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 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!

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

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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.

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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!

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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!

 

 

 

You say you want a (football) resolution?(With apologies to Lennon & McCartney)

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Graham’s resolutions were coming along slowly, it had to be said.

Football has always played a huge part in my life. It’s an addiction, a love, a nuisance, a hindrance, an obsession. I let it control my emotions and sometimes even my way of life far too much. I really need to grow up! Even so, in the past year or so, as I’ve taken on coaching a team, it’s only really got worse in that aspect. So I decided to do something about it. I decided to make a fresh start and make some resolutions that, if I’ve any sense, I’ll endeavour to stick to. Let’s hope I can find some sense in the coming year then.

So, football-wise, in 2019 I will be mostly doing the following. A little late, I know, but better late than never. Life-in-general wise the resolution stays the same; be as happy as possible…and stay alive!

As a Coach…

Resolution 1 The first thing I’ll try to do more of is to make use of the skills I’ve acquired on my recent Level 1 coaching course. These range from trying to use a whiteboard to get tactics across to encouraging my boys to eat more healthily.

When I started on the coaching course the idea of using a whiteboard to get my point across seemed laughable. However, having used one to talk a group of adults through what was required of them in drills, I can see the benefit. Players learn through seeing how the play will look…it doesn’t matter if I look like a bit of a tool standing at the side of the pitch referring to a whiteboard!

In my head the idea of getting my lads to bring a piece of fruit to every game seems great. However, the idea of that actually coming out of my mouth seems ludicrous. Bashful as I might be though, it’s a change I’d like to make. Maybe it’ll focus players at half time if they’re munching on a banana or a handful of grapes, rather than kicking a stray football around or gazing at the other team listening to their coach! And focused players listen more!

Resolution 2 *Crosses fingers* I will endeavour to rotate my team. The FA preaches this message at junior level. They’ll tell you, without any sense of irony or even a knowing wink, that matches at this level are essentially friendlies. If I had a pound for every time I’ve heard this in the last few months, well, truthfully I’d probably have about £16, but you get the point!

Speak to other coaches however and it seems that the majority are still giving an ever so slightly different message. Coaches want to win. Speak to your players and it’s the same. The kids want to win. It’s fun running coaching sessions and going through the games on a Sunday morning, but coaches, players and spectators will all tell you that they feel better after a win. Even at my age, if we win on a Sunday morning I feel much happier for the rest of the day and I’m unlikely to sit wondering how I could have changed things. I can only imagine for the 9 and 10 year olds that coach, winning feels better too.

So where does that leave rotation? Well, it’s a nice thought and definitely something to work towards. This season, where possible, I’ve started games with my best 7, or at the very least the best 7 available. I’ll sub players off so that everyone gets some time on the pitch, but make no mistake about it, I’m trying to win the game.

A little background might clarify and help with any outrage for anyone reading this and wondering where the modern-day spirit of just taking part went to. Last season my team won 1 game, drew 1 game and lost all of the rest. I think that amounted to around 16 losses. We got more and more competitive as the season wore on, but still kept losing.

Hence, the best 7 starting this season. It’s worked. We’ve won a lot more than we’ve lost and made it to the Quarter Finals of a cup competition. As a result – I hope – it seems that everyone is happy. However, I’d still like to think I could change my team a little more. I’ve experimented at times and we’ve survived. I won’t make wholesale changes, but I think I can manage to continue the tweaks.

One thing I think I’ll steer clear of though is the FA message that we should rotate player positions. For me, and for other coaches I’ve spoken to, it’s clear whether a kid is a defender, midfielder or striker. I’m certainly not going to play a different goalkeeper every week. I won’t change positions purely for the sake of it, but I will try to give everyone a go.

Resolution 3 Confession time. Until about four months ago I hated putting on training sessions for my team. OK, hate is probably too strong a word, but it’s safe to say I didn’t enjoy it at all. I often felt time pressured due to work and family commitments and it was a struggle to think of anything useful to come up with for our Thursday training sessions. Furthermore, the mad scramble to finish work early, pick up my son, provide tea for both kids, get changed, make sure my son has everything he needs for training, packing equipment into the car, going back out and then setting up drills before supervising it all for over an hour was providing me with a lot more stress than I would have liked. It was in danger of becoming an exercise in just filling in time for an hour, rather than doing things that were constructive. In short, I was out of ideas and way too short on time.

