive and let everyone have their fair share of time on the pitch, regardless of ability, I can’t hide the fact that I’m competitive. So we talk about the idea of the team and backing each other up and about the need to give absolutely everything we have in these final games.

We keep the session relatively simple, dropping plans for a passing drill in favour of a longer game and once the warm ups, jogging and sprinting are complete we run through a drill with the ball before choosing teams, handing out bibs and letting them get on with a game. Again, smiles are the order of the day and there’s no whining and moaning about what’s fair and unfair or who fouled who; just the desire to have a game. They play for half an hour with only a 1-0 scoreline to show for it, so it’s clear that their shooting skills have filtered away over the break, but we can work on that next session. We’re edging closer and closer to a first game in months and hopefully we’ll get a result. But the approach has to be one of complete positivity and encouragement. We all need to be pulling in the same direction.

We return to training two days later for our second session of the week and third since we’ve been allowed back. This time we run through a few more drills with the ball as well as upping the ante with the running, in the hope of adding a little bit of an edge with stamina. We end with a game and this time the goals flow, but sadly that brings out the worst in one or two of our lads. My team are still very young and although the idea of working as a team has been drummed into them time and again, yet the moment things start to go wrong there are those that start blaming others, griping, sniping and failing to take responsibility. It’s something I find very frustrating and once again, something that will have to be addressed before we play on Sunday. It’s vital that we work together and if we can’t, then truthfully, I’d rather not bother.

As a side note, another frustration rears its head again tonight. We decide to set up our 9-a-side goals tonight, which means hauling them about a quarter of a mile down the hill to our pitch and then back again afterwards. These aren’t light and they’re cumbersome too. The hope was that our parents would offer a hand in putting them back. Some hope. My arms and shoulders still ache this morning after the sheer struggle of carrying the goals back up the hill, lifting them over a 7 foot fence and then maneuvering them through the car park, while all the while fighting strong winds. I feel like an old man this morning!

So there we have it. Football’s back and within just a few sessions we’ve had a microcosm of the highs, lows, joys and frustrations. Here’s to Sunday, the first game back and a chance to leave over three months of lockdown frustration on a pitch somewhere in West Yorkshire. I’ll let you know how that goes in Part 2 of this blog, which I can hopefully post on Monday. In the meantime, I’d love to know what you think, so feel free to leave a comment.

How do you motivate a team who aren’t allowed to play?

If you read my blog regularly then you’ll no doubt be aware of my sideline (although I’m sure my wife would call it more of an obsession) as a football coach. If this is a first read, well then you just found out. I volunteer with a local youth team and coach one of their Under 12 teams. It’s the team that my son plays for and I ended up doing it when the original team coach was removed from his post. I’ll be honest; although I knew I’d be able to do a better job, I was also very much the only candidate!

I’ve written about my coaching before on here. It can be an absolute joy and yet can be a right royal pain in the backside too! At the moment it’s definitely on the latter end of the scale and this is largely down to the fact that we’re unable to actually do any training at the moment.

We last played a game on Sunday 6th December of last year. We trained a weekend later and then as January approached we were told that rising Covid cases meant that junior football was being suspended and that no one would be playing or training until further notice. That last training session had been a minimal affair as we tried to deal with low numbers, social distancing and Covid paranoia. It was undoubtedly a sign of things to come. However, we’d had a great session and were still optimistic that there would be a game the following weekend to look forward to. The optimism was short lived.

Well, we’re now half way through February and still waiting for that further notice. There has been a flurry of activity on social media lately, after the chairman of our league asked our opinions about how to move forward and this has led to a whiff of optimism, but still, there’s nothing concrete like a way forward or even a date. I’m not being critical in any way. I can see clearly that running these leagues and keeping everybody happy is a horrendously stressful job that I would not want. But I’m missing football and like lots and lots of other coaches, finding motivating my team a tough old job.

