It’s been a weird couple of months – a bit of a health update.

A couple of months ago I wrote a blog about the latest downturn in my health. I didn’t do it because I’m self obsessed and imagine that anybody really wants to know how I’m feeling at any given time. It was written mainly because my health was the reason that the blog started in the first place and also because writing stuff like that is a good way of taking the weight of any worry off my shoulders. If you fancy a read of that one, it’s on the link below.

A spanner in the works.

For a bit more context, just over four years ago I was taken into hospital with heart problems and then, having been fine ever since, last month I spent a Sunday afternoon in a bit of a secretive mild panic as my heart decided it was about time it start racing once more. When I eventually confessed to feeling unwell we had a bag packed ready for a visit to hospital quick smart! In the end though, I didn’t need to go as after an awful spell of dizziness and nausea, everything went back to normal.

A few days later I had an ECG and some blood tests at my doctors and was referred back to Cardiology at our local hospital. This then led me to another local hospital some weeks later, where I got fitted with a 24 hour ECG machine. The most exciting thing to happen within that 24 hours was going to the hospital. Once I had the ECG machine on, my heart behaved impeccably, which was both a comfort and a frustration. A kind of proof that nothing was wrong alongside the mystery of what had actually happened in the first place. So, it sort of confirmed what I’d felt all along; that the latest setback was just a blip, while still leaving open that nagging sense of doubt!

In between times I gave myself a short break from any exercise at all. However, in the back of my mind I knew that I had entered the Leeds 10k and was desperate to do it. With 4 weeks to go until the actual race I set myself a challenge. I would train as best as I could, without pushing things too hard and a few days before the race itself I’d make an honest decision on whether to run or not. I presumed that if there was a problem, I’d know before then anyway.

On my first training run I had to detail my exact route and approximate finishing time to my daughter, so that if anything went wrong, she’d have an idea where to find me. This was much more for her benefit than mine as really, I felt quite strong. I also texted my wife the same details just to reassure her too.

Fast forward four weeks and I found myself on the start line suffering with my usual bout of pre-race nerves, but also feeling a huge determination to run a good time. It was a warm day, but quite still so I was pleased that I wouldn’t be battling the wind too much. What I felt I was battling though, was a bit of a lack of fitness. I’d run a solitary 10k in around 6 weeks, so while I wanted to run a good time, I didn’t know how capable I was and the state of my heart was always at the back of my mind too.

In the end, despite any reservations, I ran just two seconds outside my personal best! I got a little confused in the final mile, thinking I had more to run than I did – I’d definitely put this down to fatigue – and so I didn’t start picking up the pace until it was a little too late. I’ll know for next year though!

My latest heart scare had come after another 10k race about 6 weeks previously having just gone straight back to training, so I made sure I rested properly this time round. In fact, I don’t think I’ve run a 10k since, just concentrating on 4 and 5 mile runs when I go out in order to just stay sharp.

So, at the moment, everything seems OK healthwise. I actually spoke to a cardiology doctor last week, about the results of my 24 hour ECG and the general consensus seems to be that what happened was a bit of a blip. He did brielfy float the idea that I may have had another, much less serious atrial flutter (my problem first time round), but having consulted with another doctor, neither of them were too sure or too concerned. There doesn’t seem to be any need for medication and the only minor concern is that my heart rate is particularly low while I sleep, but from my point of view, that’s OK. I keep an eye on my heart rate when I’m out running, but only looking once or twice, usually once I’ve got up any big hills! Again, there’s been nothing alarming to report.

I’m learning to listen to this middle aged body a bit more though! I’m hopefully finding out that it’s not in as bad a shape as I thought it might be. Oh, and I’ve also learned that I need to hydrate far better, after another doctor told me that my blood test results looked like those of a bloke who didn’t ever actually drink water! So, now I start every day with a glass of water and then make sure that I’m drinking throughout the day. It sounds easier than it is, so again, I’m still learning which is ridiculous at my age.

The good thing is though, despite a few more heart worries, I’m still going strong(ish)!

Top Ten Hazards for the Middle Aged Runner

Now some people would take one look at the title of this particular blog and question the need for a Top Ten. In many ways, I would be one of them. I mean, as a fairly regular middle aged runner I can testify to the fact that it’s often no fun whatsoever. In fact, there are times when it’s nothing short of sheer hell. I enjoy it, in a strange way, but I can’t kid myself that it can be sheer hell too!