And then, over summer I found some time. I spent some of it wisely, thinking through drills, drawing diagrams and scribbling down instructions – building up a small bank of resources to use. Miraculously, training was better received and I was actually enjoying it. But again it wasn’t to last and when work got in the way again, I began to run out of resources. However, gaining my Level 1 badge has helped and now, not only do I have access to more resources, I actually feel like a coach.

Which makes this resolution quite easy. I will do my very best to become more creative and innovative with my coaching. We’ve already experimented a little bit with exercises brought in from athletics and sprint training and, given time, I’m going to explore different areas to see where we can learn from. I’m planning to bring in more stretching and warm downs, but that has to just be a start. Recently we’ve worked on some strength-based stuff, incorporating core strength, balance and an almost yoga type approach. I’ve discovered that you haven’t lived until you’ve witnessed the sight of a group of 9 and 10 year olds working on balance exercises! It’s undeniably much more fun running training sessions when the squad is smiling, so being the natural smiler that I am, we’ll continue to give it a go.

As a fan…

Resolution 1 There can be no doubt about it; as a fan of Newcastle United times have rarely been darker. In fact, in many ways, this is as dark as it’s been. I was born into the era of a man named Lord Westwood, an owner who had an eye patch and a vice-like grip on our finances, both factors that made him seem like some kind of Bond villain. I’ve lived through years of trophyless drudgery under narrow-minded chairmen and a succession of under-achieving managers. Luminaries like Gordon Lee, Jack Charlton, Willie McFaul, Jim Smith, Sam Allardyce, Alan Pardew and John Carver signing average footballers to play cautious, functional football. Or worse still, somehow signing fabulous footballers and then not knowing quite what to do with them. All the while this seems to have been accompanied by an almost constant stream of excuses and an often embarrassing lack of personality.

Despite the years under Keegan and Robson and the relative success that they brought, my 40+ years as a Newcastle fan has been painful, to say the least. I am yet to see my club win a major trophy. And yet, I’ve carried on blindly following.

I idolised the club from an early age, pestering my dad to take me to games. Then, I fell ill and a heart problem was discovered which ultimately led to me spending a lot of my early years in hospitals. After several operations I found myself in the Heart department of Newcastle’s Freeman Hospital being readied for a major operation. What I really remember though is being surrounded by cards and gifts from family and friends; after all I was only 6! One such gift came via one of many pretend aunties and uncles (if you’re a child of the 70s and 80s, you’ll understand such extended family). ‘Auntie’ Sally and ‘Uncle’ Roy had written to the club to tell them all about me and incredibly the club wrote back and arranged two free season tickets for the following season when I’d be fit and ready again! And so began a life-long love affair that unfortunately would often leave me feeling cheated.

And then, eleven years ago we were bought by a billionaire and initially things looked like we were about to go all Manchester City flavoured. But then we learnt the truth about Mike Ashley. Or rather we learnt that Mike Ashley tells lies. Without going into too much detail (I sense another blog), Ashley has overseen a shambles for the last 11 years, refusing investment, ambition and creativity. We’ve sold star player after star player and replaced them with bargain basement bores. Dissenting voices have been cut dead and fan dissatisfaction ignored.

In short, I gave up my season ticket years ago. This was partly down to having children, but partly down to the future I foresaw for my club. Matches bored me and I resented the drive to and from Newcastle. Ashley promised much, but gave very little and when Keegan walked for the second time, so did I. I continued to watch games on TV, but visits to the stadium were more and more rare.

Now, with a third recent relegation looking more likely and the chances of Rafa Benitez staying getting slimmer by the day, I think I’m done. Even blind loyalty has to end somewhere. I know that my resolve will be tested, but I can’t take a great deal more disappointment. The penny-pinching, the image of the club being dragged through the mud, the lack of investment in players, training facilities and even the stadium; enough’s enough. My first NUFC related resolution has to be to say ‘If Rafa goes, I go.’ This will break my heart, but I have to face the reality that what I’m presented with at the moment is not my club. It’s a façade for a budget sports shop under the guidance of a man who couldn’t care less about the club, the people or the region. And I can’t support that.

