Super Sporting Sunday? It was anything but!

Sunday 3rd April should have been a glorious day for me. As a sports fan, it promised much and although it would prove tiring, I was aware of the fact that it could send me back to work on the Monday in a fantastic mood. And here begins a lesson in not building your hopes up!

Last Sunday was a day where sport dominated. Nothing hugely new here, I’m afraid, as sport has probably dominated much of my life. But on Sunday I was due to be ‘on the go’ with sport from early morning until well into the night. It should have been the stuff that (my) dreams are made of. A day away from the pressure of work where everything would come together and provide me with some reasons to be cheerful. Well, the day away from work bit was right anyway…

With a game for my Under 13 football team in the morning, Newcastle United away at Tottenham in the Premier League live on Sky in the afternoon and then a trip to watch Leeds Knights ice hockey team in their final regular season match, it should have been a fabulous day. But sadly, the gods of sport had other ideas.

I should have known. When we booked tickets for the ice hockey, I didn’t bother to look at the football fixtures. Nor did I pay any attention to the date and time of the hockey. You’ve guessed it – fixture clash! Newcastle would kick off in the Premier league at 4.30pm, while Knights would face off at 5.15, meaning that I wouldn’t get to see a single second of the football. Sadly, I only realised this on the Friday before and because we have adopted ice hockey as a family sport, there was no getting out of it. I didn’t want to either though as I’m really enjoying watching hockey this year. But I was gutted at missing out on the Newcastle game.

When we set off on the 13 mile trip up to Horsforth in north Leeds on Sunday morning, I was optimistic. It was very much an optimism that was hanging by a thread, but it was optimism all the same. Having endured a tough season so far, we went into this game bottom of the league, but facing a team that were only a couple of places above us. I also knew that they were struggling for players and form, so initially I’d hoped we could make it a fairly straightforward win. And then I put the message out about our own availability for the game. Out of a squad of 18 players only 11 were available! One of the stories of our season; despite having a good size squad, we’re almost always short on numbers. With only 11 players it meant that we couldn’t make any substitutions. Only 11 players meant that injuries – another key theme of the season – would cause us all manner of problems. Fatigue would also enter the equation now too, as no one would get a rest. To add to the problems, two parents had messaged to say that they were concerned about injuries with their sons!

It turned out to be an awful start to my sporting Sunday. We were beaten 1-0, but we outplayed our opposition for some of the first half and the entirety of the second. Our players were beyond frustrated, one even leaving the field crying at the end, having put in so much effort. We created chance after chance, but just couldn’t put the ball in the net. Had we scored one, we would definitely have gone on to win the game. I made sure to put out a message later that day on our WhatsApp group, thanking parents and players and telling them how proud I was of our team, their boys (and mine). But we still hadn’t taken a point from the game and it played on my mind for the rest of the day.

I should have known that it would be downhill all the way from this point of my sporting Sunday. But hope springs eternal and I was still thinking optimistically about the two fixtures to come. Little did I know that a narrow, perhaps unjust defeat in junior football, would actually turn out to be the highlight of my day.

I was already at the ice hockey arena when Newcastle kicked off their Premier League game against Tottenham. Armed and ready with the live updates of the match on my phone, I still thought we would be able to get something from the game. Sitting waiting for the hockey to start, I was checking my phone every couple of minutes, half expecting a Tottenham goal any second. And then, my phone buzzed. I pulled it from my pocket to check and found, to my amazement, that Newcastle had scored. This sporting Sunday might just be taking a turn for the better!

As the ice hockey began, I was only partly engaged, hoping that Newcastle could get to half time still ahead, surfing a tiny wave of optimism. Checking my phone once more I crashed off my imaginary board and was sucked under by this particular wave; Tottenham had equalised.

At half time in the football I was able to fully focus on the hockey. Leeds were more than holding their own as the puck flew from end to end and chances were created and missed on both sides. Was it possible that I could have some kind of fairytale ending to my day (not that a fairytale ever involved Premier League football and NHL English ice hockey)?

My question was answered with a resounding ‘NO!’ shortly afterwards. Three minutes into the second half of the football, Tottenham scored again. Then it felt like they just kept on scoring. Soon, Newcastle were 4-1 down and what little hope there had been had long since left the building.