A little bit of background on my team. I think it’s safe to say that not everyone in the 14 strong squad is actually that interested in football. I’d even say that for my own son, who hasn’t kicked a ball for almost 2 months. There are easily five or six others in the squad just like him. I think football is just a means to an ends here; a way of getting lads away from screens and into the fresh air.

My lads are the second team in our age group at the club; often referred to as the development team, but not by ourselves. We play in Division 7 of 8 in the league, so perhaps that tells you something about ability. Please don’t get me wrong, I think we have some brilliant little footballers and excellent athletes, but when you watch some of the teams in the higher divisions it gives some perspective. I’m not hugely interested in ability. I want to develop footballers and help create good people. I love to win, but I realise that it won’t be possible every week. I don’t accept it, I don’t like it, but I realise that there are better teams than us and also better coaches than me. As long as my players are enjoying what they do, that’s enough.

And that fact leads me nicely on to what I wanted to look at with this piece. I think I’m a good coach, who tries to set a good example, tries to have fun and tries really hard to look for areas in a kid’s game that can be improved. I think, over the last few years of coaching the team, I’ve been successful in doing that as well. What worries me though, is how to keep players motivated when I can’t see them, can’t work with them and am juggling a busy work and family life in amongst all of the stress and pain of a global pandemic.

We have a WhatsApp group for coaches and parents in the team. This has been our exclusive avenue of dialogue over the last couple of months, but I feel like it’s failing. I’m failing. I worry that the majority of my team will not have kicked a ball over the whole of lockdown. I worry that they’ll not have worked at all on fitness and that when they return to football they’ll be ridiculously unfit. And I worry that some won’t return at all.

We’ve tried a number of things to keep our squad engaged and motivated during the lockdown. But I don’t think they’ve worked.

During the previous spell of lockdown in the U.K. we started a running challenge, setting up a Strava group for the players with the challenge that they try to run 5kms per week. Over half of the players and their parents signed up and things looked good. I felt optimistic. However, the results were sketchy at best and most of those who signed up simply stopped running or walking after a few weeks. I found it incredibly sad that a group of 11 and 12-year-olds couldn’t bring themselves to walk or run 5000 metres across the course of a week, especially when it could be done in stages and was going to help them represent their team. It was disappointing, but in actual fact, they maintained enough fitness to be able to win the game that was arranged when we came back to football. It was worrying though and a sign of things to come.

Another lockdown was always inevitable given the instability of the times we find ourselves living in. We added a skills challenge as a means of keeping the boys involved while also having a bit of fun. It felt simple. Attempt the skill, film it, post it and we’ll choose a winner each week. Two of the players posted a video of themselves taking on the challenge and then, nothing. One of those players was my son, and I’d be lying if I said his participation wasn’t almost wholly motivated by me! Another failure.

We even introduced the incentive of a prize for both the running challenge and the skills challenge and both fell flat. Clearly mobile phones and X-Box were winning out!

Our club committee, recognising that this could be a terminal problem, then got involved. Unfortunately their first idea was a running challenge and we know how that one had already panned out with my lads! But then Zoom football quizzes were organised and despite having spent the best part of three lockdowns avoiding these things like the they themselves were contagious, I promoted it and duly entered myself and my son. I mean, I had to be the one setting the example, right?

Come the morning of our Zoom quiz and I was full of optimism. The squad would be ‘together’ once again and it would be great to see their faces and to find out how everyone was doing. I was confident that given my own knowledge of the sport, me and my son might even be up for the win. And then, after one or two technical problems, the gallery screen came into view. Apart from me and my son, there were three other players. Two of the three were twins and the other one was the son of my assistant coach. So essentially, one household without a direct club connection had joined in! We’d failed again. In fact, only three players from the other team in our age group joined in as well. Seven players from two squads numbering 28 players. And to top it all, me and my son didn’t even win the quiz!