Football is no longer the same sport that I fell in love with. The terraces I ‘grew up’ on are no more and the grounds have a sanitized, one-size-fits-all feel. There is an undoubted disconnect between fans and players with players now earning untold millions per year and relying on media training to get them through any interaction encountered. Fans have changed too. I can stomach all of this, but I can no longer ignore the blatant disregard for my club that is shown not only by the owner, but by a certain bitter section of the media too. At least in the short-term, I want out.

Resolution 2 Write a blog. I’ve invested a great deal in a football club over the years and I’d like to share at least some of my feelings for and about that club. Newcastle United has given me some of my greatest highs and lowest lows. There’s more than one story to be told.

Whether you follow football or not I promise there’ll be something in there for you.

Resolution 3 Find something to fill a Newcastle United sized gap. Quite close to Elland Road there is a structure that has caused me mild excitement for a number of years now. They’re building an ice-rink! I say building, but it’s been very much an on-off affair. However, recently there have been signs of life and the building work has clearly resumed.

Now, before anyone thinks I’m going to fill my NUFC void by going ice-skating, think again. The idea of attempting to stay upright on a veritable knife-edge is simply not me. I’ll walk, I’ll run, I’ll shuffle…I won’t skate.

My hope is that Leeds is about to get an ice hockey team – I think I read something somewhere, a while ago. It’s a sport I have a bit of an interest in having watched matches over the years, most notably while on visits to Toronto and Vancouver some years ago during the Stanley Cup play-offs. The sport is huge, the following passionate and the action non-stop. And if Leeds does get a team, I assume they’ll start off at the bottom of the pile, won’t be successful and maybe without a great deal of idea of what they’re doing. I mean, how much more like Newcastle United could I want? Clearly, I’m hell-bent on replacing one kind of misery with another! However, it might be just the kind of thing I need to make the break.

Like any resolutions these ones are only any use if I keep them. And it’s not something I’ve been much good at in the past. However, maybe 2019’s the year of the football resolution! Let’s hope so.

 

 

Lace tying with frozen fingers, wrestling with goal frames and ever so precisely painting white lines – Welcome to grassroots football!

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It’s either very windy or we’ve used the wrong flag.

Picture the scene. It’s 11.50 am on a Saturday in early September. The sun is high in the sky and it is already an unreasonably hot day. In the middle of one of 5 football fields in Morley, West Yorkshire three men are chatting. All are tired, having only just completed a week at work, as well as running an hour and a half training session each for our respective teams. One of us has also only just finished an hour long fitness session for some of the members of both teams. Two of us are recovering from operations, although mine was a few months ago and so it’s safe to say I’m over the worst. All are hot – that’ll be the sun for you; not always a regular visitor to these parts. And as a result of the heat, two of these three men are wearing shorts. The other – me – really, really wants to wear shorts, but is sticking to tracksuit bottoms, the legacy of long, skinny, hairy legs that resulted in many a cruel childhood taunt as well as being the butt of my father’s best and most hilarious joke about putting them away because, ‘there’s a blackbird up there, feeding her young ‘uns, she’ll mistake them for worms’. I believe that young people nowadays call this banter. I just always wondered why my dad couldn’t get a new joke. Suffice to say, I prefer the safety of the heat to the peril of shorts.

“…Saturday has almost gone.”

We’re eight days away from the opening day of the season for Under 10s teams in the Garforth Junior Football League. Our pitches need to be bigger and we’re moving to a flatter area, so this means that we’ll have to measure both new pitches out, before marking the lines in white paint. I’ve been told that this will take around three hours, but I reckon that’s quite the over-estimation, given that I’ve marked three pitches out before in less time than that, on my own. I’m wrong. We finish just over four hours later. I’m tired, hot and I haven’t eaten since breakfast – it’s now 3.30pm and Saturday has almost gone.

I’ve only been involved in grassroots football for 10 months now, but already I’m addicted. I started out as just a dad, taking my then 7 year old to train with his first football team. This was a task I’d dreamed of doing from a young age – I always wanted to be a dad, taking his son to football. It was too late on in the season for him to actually sign for the club – and frankly he was way behind almost all of the other boys in terms of ability – so he trained every week. We were there come rain, hail, wind and snow. It didn’t matter. I watched him develop and get a greater idea of what was required of him on the pitch. By the time he was asked to sign on he’d improved enough to hold his own and when the moment finally came for him to put on his first match shirt I almost shed a proud dad’s tear, even though he was almost drowning in every item of the kit. The socks would have comfortably pulled up around his waist.