In the recent heat, there have been more than a few moments where I’ve wondered if my thumping heart, trembling legs and sweaty face would actually make it through the next few moments, let alone allow me to get back through our front door. I could argue that my face when running, resembling as it does a prized, agricultural show-ready plum tomato, is hazard enough to just give the whole running lark up. But, if you insist on continuing to run into your forties and fifties, then I suppose I’m providing a bit of a public service in telling you the kind of things you should look out for. And simultaneously ignoring my own advice as well…

Hazard 1 – Hills. Going up. not going down. Although even going down a hill can play havoc with the knees these days. But it’s the going up that presents the hazard. A friend of mine once commented on the town where I live, ‘Morley, built on 7 hills, like Rome. And that’s where the comparison ends’. I’d argue that this is not true as we have crumbling buildings and crazy drivers too, just like Rome, but that’s beside the point. Morley was indeed built on seven hills and this means that when running locally I cannot escape the bloody things. So beware, fellow middle age runners, hills mean an increasingly worrying heart rate, jelly legs and the production of many a strange wheezing noise.

Hazard 2 – Van drivers. Well known for their stereotypically lewd comments to women, van drivers are often not the runner’s friend either. Strangely while some are just downright abusive, others appear to think that they’re either running coaches or cheerleaders and many’s the time I’ve been shouted at to “get those knees up” or just told “go on lad”. None of this does any good for my motivation and if you too are a fifty something runner, I daresay it will only inspire muttered threats and swearing.

Hazard 3 – Wind. Just to clarify, that’s the weather related type rather than the arse related. Although I find that sometimes a good burp can do me the world of good while running. But that’s besides the point (and possibly another blog…). At a certain, respectable age wind can become less of a challenge and more of a factor to keep me indoors. It’s battle enough chasing times running a 5 or 10k without having to throw myself headlong into a 20mph headwind. I don’t mind said wind behind me as I’m heading home though!

Hazard 4 – Cobbles. Now this is a niche hazard, I’ll grant you that. But where I live in West Yorkshire, cobbles are still quite common. And before you say ‘just avoid them’, it’s not that simple. I don’t have to run on entirely cobbled streets much at all, but there are certain sections of the roads that I run on where there are still cobbles that are more or less unavoidable. If I don’t run on the cobbles the alternative is to run on the main road connecting Wakefield and Bradford, which as you’d expect, can be rather busy. So while my elderly knees and ankles are put at risk on cobbles, I’ll take my chance with this hazard rather than getting clipped by a truck! If I can continue to keep my balance and stay upright, everything will be OK!

Hazard 5 – Dawdlers. Slow walkers. Like, perilously slow. The bane of my life when I’m out running. Now you may think that this isn’t just a problem for the more vintage runner like myself. So let me explain. I’m out, I’ve established a rhythm and I’m not even giving any thought to how I feel. I’m just running without really having to think too much. And then, up ahead there’s a dawdler. I’m suddenly aware of the width of the pavement or just conscious of the fact that running behind them might give them a bit of a fright. But if they can just make it to that opening or the wider bit of pavement I can give them a wider berth and not slow down. Because I can’t slow down or stop as I might struggle to find this rhythm again! Of course, they never make it to that wider section at the right time and so I’m forced to take evasive action, like running up a grassy bank or into the road. Not a problem at all as a younger runner, but now it’s the kind of thing that could knock me off balance or just drain the legs of what it turns out is absolutely vital energy! Dawdlers: the incredibly innocent looking hazard that you hadn’t even thought about!

Hazard 6 – Dog walkers. Before I go any further, I’ll just say that I know that the majority of dog walkers are wonderful and responsible people. Some of them though, are just dicks! Now this hazard can be similar to your dawdler, which as we know represent a tricky problem. But then you throw in the dog. And here’s the deal. On numerous occasions I’ve been leapt at by dogs, twice sending me crashing to the floor in an ungainly fashion. The first time led to me completing the final half of my run caked in mud – hair, face, arms, legs – and the latest saw me sent sprawling to the concrete and subsequently taking the skin off my hands and knees. And on each occasion the humans involved were unapologetic and worse than useless. I was jumped at recently by a couple of scrawny rat type things and when the owners just grinned I’m afraid my response wasn’t particularly composed. Instead it was riddled with expletives. But I think I made my point. I’m 50 years old and doing my level best to stay fit and healthy. My body does not need to be hastily considering evasive gymnastics while I’m out running.