So we’d tried to embrace technology and a world that 11 and 12-year-olds were familiar with and couldn’t make it work. The whole thing was becoming incredibly frustrating. As a kid – and frankly still as an adult – I was obsessed with football. I wanted to be outside with a ball at my feet as much as possible. In fact, on the day that I was discharged from hospital having undergone open heart surgery, aged 6, I attempted to cry my heart all the way back out again because my parents wouldn’t let me go outside and join in a game that was being played on the patch of grass opposite my house. For a kid not to want to be involved with football was almost beyond my comprehension, especially when said kid was actually part of a football team.

I’m not stupid. I understand that there are a lot of distractions nowadays. I know that football – whether it’s our national sport or not – has a lot to compete with. But I don’t buy the idea that it can’t compete. While I was obsessed with football as a kid, I did other things too. I – don’t judge me – spent hours sitting in the library (the local one, not the one in the east wing of our house or something) reading books. I collected records, I played other sports, I had a PC and played games on it. But football was my ultimate love. There was never any trouble engaging me and I always found time to play. So, I don’t buy into the idea that we should blame other distractions.

All of this makes the lack of engagement of my team all the more puzzling and frankly, upsetting. I’ve questioned myself, my sessions, my relationships with members of the team, my enthusiasm, my manner with the kids. But even as my own harshest critic, I can’t simply blame myself.

So it’s a question of where do we go from here? I must admit that this week we’ve had a bit of a breakthrough. Having re-visited the Strava group and the idea of a fitness challenge, I came up with the 50 Mile Challenge. The simple concept is, can we all walk or run enough in a week to get to 50 miles between us? I was inspired by the Proclaimers song ‘500 Miles’ and then began reducing the mileage when I realised how far I was expecting each of us to run or walk! I’m saving the idea though and might try to turn it into some sort of sponsored event in summer, if Covid allows. I mean, I had plans to make a video and everything!

When I put the idea on the WhatsApp group I had to wait 24 hours before anyone even reacted. Again, I was left feeling down, especially in those first 23 and a bit hours! But then when we recorded our own first run, I scrolled down our club Strava feed. People had been running! Not everyone, not by a long way, but people had been running. Our team were engaged and working on their fitness! By the time a day had elapsed we’d combined to run or walk nearly 16 of our 50 miles. And now, at the time of writing, 8 players, 2 coaches and our referee have recorded a grand total of 56.16 miles in just four days. My response? A congratulations note on the WhatsApp group followed by another challenge! I’ve asked if we can make it to 100 miles by Sunday night! Well, I might as well exploit that momentum!

The next challenge will come with next week. I’m keen to keep these shorter challenges going, so I’ll be posting on Sunday evening and asking if we can at least outdo whatever amount of miles we manage this week. I’ll be challenging those that haven’t joined in as well. I’m tempted to set a challenge of 150 miles, but might stick to 100, just to be on the safe side and step things up gradually. Experience tells me that initial enthusiasm doesn’t always last!

The lack of enthusiasm has really made me think about how to engage the team when we’re finally able to play again. I’m already sketching out ideas for simpler training sessions where we mix the right amount of fitness with a bit of competition and a short sharp game at the end. I’ve tried to cram as many drills as possible into sessions in the past, in order to work on various aspects of the team and players, but I’m definitely going for a leaner, meaner approach. Hopefully, they’ll be sessions that can cut out the messing about and keep every player engaged enough to want to be there every week.

I also have a couple of much grander plans for later on in the year. Firstly, I’ll be trying to get a group of players and coaches together to do some kind of sponsored activity. I’ve a couple of causes I’d like to help, but I’d also like to try and do something to raise money for the club as a whole. Above all of that though, I think doing something like that as a team will help to build some sense of identity and spirit within a squad that is made up of kids from 4 different high schools and that is still very cliquey.