Two months into that season, however, and I was asked to take over the running of the team. Turns out other parents and club officials were unhappy with the coach and so, when I did OK filling in when he went on holiday, that was enough to convince people of my qualifications for the job..

I must admit, I had no intention of ever coaching the team. The thought hadn’t even entered my head, even as I watched on, frustrated at some of the training sessions being put on. However, when I was asked to take over I couldn’t say no. As a teacher, I’d coached before. As a football fan I would regularly watch matches, screaming at the telly about the wrong pass or a terrible tactical decision. As a man, the offer was way too good for my ego to resist and as a Geordie, well, we invented the game and are born with an encyclopedic knowledge of it, so denying the kids of that would have just been cruel!

I’ve been ‘officially’ in charge of Glen Juniors Whites (Under 10s) since the middle of November 2017. My team are what we call the ‘development’ side, essentially the kids with less ability in the squad that makes up the two teams within the age group. However, what my boys might lack in skill, they more than make up for in desire, togetherness, hard work and spirit. But they’re adding more and more skills as the weeks go by.

“…half the squad gawped as if a pterodactyl had just swooped past.”

Training sessions have often been spent working on basics – can we stop the ball and pass it, can we take a touch and get a shot on target or can we sprint from one cone to another? But even then this throws up some unlikely and often amusing scenarios. On any given Thursday evening I can be preparing to give instructions when I notice that four or five of the boys are engaged in something other than listening; important stuff such as ‘dabbing’ or ‘flossing’. Just last week a boy rode past on a bike and I had to stop the session while half of the squad gawped as if a pterodactyl had just swooped past. And my worst fears were confirmed when, as we played a match on a field near the airport, one of my defenders nudged the other one and they both turned their eyes away from the game going on around them and pointed in wonder at a passing low flying jet! It doesn’t matter how many times you tell them to stay focused you can guarantee that there will be at least five moments in any one match when you catch someone, switched off and gawping open mouthed at something remarkably unremarkable.

Our ‘development’ status has also meant that our team has not been successful in the traditional sense of the word. To put it bluntly, last season we played 17 games, won one, drew one and lost the rest. For a couple of months we simply weren’t competitive. And yet still we made progress. In our second game of the season, facing a team whose senior side actually play non-league football we were trounced to the point of ridicule from our opposition. I was ‘just’ a parent that day, but still it was difficult viewing. The home team’s parents were brutal and openly mocked our boys. The home team themselves swapped goalkeepers, giving their regular keeper the chance to play outfield – the ultimate act of thumb biting to your opposition – and he promptly scored a hat-trick. Two of our boys left the field sobbing, refusing to carry on. However, when we scored our first goal of the season – our consolation in that game – their coaches were visibly angry, shouting at their 8 and 9 year old defenders for losing their man and costing their team a goal. That was progress. We’d broken our duck and to paraphrase the great Kevin Keegan’s infamous Sky TV rant, told our mighty opposition, ‘we’re still fighting for this game’.

The progress continued throughout the season and we were rarely trounced again. We were generally competitive and almost always scored. My boys were happy playing football and I found that I was also making progress as a coach. But I quickly learnt that there are always surprises in grassroots football.

One of the biggest (and dullest) surprises about becoming a coach at this level has been the admin. Before each game last season we would have to line the kids up, with their ID cards ready to be scrutinised by the opposition coach. In turn, I would have to take a long hard look at their team to check whether all was on the level. I lost count of the amount of times I cracked the same joke – that they couldn’t play a particular player because he was obviously not the kid in the photograph. The coaches all saw the funny side, but judging by the faces of some of the kids, they genuinely believed that I wasn’t going to let them play. Sometimes, 9 year olds just don’t have a sense of humour.

“I’d hand mine over looking like I’d got a four-year-old to fill it in.”