Hazard 7 – Young runners. Put simply these runners are younger than us, fitter than us and most likely quicker than us. In my case, they probably look better in their running gear too. But they certainly represent a hazard to the middle aged runner like myself. Lots of us will be the same in that we still retain a competitive edge and thus, when I see a young runner out and about, I only ever see a challenge. If I’m ahead of them, I’ll try to stay ahead. If I’m behind, I’ll lengthen my stride and try to catch them. Both are terrible ideas at my stage of life and only ever result in a struggle to actually finish my run! The lesson is to not try and take on people 20 or 30 years younger than me. If only I could learn the lesson!

Hazard 8 – Friends in cars. Admittedly, not the worst thing in the world, but believe me, when you’re 50, approaching the end of a run, sweaty, disheveled and your face looks like it might just explode, you do not want to see one of your mates go past in the car!

Hazard 9 – Chip shops (see also Indian takeaways and pizza shops). An easily avoidable hazard, but one where I never seem to learn my lesson. All of the above are regularly on my running routes simply because I live in quite a large town. Let me tell you, they are not good for moral! The wonderful aroma of chips, garlic or curry never fails to leave me wondering what the hell I thought I was doing when I had the idea for a run in the first place. Surely, ordering out and then sitting down and tucking into any one of these delights would be far more sensible and enjoyable than dragging my weary lycra-clad self round another 10k?

Hazard 10 – Beer Gardens. I regularly go out for a run after work on a Friday. I leave as early as possible, get home and changed quickly, stretch and then out I go. And it always seems like a great idea. I can rid myself of the mental fatigue and stress brought on by the working week and just be alone with my thoughts. Until that is, I spot a beer garden up ahead. It’s similar to the feeling I get when I smell a takeaway, but worse. Worse, because as I look up, it seems like every other middle aged person in town has decided to head to the beer garden and they look to be having such a great time. Would it not make sense for me to deal with my stress just like them? Well, yes, it would! And yet, here I am attempting to recapture the fitness of my youth, like an idiot while the inevitable wag glances up from a cold pint to call out to you to ‘get those knees up’. He probably came over in his van as well!

It should be a very simple thing to do, go out on a run. Staying fit in your middle age should only really be a battle with your own body. But as you’ve just read, it can be far, far more than just that!

Jelly legs is feeling his age!

It’s Monday morning and not only am I afflicted by that Monday feeling, but my body aches almost everywhere from head to toe. Worst of all is that nobody else is to blame; this is all my own fault. And now I have a busy day at work ahead teaching students aged from 11-16, not many of whom will have any sympathy for me!

So yesterday, I completed a 10km race. The same 10k race that I was banging on about a little while back in the blog on the link below, complaining that I was never going to be in the right shape for.

https://middleagefanclub.wordpress.com/2022/04/09/my-first-10k-race-of-the-year-a-month-to-go-and-i-dont-feel-good/(opens in a new tab)

It was my second time at the Pontefract 10k in West Yorkshire and I was determined to do well. But training had been far from perfect and I’d been suffering with a mixture of injury and illness in the weeks leading up to the race. However, come race day I believed that I was fit enough to get round in a time that would beat the one I ran at the same event last year. I felt that I’d managed to pull myself together just about enough in the last few weeks and had trained fairly well, completing a couple of fast – for me – 10k training runs that were only a minute or so outside of the type of time I hoped to run in the race.

It was an early start on race day in our house as myself, my wife and my son all rose before 7am in order to scramble down some breakfast and get ready to head to Pontefract, a 20 minute car journey away. The race was starting at 9am and we would need to be there early in order to get parked up before heading to the start.

I’m functional at best in the morning, so it was tough going! However, I really enjoy an early morning run, so while breakfast and getting ready would be a struggle, running – I hoped – would not!

This year’s start line was not the nervy place to be that last year’s had proved. I felt that I knew my surroundings and it helped that I bumped into a friend from work and we chatted for a few minutes until it was almost time to line up. In short, I didn’t have time for nerves. However, I still felt a strange mixture of concern about my fitness and hope that I could run a sub 50 minute 10k.

I won’t bore you with a detailed commentary of the race, perish the thought. I for one don’t particularly want to relive it anymore!

However, it’s safe to say that it was tough. It started to rain on the first long, uphill stretch and I heard someone near me let out a little cheer about this. I should have tripped them up. Thankfully, it stopped shortly after.

The course is described as undulating, but let me tell you that the undulation feels largely uphill when you’re out there. I managed to forget any race plan I might have had and instead went off quickly (for a man of my vintage and physical state, that is). My competitive side kicked in here and I was more concerned with passing people, than thinking about how far I’d gone and how I was feeling. I’d regret this later. I told myself that I’d be able to power through and just keep the pace going, but it’s safe to say that miles 3 and 4 saw me slow more than I’d have liked.