Alongside that, I’d also like to do something that helps within the community. I’d hoped to do something over the Christmas period, but Covid got in the way. It’s still not a very well developed scheme, but I hope that with the involvement of our coaches and parents we can come up with an idea that makes a difference to people in our community and of course, our team. It might just amount to delivering supplies to the elderly or collecting shopping or donations for a foodbank , but I think it’s the kind of thing that young people should do in order to help build a bit of character and just open themselves up to what’s actually happening in their community and the kind of difference that they can make. Whether people will get on board with any such ideas, who knows?

I’ve found it really tough to motivate or engage my team over the last two months. It seems that the default approach at the moment is to take to a screen and that makes me feel really unhappy. And it’s disconcerting – and I won’t lie, a bit of a blow to the ego – when you feel like you’re doing your best and no one seems interested! We might just be getting somewhere though, but if you’ve enjoyed reading and have any suggestions, I’m all ears!

Back on the grass – a new season in grassroots football

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.

Lockdown Cravings – What I miss most about grassroots football.

IMG_1888
It’s got so bad I think I even miss washing kit!

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.

 

 

Coaching football: When just in case becomes just too much.

DSC_1114
Back from Storm Ciara to announce a surprise postponement!

As a grassroots football coach it’s easy to become obsessive. I’ve blogged about this before. Training sessions, team shape, ordering kit, even how kids’ families might feel when their son or daughter isn’t picked. But our obsession with weather must be right up there.

Since going back to coaching I’ve become completely obsessed with the weather. One of the first things I do each morning at work is to bring up the BBC’s weather page on my screen. The tab is always open on my phone too. And as dull as it undoubtedly is, I’m forever checking. Percentage chance of rain, wind-speed and the search for the sunshine emoji are personal favourites. But it’s essential. No, really. It’s essential.

It’s not even a case of what the sky is doing on matchday either. Some weeks are spent scanning the day by day percentage chance of rain in the week leading up to a game in order to assess whether we’ll have a pitch or a swimming pool waiting for us on a Sunday morning. I spend more time refreshing the weather than is healthy really. But then you never know when the forecast will change and the rain will just disappear.

This week though I feel like my obsessiveness has moved on to a new, much sadder level than ever before. My team, Morley Glen Juniors Whites of the Garforth League, division 3a should have been in cup action. And we’re on a cup run, so this is exciting stuff. Although, when I say a cup ‘run’ I mean that we got a bye in the first round and today should have been the second round, but the season going as it has been doing, we’ll take any win possible. Even if we won a game that wasn’t even played against an opposition that didn’t even exist. In my head it was a tactical triumph.

As ever, having confirmed the match details with the opposition coach on the previous Sunday afternoon, I checked the weather. With the pitch in mind I went through every individual day. I’d be at work for most of it, but it feels important to know if it’s going to just rain all week or whether we can expect a drier pitch by the weekend. As I said before, it can be the difference between a pitch and a swimming pool.

The week looked great. Day after day of dry weather, one or two warm-ish temperatures, sunshine and a bit of a breeze. Our pitch would be brilliant. And then I read Sunday. The cloud and rain emoji spelt trouble, but maybe it’d be a case of getting on with it and getting soaked again, like we have done on several occasions this season already. But there was an exclamation mark. In a triangle. A weather warning. And clicking on to the actual day would reveal the small matter of potential 48mph winds. Driving home that evening from work the news then informed me of the approaching storm, this one given the charming moniker of Ciara.

IMG-20200207-WA0003

As the week progressed it seemed that the wind speed was increasing day by day. I’d refresh the weather several times a day just in case the storm had miraculously changed direction and was now heading for Spain or somewhere else that wasn’t Morley. But oh no. This lass Ciara was very definitely heading our way. Ever the optimist though, I was still texting all concerned on Saturday night, confirming that yes, the game was still on and that I intended to have a walk over to the pitch on Sunday morning to check exactly how things were. The now predicted 68mph winds weren’t going to cause a problem.