On top of this we’d then have to fill in team sheets, ticking off the kids that had played. At the end of each game you’d get them signed by the opposition coach, note the name of the referee, award a Fair Play mark – we once got marked 97 out of 100; what had we done to merit a 3% deduction? – and then swap sheets with the other team, making sure that we only swapped the right colour sheet. And let me tell you, filling in one of these sheets in the middle of January when your hands are frozen is nigh on impossible. I’d hand mine over looking like I’d got a four-year-old to fill it in. These sheets would then have to be photographed together and emailed to the league for them to verify what had gone on, like if they hadn’t seen a bit of paper the game hadn’t actually happened.

This system has now changed into something that should be a great deal easier – an internet based system, backed up with the sending of a text to confirm your result. However, neither are available to me due to the fact that the FA are yet to issue me with a log in and still haven’t sent me the text. The season, however, is almost a month old! I’ll never learn to love admin.

Easily one of the most unpleasant things that we have to put up with in grassroots football has to be the weather. Standing on a touchline means that you’re left wide open to the elements. Steve MaClaren’s time as England manager means that there’s no way in the world that I’d dare to use an umbrella, so I’m frequently soaked to the skin. And I never thought I’d buy another pair of football boots once I’d got into my forties, but warming up on park pitches often means puddles and mud and trainers simply don’t cut it. Yet still, I’m regularly getting back into the car and having to drive home with soaking wet feet! Our referee sometimes wears wellies (and probably has lovely dry feet as a result), but I’m afraid that male vanity won’t let me go that far!

On top of the rain, this winter we were blighted with quite a bit of snow and although this meant the postponement of several games – and the bonus of a warm Sunday morning for all involved – we couldn’t avoid training. Our club trains at a local high school during the darker months, as they have a 3G pitch and floodlights, meaning that we can train through even the most inclement weather. Great news! This is bad enough when the cold is bitter and the wind blowing in from across the moors brings with it an element of ice. Layering takes on a new meaning! However, coach a session through a storm and you will truly know the meaning of cold. Shackleton, Scott, Hilary and all the other Polar pioneers were amazing explorers, but could they do it on a wet and windy Thursday night in Tingley?

“…have you ever tried tying someone else’s laces with frozen fingers?”

The cold weather, combined with a team full of kids under 10 can also bring another problem that, at first, I hadn’t reckoned with. I’m regularly asked to tie their laces! Now here, we have a bit of a problem. From what I can gather I was taught to tie laces in a rather peculiar fashion – one so peculiar that my wife has asked my kids to ignore the way I show them! So when I tie the laces of my team it quite often results in some very funny looks – and they can’t even tie laces! Furthermore though, have you ever tried tying someone else’s laces with frozen fingers? Let me tell you, it’s quite the conundrum and there have been numerous times when I’ve considered asking an adult for help, before remembering that I am an adult.

At the moment the weather is good. We’ve barely had a spot of rain during training or games and some of our pre season friendlies were played in baking hot sun. Wonderful as you stand and bask in the glorious heat, but terrible when you get home and look in the mirror to realise that, yes, you are receding, otherwise those livid red patches of sunburn on your increasingly large forehead would never have appeared. But the sun will fade and soon, as with every season, we’ll be out there, every Thursday and Sunday getting soaked, frozen or both. We’ll walk across pitches and simply sink into a puddle, because after all this is grassroots football and our pitches are often at the mercy of the local council. Our games may be played on pitches where there are no lines, just cones to give players a rough guide as to when the ball goes out of play, because the coach hasn’t had the time to mark the lines given the fact that he’s a husband and dad and has a full time job. And barring the generous help of parents, this is all the responsibility of the coach. Again, I hadn’t realised that I’d have to be doing this before accepting the role and probably imagined that the football fairies were responsible for white lines, Respect barriers, goals, nets and corner flags. Thankfully, the parents of our boys are quite willing to rally round and help out, although I think some of this is done more out of pity than anything else, as they watch me wrestling with a set of goals!

“…scoring goals is always the dream.”

Another surprise – which really shouldn’t have been – is the number of 9 year olds who only want to play as a striker or a midfielder. Now I understand that almost nobody wants to play in goal, but in our team that stretches to defence as well. Even our best defenders are reluctant to say the least. In training, before a game, mid game and after a game you can be sure to be pestered by the same’ish question – ‘Can I play in midlfield/as striker?’ Playing regularly is sometimes not enough – scoring goals is always the dream. It’s understandable, I suppose. I mean, who wants to be John Stones or Kyle Walker (or God forbid Phil Jones) when they could be De Bruyne, Lingard, Ali, Kane or Aguero? And while it can be irritating, especially during a game, to be asked, I have to say that my boys are always good enough to accept the my decision. It never stops them asking again though!

