If you’re a regular reader of my blog you may well know that I coach an Under 13s football team. I volunteer; it’s not my actual job and really the only reason I got involved was that my son plays for the team. Around 5 years ago now the club decided that they weren’t happy with the efforts of the previous coach. Coincidentally, I’d just stepped in to take the team for 3 games while he was on holiday and after those games I was asked if I’d take over. As one of a number of parents who were unhappy with the previous coach, I more or less had to say yes. And so, a bit of an obsession began…
This season, we’ve moved to playing 11-a-side games on full size pitches, so it’s been quite a big step up. We’re also working without an actual goalkeeper – our keeper is now one of the squad who stepped up and said he’d do the job. Having struggled at one point over summer for numbers in the squad, we finally managed to get 18 players, but unfortunately that number features several players who’ve had little or no experience of playing football. In fact one boy had never kicked a football before when he turned up to train with us. So, this season was almost set up to be a struggle!
We started quite well, beating our first opponents 5-2 in a home game and managing to involve 16 of the squad, some of whom were getting their first ever taste of competitive football. There were things I noticed in that fixture that alarmed me somewhat though and I was conscious of the need to work on specific areas of play. So, despite the win, I didn’t walk away kidding myself that we’d perhaps cracked it.
And it turned out that I was right to be so cautious. We lost our next four games, conceding 29 goals and scoring just once. I took heart from the fact that in 3 of these games we’d been competitive until late on, before just getting overwhelmed by stronger and fitter teams. Our lack of experience and fitness was really starting to show, but also I think it’s only natural to throw in the towel when you’re 12 and your team is getting a bit of a thumping! It didn’t change the fact that we had a big, big problem though.
The problems have continued. There have been several games where we’ve struggled to get a team out, as kids have been either ill or away. I guess it’s just that time of year and of course there’s Covid, which has affected a few of our group. And of course, getting beat week in week out probably doesn’t make kids want to turn up either. But we’ve battled on.
Sadly, we’ve only had one more win this season. It was a brilliant occasion as we were playing a team that were above us in the league and were 2-1 down at half time. But we knew we could win. And even with a team affected by illness and other absenteeism, we knew that a real effort would blow our opponents away. So we encouraged hugely them during that half time talk, telling them that the game was there for the taking and when they took to the field with a huge cry of ‘C’mon lads!’ at the start of the second half, I knew we were in with a chance. Thirty five memorable minutes later, we’d won 6-2 and it was a thrill to see my son scoring a couple of goals and winning the Man of The Match award.
Since that point though, we’ve suffered again with absence of players on match day and have lost games when exhaustion has set in because we have regularly only had one substitute! It’s difficult to operate like this when your opposition turn up with 4 or 5 subs and can rotate players every 10 minutes or so to keep legs relatively fresh.
Going into our game last Sunday we only had 9 players on the Saturday! I was forced to call up the two lads that had barely kicked a ball just to make up the numbers. These were two players who I’d said were best off just training with us for the time being. With no experience of playing football I didn’t want to throw them into games and find that it was some terrifying experience. I wanted them to feel comfortable with a ball at their feet before then drip feeding their experience of games as substitutes. It turned out that this was no longer an option.
We managed to get another of our players making themselves available and so thought we were going into the game with a full team and one substitute and although that would mean fielding some really inexperienced players, I felt that we might just have enough quality to snatch a win, as we were playing the bottom team. On the morning of the game, however, another player dropped out, leaving us with no substitutes and 11 players faced with 70 minutes of football and no chance to give anyone a break!
I suppose it was reasonably predictable when we got beat. Our opposition were able to rotate players as they had 5 subs, whereas we had to rely on our 11 and just keep them going. We were always in the game and I genuinely think that with a little bit more luck we could have won with the players we had. Sadly though, tired legs took their toll and we were missing a couple of our more important players too. Even more sadly, our opposition being the team below us in the league meant that their win took them above us in the table.
There’s a long way to go in the season, but I’m quite worried that we’ll end up finishing in last place in the league. We won’t deserve that. Even this season coaches have gotten in touch after games and praised our passing and movement and I can honestly say that there have only been two games where I’ve been genuinely disappointed as we’ve let ourselves down.
I felt low after Sunday’s game though. I was disappointed, not in their performance, but that they didn’t manage to get anything out of the game. We were obviously up against it, but I still thought that we could sneak some kind of result. So, it left me frustrated that things had gone the way they’d gone. But I guess this is what grassroots football can be like; it’s not always the best team or the team playing the more attractive football that wins. Which of course brings up the question of whether winning is important at this level. It is to me, but I also want to combine that with enjoyment and the feeling of being part of a team for my lads. The sense that we support each other and that we’re all in it together is really important, in my opinion. But of course, winning helps with all of that!
So now we’re left picking up the pieces. There’s part of me that can see us winning no more games all season and of course this would most likely mean that we finished bottom of the league. No one really wants that.
It’s clear that some players have lost confidence. We’re quite a small team and have been up against some teams where the players look like grown ups, so it’s easy to be fearful when you’re 12! I think some are doubting their ability as well though and where before, when we’ve been doing well, they’ve wanted the ball now they don’t. Some of the lads are happy to pass on responsibility to someone else, so we’ll have to work on getting that confidence back.
We don’t have a fixture this weekend, so I’ve decided to offer a training session instead. I’m testing levels of willingness and enthusiasm in one way. Those that show up, early on a Sunday morning are demonstrating their commitment to the cause, their need to get better. Those that don’t? Maybe they’re confirming what I already know, in that I can’t rely on them. We can’t rely on them. And it seems churlish to write that given that this is Under 13 football, but it is exhausting organising things like training and matches and so when it feels like I’m not getting much back, it starts to grind me down. When you’re spending large chunks of your Saturday glued to a phone making calls and sending texts, just to get 11 lads on a field, it’s frustrating as there are other things I could easily dedicate my time to.
So, this Sunday is really important. I’d like them to know my fears and what they’ll be up against for the rest of the season. In short, nearly everyone we’ve played have hammered us. While we may well have been competitive for long periods of time in games, we’re not picking up points. In fact, we’re just picking up beatings.
While I need to get a serious message across, I also need to keep spirits up. My team know that they’re a really capable bunch, but they need to know that as coaches, we have the belief that they can do better. They need to know that although things are going to be difficult – let’s face it, every team we play can see how many goals we concede and will expect to beat us easily – we can overcome it all. So Sunday will be hard work, but by the end of it all I’ll hopefully have an even better idea about my squad and know the direction that we need to move in.
I’ve got no doubt that our next few months will be very difficult. Not only do we have league games to play – and currently every other team will feel they’re better than us – but the spectre of cup games lies ahead in the new year too. With cup games comes opposition from higher leagues and therefore, much bigger challenges. The question is, can we rise to the challenges ahead? Can we get more points on the board? And can we lift ourselves off the bottom of the table? Well, we’re about to find out!