Then, just when I thought things couldn’t possibly get worse Leeds Knights conceded! The game had been fairly scrappy and the Knights had had a couple of players sin binned for silly fouls. Gradually the tide had turned and it was Sheffield exerting all the pressure. Their goal was inevitable, even if I’d taken my eye slightly off the puck in favour of sulking about Newcastle.

The day ended with yet more negativity. Newcastle ended up losing 5-1, our first heavy defeat in a while and one that leaves us looking over a shoulders just a little bit at those behind us further down in the relegation fight. Leeds Knights would concede another and then labour through the rest of the game without ever looking too close to scoring, losing 2-0 in the end.

As we got in the car at the end of the match, I thought about how badly my sporting Sunday had gone. Three defeats in a day is quite something! Eight goals conceded by my various teams and only one scored…and I didn’t even see it! Sometimes sport can be cruel. Here’s to next week though, when I get to put myself through sporting purgatory all over again. Never lose hope, folks!

Grassroots Grumbles – The Great Escape? Not if the last few months are anything to go by!

It’s been a long season of grassroots football. Long, tough and frustrating. High points have very definitely been at a premium, while low points seem to have continually plumbed ever lower depths. And now we’re entering the final straight.

With just four games remaining of a season that started in the middle of September last year, we have very little left to play for. In fact, we’re really just playing for pride. Whatever the outcome of these next four matches I will feel that we’ve achieved very little across the course of the season.

In many ways, I can’t wait for it to end, yet in others I wish it could carry on for a little longer. We haven’t won a game since 17th October 2021, coming back from 2-1 down at half time to hammer our opposition 6-2. There’s no doubt that we peaked that day though. This was the day that we played our best football of the season and in truth, we’ve rarely hit anywhere near those heights since.

It’s been a brutal season for me as a coach and obviously most of our players have had it tough too. As usual the weather has played its part in disrupting things and we’ve played in hail, driving rain and snow on waterlogged pitches, as well as having to call off several games for exactly the same reasons. Around Christmas and New Year it felt like we’d never get a break. Games would be called off when we had a full squad and would go ahead when we were struggling for numbers.

Covid and injuries have had a terrible impact on our team this season. In December and January, if we played it was often with just the first 11 and no subs (sometimes we only had 10), but there were several postponements when we could only muster 6 or 7 players. This would mean we’d have to prepare for games regardless before finding on the day before or in one or two cases on the morning of the game, we didn’t have anywhere near enough players.

On top of all of that we’ve had our main striker injured for around 6 weeks and other key players missing consistently with injuries too. This has often meant fielding a team with 3 or 4 boys who only really started playing football in June of 2021 and the gap in quality in those games was all too clear. In one three week period we were beaten 12-0, 14-0 and then 16-0. Bad for a coach’s moral, but disastrous for our players who are 12 or 13 years old! On a couple of occasions the opposition rubbed this in our faces; players and coaches. You certainly learn about people in these situations. But, we’ve kept going.

Over the past few weeks we’ve had a mini revival in form. We’ve still not managed to produce a win but in the last four games that we’ve played we’ve drawn two, narrowly lost another and we’re well beaten in our latest game. So, I’m hoping we can finish the season strongly…relatively speaking.

Four points separates us from the team above and I’m hoping that we can catch them. I’m not entirely sure how we do it, but we have at least a couple of winnable games out of the last four. We’re training well and there’s a new found enthusiasm among the squad. Even though we suffered a heavy defeat last time out, we still created chances and definitely should have got more out of the game. This week we’ve worked on defensive shape with our defenders and midfielders and shooting drills with our more forward thinking players. Now we just have to hope and pray and keep everything crossed and see if we can produce better performances.

We go again on Sunday morning. We already have a few players unavailable, but I’m still going to go with optimism. We may get relegated this year and it may mean that some players will leave – I’ve already heard one or two rumours – but I really want us to end the season on at least a reasonable high!

As for next year, I fear that we may no longer have a team left. Other teams in our position have folded across the season as kids just get sick and tired of losing all the time. We’ve tried to recruit this year, but despite some enquiries we’ve not been able to add even one more player. So Summer promises to be tough and busy as we first of all see who’ll be signing up again and then start the process of trying to recruit others so that we have a big enough squad for the next season. If we don’t, then my time as a grassroots football coach could well be over.