And so it came to pass that I left my front door slightly before 8am this morning and headed out into a quite horrendous storm. I could hear the scale of the thing through the bathroom window while having a shave half an hour earlier. I could see it from the kitchen window when I went downstairs. But a combination of guilt and stubbornness prevented me from calling the match off from the comfort and warmth of my own home. Surely, once you were out there, you could have a game of football, right?

There was no-one around as I started the five minute walk to the pitches. Scanning the houses around me seemed to reveal that people were still in bed, perhaps playing hide and seek with Ciara. The main road also revealed no cars. But still, I pressed on. Of course I did.

In actual fact, it didn’t feel that windy. It was raining, which probably didn’t bode well for the pitch, but the wind wasn’t too bad. There was hope for this game yet.

And then I turned a corner and headed up a narrow path that leads to the pitches. Now the wind stopped playing games with me. Suddenly I was being battered and it was actually quite tricky to walk in a straight line. Like three years at university encapsulated into a matter of seconds, but with less lager.

Staggering like a drunk I had to keep my head down now because the rain was actually stinging my face. But I still hadn’t checked the pitch. There was a glimmer of hope for this game and the magic of the cup was still alive. I kept on going, still with no other human soul anywhere in sight. Where were the dog walkers that normally left us a Sunday morning surprise? Where were the runners in badly matched shades of lycra? Who knew?

Before I knew it I was out in the open. Ciara was flinging me round like a rag doll (Wow, reading that back, perhaps I’ve got a Mills and Boon or a Fifty Shades in me yet?) but I was ridiculously determined to carry on. Pausing to edge my way up a muddy grass bank in order to avoid a path wide puddle, I pressed on as best I could. I slipped and slid and for a moment feared that I was going to end up face down in the mud, but I leapt the last bit in hope and desperation and made it to the other side of the path. I mean, how stupid would I have looked falling in the mud? Well, in truth, no more stupid than I did with rain streaming down my face and a veritable lake down my front, but my obsessive coach’s nature tells me that as yet, this game hasn’t actually been called off.

I briefly recall playing in horizontal snow last season and imagine that we could yet have a game. And then I reach the pitch. Even at a distance the surface water is clearly visible and I know that unless we play in wellies we haven’t got a game. But still I feel that I should walk on the actual grass to just confirm it. I’m wearing fly knit running trainers that give no protection at all and my feet are already damp, but there’s nothing like the feeling of actual water squelching between your toes to confirm a postponement. So out I stride.

Except I can’t stride out as it’s far too slippy. So I tip-toe on to the grass like some kind of wet, clumsy ballerina. We still have white lines, which is a plus, but in no time at all I’m ankle deep in liquid mud. I hang around for a few minutes, just walking on the pitch, maybe in hope of a dry patch, but it’s inevitable that we’ll have to postpone. I love football, but it’ll be no fun whatsoever to play in this, let alone stand around barking instructions at my team.

I spot a dog walker approaching and it’s this sight that brings me to my senses. We exchange pleasantries, each as funny as the other in a not funny at all kind of way.

“Lovely morning.”

“Aye, just beautiful isn’t it?”

We’re vying the title of Archbishop of Banterbury here, but rather than claim the sceptre and funny hat, I walk on, heading for home. I’m soaked and there’s a path wide lake to avoid on the way back.

When I get back the whole family are waiting for me. My wife and daughter both tell me how ridiculous I look and how stupid I’ve been, but it just makes me laugh. My son joins in, probably more out of relief that he doesn’t have to go out into the storm and attempt to play football. I know why I’ve been out. I understand that I could have called this game off from the safety of my home, but that wouldn’t be right and proper. Other coaches will understand.

I dry off – every item of clothing is wet (I’m definitely writing that racy novel by the way, ladies) – and head downstairs for breakfast. Picking up my phone to relay the postponement to all involved, I see that I have a message. I open it to find that, from the safety of his home, the opposition coach has texted.

“That wind’s probably going to spoil the game mate.”