Recently I managed to have a morning that encompassed many of the plus and minus points of grassroots football. So let me end by telling you about it.

Picture the scene. It’s 8.45am on a Sunday in late September. It’s no longer sunny and in fact it’s getting more and more like winter as the days pass. Two men stand on adjacent football pitches. We’re both tired. We’ve both been at work all week and one of us was out inspecting the pitches yesterday afternoon. Despite the coolness of the air one is wearing shorts, while the other, sensibly, has opted for tracksuit bottoms. There are sparrows feeding their young ‘uns nearby, after all.

We’re three weeks into the new season in Division C1, for Under 10s, of the Garforth Junior League. Our pitch is bigger and flatter and the white lines have recently been re-marked by one of the other coaches. One coach has managed to erect the first of his goals and is busily working on his corner the flags. The other, me, has managed to get all of the parts of his first goal out of the bag and has laid them out, as per the YouTube video he watched last night so that he’d finally know what he was doing. Unfortunately he’s forgotten the drawings he did in order to remember. He doesn’t know what he’s doing. Is the cross bar three long sections or two and a small bit? Are the posts two long sections high? Has he got enough connectors? Hang on, is someone secretly filming this? Can he expect a visit from a heavily disguised Ant and Dec any time soon to eventually tell him he’s been pranked and he’s going to look like a total fool on live TV some time soon?

“The other coach is done. The pressure is on.”

Twenty minutes later and he has assembled some sections of the goal. But they clearly don’t actually go together to make a goal. So he’s just randomly put some bits together. Maybe he’ll just make a raft? He’s quietly cursing. The other coach is done. The pressure is on. He has a thought. He’s missing a bit that he needs. So back he trudges to the clubhouse to hunt among the other goals for the missing section. Five minutes later it’s clear that the other section doesn’t exist and he has made it up. Back he trudges to his raft.

It will take another fifteen minutes before he has two working goals. He has to take a look at the other coach’s complete goals in order to work out where he’s going wrong. And by that time some parents and team members have turned up and helped out. Corner flags are being placed in the ground, the Respect barrier is being put out. Kick off is in about 20 minutes and he hasn’t even said ‘hello’ to his team, let alone started warming them up. And then he spots something that will delay things even longer. A kindly dog owner has allowed his or her pooch to poo on the pitch and then pretended not to notice. He quietly curses some more. Oh well, at least it’s a new experience. Digging a carrier bag out of his kit bag he proceeds to remove the offending sloppy brown calling card, before trudging back over the fields to place it in the bin provided by the council for such things. It’s a shame that the dog’s owner didn’t know these things exist. Maybe someone should paint them all bright red and put pictures of dogs on them. He reminds himself never to get a dog.

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With about ten minutes to go before kick he is finally ready to warm up his team, before giving a quick team talk. The team still don’t all have shirts due to an order taking way too long, so some will play in borrowed club hoodies. The game, somewhat bucking the trend of the day, will go well and our team wins, despite being 1-0 down at half-time. However, there’s just time for one more moment to leave the coach looking to the skies for the kind of divine intervention that he knows doesn’t really happen. From somewhere, during the game, a goalkeeper’s shirt arrives and it’s decided that one of our subs can go around to the goal and, when the ball is down the other end of the field, get our keeper to swap his outfield shirt for the keeper’s top. Easy, yes? In the hands of two 9 year olds, no and the coach is left to watch on in sheer horror as first, the message is totally confused and our sub starts to wander back carrying the goalkeeper’s shirt. Then, deciding that he needs to carry out the instructions our keeper takes his outfield shirt off and is left without a shirt for a moment as the ball approaches. Luckily it’s cleared away and he can put on the right shirt. But no. No, he can’t. The boy simply cannot get the shirt over his head or his arms through the arm holes, due to wearing goalkeeper gloves! The coach quietly curses. After what seems like an eternity though, the problem is solved and we have a goalkeeper wearing the correct shirt. The goal is intact and we go on to win. It’s been a hell of a day, but I’ve absolutely loved it!

Welcome to grassroots football!