Grassroots Football Coaching: I think we’ve reached rock bottom.

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!

Grassroots Grumbles; a short update as I tear my hair out!

So having posted a blog about the current trials and tribulations of coaching a football team at the weekend, I felt compelled to update things a little following our latest game on Sunday. Indulge me. Let’s just call it some form of therapy or anger management even…

We were playing a team that we’ve played a lot in the past. In fact, our last game of last season was against the very same opposition. They’re a good side, but on our day we’re a match for them. In fact, after our previous game – which ultimately we lost – their coach was kind enough to text me and compliment the team on our passing, which he said his team couldn’t live with at times. So, it was safe to say we knew the challenge we faced, but also felt like we’d be at least competitive.

We were also at home and it was a fresh, sunny Autumn morning. We had none of our big hitters unavailable for once and a good sized squad, meaning that we could make substitutions if anyone tired. We were even wearing our brand new home kit for the first time. It felt like the footballing gods might just have been smiling on us.

Turned out the smile was more of a grimace. Imagine the face a baby pulls when it’s got wind.

We lost the game 6-0 and to use boxing parlance we barely laid a glove on them. I’ve coached these lads for just over 4 years now and I don’t think I’ve felt so frustrated in that time. For the second game running we’d more or less beaten ourselves and for the second game running we’d stopped thinking, ignored advice and taken very little responsibility for what was happening with the ball. Time and time again we hoofed the ball forward without thinking of why we were doing it or what it might achieve. It felt like no one really wanted the ball and so the best thing they could do was just to get rid of it. It reminded me of what Einstein said about insanity being people doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.

We were much better, much more like ourselves in the second half, but by then it was too little too late. At least though it might have allowed us to end the game on a positive. But we couldn’t even manage that as we had a player sin-binned in the final few minutes for verbally abusing the referee, which was completely unacceptable, but all the more so as our referee was the father of one of our players!

And so we are left banging out the same messages, working on the same skills, praising wherever and whatever possible and hoping that next week some of it pays off! Meanwhile, I’m reminded of a moment earlier on today, after school as I was sat marking assessments. Hearing voices, I looked to my right to find some of our younger pupils taking part in some extra-curricular football. I spotted a boy I teach, just as he gestured his team mates towards him and, just like their heroes in the professional game, they held a pre-match huddle to get out all those important messages. And it’s moments like this that make me love football and love coaching kids! So, I guess I’ll just keep going!

Let’s see if we can improve next Sunday!

Grassroots Grumbles – Busy, stressful, alarming…but still loads of fun!

While it’s just fantastic to be back involved in grassroots football without (much) Covid intervention, I’m afraid I’ve got a bit of grumbling to do.

I’ll level with you, dear reader; I hate losing. I’m not a bad loser; I don’t shout and bawl at my team, I don’t kick equipment across the field or jump up and down like some kind of demented kangaroo on the sidelines either. But I hate to lose. And we’ve been plunging headlong into losing of late!

In many ways it’s been a brilliant start to the season. We’ve got a lovely new kit – the players, not the coaches; we get very little! We actually won our first game, handsomely and for a short period of time were 2nd in the league. And this came after we’d got to less than 24 hours before the game and not been able to locate any nets for our goals! So I thought we were riding our luck pretty well really! The weather’s been great as well and for once I’ve not been soaked to the skin in either training or on the touchline during a game. And there’s just been a lovely sense of optimism about our club and our team.

But then came our second game of the season.

We’d been told we’d been placed into a cup competition with clubs from an entirely different league and while it turned out that we didn’t have to travel over far to play, we were drawn against a completely unknown quantity. We’d learn more soon enough.

By the time of the weekend of the game I’d been able to establish that our opponents were in a higher division than us; just not which one. By the end of the game not only had it been made clear in the performances, but I’d been told by their coach as well. It turned out that they were four divisions higher than us – the equivalent of a Premier League team playing a non league side – and thus we took a bit of a beating.