Life in grassroots football: How to turn your Under 11s four match losing streak into a personal crisis!

dsc_0576
Right lads, read this, take it all in and get out there and play like Brazil. Oh, and enjoy yourselves!

Every week, I try to make the last words that I say to my team exactly the same. “Enjoy it”, I say. And I mean it. I won’t lie though. I desperately want them to win because I know that winning football matches is a great deal more enjoyable than losing them. It’s simple really. But I always tell them ‘enjoy it’.

There’s no doubt that there’s a boat load of enjoyment to be had from running a kids’ football team. Certainly that’s what everyone will tell you. It’ll be a tonne of fun. They’re right as well. It is fun. So why am I currently turning our form into some kind of personal crisis then? Well let me attempt an explanation.

“I take it all very personally”

First up – and I know from conversations with other coaches that I’ve got no exclusivity here – I take it all very personally. When I played, as a kid and as a much younger man, I wanted to win. Desperately. Now, as an adult, I won’t ever send a team out thinking that any of us will enjoy it if we get beat. I certainly won’t. I don’t even enjoy it when we’ve got beat and played well. I might tell the kids that it was enjoyable to watch, but that’s a carefully placed white lie. When I played I would brood on defeats or bad performances for days on end. Nowadays, as a coach, it wakes me up in the middle of the night. ‘What could I have done to prevent that from happening?’ I tell the kids that I enjoyed watching them play, but inside I’m already asking myself how I could have changed things in order to avoid that defeat. Or I’m wondering how what we did in training on the Thursday and what we spoke about before kick-off didn’t make it to the match.

Kids don’t enjoy defeat either, especially when it’s a run of them. This thing that was meant to be fun isn’t anything like fun when the other team are laughing at you or celebrating yards away as you sit and have a drink of water miserably at the end of the game.

“I didn’t shout and bawl and I wasn’t cruel.”

And then as a coach, what do I say? I understand the need for positivity, but I think sometimes you have to be human too. Sometimes I just find it really tough to choose my words. And it becomes something that I worry about. Another reason to lie awake on a Saturday night. After our last game, and at the end of the four game losing streak that kind of prompted this blog, I’d had enough. I didn’t shout and bawl and I wasn’t cruel. But I couldn’t tell them lies. Not on this occasion. It had genuinely felt like every instruction given had been ignored. It had genuinely felt like, as coaches, we’d been let down. Of course I didn’t tell them that, but they were left in no doubt that they simply hadn’t been good enough. We’d been forced to make three substitutions because of the attitude of some of the boys and the fact that they’d decided to shout at not just the ref, but their coaches, parents and each other too. Of course, I then worried about that as well! Should I have been negative? Did I need to say anything? Would I need to sit them down again before the next training session and be all ‘cuddly’ and positive? In the end I said no more, but I must have thought it through at least a dozen times in the days between the game and training.

I did end up spending even more hours on football that week coming up with a code of conduct for the boys with some ‘rules’ and sanctions. I gave it out at training still feeling like I might be taking it all too seriously, but then comforted myself later with the thought that I’d taken out the bit where I wanted them to sign it! I’d planned to photocopy each of the signed code of conducts, so that I had a copy as well as the boys! I’m still keeping it in mind for next season though! After all, they’ll be coming up to 12 by then…

As coaches we took that day personally. In the heat of the moment I genuinely considered quitting as it just felt like I wasn’t making any kind of difference any more. As I do on many a Sunday, I found some time to sit and think things through in the afternoon after the game and came to the conclusion that I was taking things a little too seriously. There was no option but to carry on, making sure that training was purposeful and fun and that we worked more towards getting things right in games. After all, it’s an under 11s team, not someone fighting to win the Champions’ League. But it demonstrates how easy it is to become completely obsessed by the small part we play in football. And I’m sure I’m not alone in being this way. I hope I’m not, anyway!