For a while it was actually quite a heartening performance. At half time we trailed 1-0 and were still talking about the fact that if we could get the ball forward quickly, we might just be able to nick a goal. Game on! It quickly went downhill and by the end we were beaten 8-0. For the last 15 minutes or so our lack of fitness had become all too apparent, we were repeating the same mistakes, over and over again, we looked a bit scared and some of our lads had simply given up.

So it was a Sunday afternoon of reflection. While not wanting to impinge on any of my lads’ enjoyment of training or matches, harsh words were going to be needed in order to re-focus people. I’d been a little perturbed by some of the silly behaviour at the previous training session and the messing about, chatting and not listening, the half paced attempts at drills. And I blame myself for that type of thing when I think about it. Was training interesting enough? Was that the right drill? It’s funny how you can beat yourself up for a result and performance where you didn’t actually set foot on the pitch.

The two subsequent training sessions were a bit of a mixed bag, but largely positive. We concentrated on drills with the ball and a longer game where we could stop play, ask questions and point out options in the first session. Then, for our last session we went with fitness work and a shorter game at the end. It seemed like everything had gone well and with a game against the second placed team to come at the weekend, I at least felt like we were ready.

As ever with grassroots football though, there would be a complication. As training ended on the Thursday, two of our best players – twins – told me that they wouldn’t be able to play on Sunday. Two out of four of a first choice midfield gone in an instant. And I couldn’t even feel too vexed as the reason they were unavailable was that they were off to St. James’ Park, home of my team Newcastle United, for a stadium tour. Us Geordies have got to stick together!

On the eve of the game I’d managed to scramble 13 players together and had an idea for a side and a system. But any optimism wouldn’t last as we turned up on the Sunday morning. The current petrol crisis made me a little late setting off, as I’d been queueing up to get much needed petrol. Must remember to thank the first petrol hoarding moron I see. Then when we got there we couldn’t find the pitch as it was part of a 15 pitch complex set up on a huge park in north Leeds. When we finally found our opposition I then had to run back to my car to retrieve the phone I’d left on the dashboard! This left me around 5 minutes to announce a team, talk through a system of playing and go through any last minute messages and reminders about how we try to play. A shambles, but not untypical at grassroots level! Certainly not for this coach anyway!

Despite making a good start, we still managed to come in at half time losing 2-1. We were clearly the better side and so we pointed out how we needed to be better in the second half. Less panicking on the ball, working harder, being braver with the ball. We ended up losing 7-1 and again, the confidence was shot once more.

I think we’re struggling a little bit because of the amount of new players we’ve taken on. At the end of the season, we lost 2 first team players, one of them our goalkeeper who had been excellent and vital to the team. We’ve since spent the whole of pre-season trying to replace him with players coming in and then deciding they don’t like being in goal after all within a few weeks. We’ve started with one of last season’s outfield players in goal and he’s brave, I’ll give him that. But to be playing in the huge 11-a-side goals when he’s not really a keeper is giving us a weakness that previously wasn’t there. As coaches we’re working hard on his game and his confidence, but he needs time and with a game every weekend he hasn’t really got any. The best thing is that his attitude is great and he’s working hard to improve too and relishing the chance to be in the team. So maybe we should expect results to take a bit of a hit while also being thankful that we found someone to play in goal!

A lot of the other players that have come in have had little or no experience of football. So it’s proving quite a step up for them. So far this season I’ve been asked ‘What’s offside?’ by a sub that I was just about to put on and also ‘How do I pass?’ by one of our new boys at the start of a drill. Call me na├»ve, but I hadn’t expected that. It means that we have to try to work on a one on one basis with some of them in training, which obviously takes time away from others. The result of this is that our work as a team can suffer as there are often not enough coaches to be bringing new players up to speed, offering a goalkeeper specialist drills and also working on team play with the players who we’ve had for years.

Making the transition from 9-a-side to 11-a-side isn’t easy either. The pitch is much bigger, as are the goals and the positions that players are asked to play will differ too. I suppose it’s a lot to get your head around when you’re 12, regardless of how much time you’ve spent playing football.

So while it’s been a bit of a disappointing start to our season and there’s lots to be grumpy about, there might just be enough positives in there to tell me that every one of our present clouds might well just have a silver lining. Let’s hope things get better this Sunday with our latest game – a second home match and the first chance we’ve had to wear our brand new kit!

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!

 

 

 

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