“…I’ve allowed running a team to become too big a part of my life.”

The lengths I go to and the time I put into my team probably pales into insignificance when measured against some coaches. But I still feel that I’ve allowed running a team to become too big a part of my life. In the lead up to a game I can be regularly found scribbling down teams and formation on the backs of envelopes or scraps of paper. I’ll invariably then proceed to lose the envelope and have to search out another one and do it all over again! The trouble is that a combination of a big squad of players – we have 16 kids for a 9-a-side team – and a poor memory means that every team is different again as I forget a player and include someone else. Suffice to say the whole envelope thing can be unnecessarily stressful!

I used to keep a record of every game we played as well. I’d mark each player out of ten, record scorers and write a paragraph or two about how we’d played and things to change. Family life and work has put pay to that particular obsession though as I can just never find the time anymore. Again though, the little orange book is something I’m thinking of bringing back for next year!

When I’ve got time I get out my little magnetic board with the counters that represent players and play about with it, working out who’d be best where and what I’d need to tell them in order to get the best out of them in said position. I haven’t yet had the bottle to use it at an actual match, but the time will come when I finally convince myself that it’s not that embarrassing and that it’s what other coaches do! I’ll stress myself out about that too.

“…please don’t get me started on dog walkers!”

And then, in terms of obsession and crisis, we get to the pitch. Our pitch takes up so much of my time that it’s criminal really. I live quite close to the club, so in times of bad weather I’m forever thinking about it. What will that near side touchline be like? Will the top goalmouth be holding water? Is the grass too long in the corners and is it possible that my lines have disappeared again? As a further consequence of living close, I’m forever checking the weather forecast for the week a well, just in case there’s a few days worth of rain that I need to panic about while being unable to actually do anything about it.

All this is of course before we even touch on the subject of kids using the pitch to ride bikes on. And please don’t get me started on dog walkers! It seems that every time I go over to re-paint the lines someone has let their dog use our pitch as a toilet and then conveniently not noticed! And I swear that every time I’m leaving having re-done those lines someone will proceed to walk their dog over our pitch, even though they can see me coming out of the clubhouse! I’m beginning to feel paranoid; that someone is watching me paint the lines while simultaneously winding up Fido ready to go and run all over our grass!

It gets worse. I can often be found hanging out of my bedroom window, craning my neck to see if I can get a view of the pitch from about 400 metres away. I can’t, but it never stops me trying! Sometimes I’ll see dog walkers or, Heaven forbid, kids playing football and quietly curse to myself while trying not to worry too much. I’ve genuinely become a pitch bore and I fear that I may need to seek some kind of professional help in order to shake the disease.

The final form of obsession can be found on the morning of any match. As a supporter I’ve been ridiculously superstitious for as long as I can remember. Nothing too crazy…just the lucky pants, the lucky socks, the lucky top, not using any plates, bowls or mugs that are the same colour as opposition shirts, the lucky pebbles found on a beach stuffed into coat pockets, buying a programme from the same place week in, week out. Just the kind of things I’ve found as a Newcastle United fan that are proven to work and responsible for all of our success over the years. I mean you can’t always rely on the likes of Mike Ashley, Joe Kinnear and Alan Pardew.

As a coach I’m much the same. If we lose I won’t wear the same top for the next game. I’ll change tracksuit bottoms after a bad result too. I put things out in a certain order when I get to the pitch. I haven’t quite got to the lucky pebble level yet, but I know it’ll happen. I just haven’t found the right pebble yet!

We finally have a game again this weekend after the last four were postponed due to the weather. After what has felt like months and months being obsessed and feeling like I’m in the middle of some kind of personal crisis I have an outlet! I hope that we go out and play well. I hope that the formation I’ve been considering will work and that the changes I’m planning won’t be too much. I hope we can win. And, you know obviously, I hope everyone enjoys themselves. Whatever happens I’m sure I’ll sulk and moan and overthink every last second of it!