By the time we turned for home and the last couple of miles or so, my legs were like jelly, a substance which for years I was quietly convinced that they may have actually been made out of. Quite a bit of the last half of this race is uphill though, a fact that my mind had rather inconveniently forgotten, so it was pretty difficult to keep on going at any pace, although I managed. For the first time in a long time though I found myself thinking I should just stop, as a few people had. I had a bit of aa word with myself though and kept going.

The final mile or so of the Pontefract 10k is downhill and I was looking forward to just powering down the hill. However, having used up so much energy already my body wasn’t responding in the way I wanted. I imagined a Mo Farah like kick where I just passed runner after runner. Instead, I was much more akin to Moe from The Simpsons as I grumbled my way down the last stretch.

Pleasingly, I did pick up my pace a bit though and kept a close eye on the time via Strava, so I knew exactly where I was with my personal best in mind. Passing my wife and son just before the last 250 metres, I knew I had to go faster, but was convinced that there was nothing left in the legs…not even jelly. However, as someone passed me within the first few metres, something in me flicked a bit of a switch – my competitive side again – and before I knew it I was sprinting. More like a middle aged man laden down with bags on a train platform than Usain Bolt, but sprinting all the same.

I crossed the line in 51.27, a good 25 seconds better than I’d ran the previous year and inside my personal best. I wasn’t sure I’d stay on my feet or even conscious, but I’d done what I’d set out to do! Never had 250 metres felt so long!

Cramp set in as I met my wife and son, but some stretches and a stroll back to car had me feeling a bit more comfortable. But I’d forgotten how much racing takes out of me. I can run 10k on a training run and feel reasonably good hours later and more or less back to normal the next day. Running a race just wipes me out.

The rest of Sunday was spent keeping busy, while also trying to relax, but I woke up on Monday morning feeling groggy to say the least! It’s now Wednesday and although the muscles are nowhere near as tender as they’d felt for the first couple of days of the week, I’d still quite like to just be at home napping rather than at work!

Training for this race was difficult. It was very ‘stop start’ as I seemed to just keep picking up niggling injuries or colds, meaning that some weeks I’d be running 20k and others I’d do 3k at best! I think a lot of what got me through was just sheer bloody-mindedness and a determination not to let myself down. Having got through it quite successfully I’m now planning my next race, which will probably be in Leeds in July, unless I can find something earlier that appeals. For now though, I’m just feeling my age and hoping to recover by the end of the month!

My first 10k race of the year – a month to go and I don’t feel good!

In August last year I completed my first race in three years and my first one of any great distance in around a decade. Running is something I’ve done on and off all my life, but from my late thirties through to my mid forties (which, when you type it out is quite a shocking gap) it had definitely been more off than on. Then, following a health scare 4 years ago, I decided to get fit and stay that way.

Hence lining up at the start of a race in West Yorkshire at 8.50 on a cold, drizzly Sunday morning last year. You can read about it on the link below.

Forget medals at the Olympics, let’s Pontefract 10k!

The race went well and I clocked a personal best for a 10k, thriving on the competition and finishing in just under 52 minutes. I was ridiculously proud of myself and had clearly been bitten by the bug. Time allowing, I would definitely be racing more!

Time and fitness haven’t quite allowed though and so it’s taken me a while to get back to racing. And in fact, I’ll be running the same race again in just over a month (last year’s August date was a rescheduled one because of Covid).

With just over a month to go until the race, I feel like I should be in a lot better shape. My fitness has suffered a little over Winter as I seem to have stumbled from one bug to another. On top of this, I’ve just not felt right at all and have struggled to cover any great distance in training. In fact, since around February I’ve managed to run only one 10k. Not exactly ideal preparation!

A couple of weeks ago I damaged my back while doing my shoelaces. I mean, I’m really showing my age here, aren’t I? I was still able to go out on a run later that week and in fact, managed a 10k in around 54 minutes; a decent enough time. The pain seemed to ease after the first mile or so. But the past couple of months have been a bad time for niggling injuries and nagging illness and it’s really set my training back. Then this week I felt a pain between my shoulder blades as I put on a tie and it’s gradually got worse as the week has gone on. It feels much like the nerve damage that meant I was in pain for the whole of last summer, so I’m hopeful I’ve not done similar this time. In fact, I’ve even started doing the exercises that the physio set for me last year, in order to hopefully see off too much pain.

At the moment, I really don’t feel like I’ll be in anything like the shape I want to be when this 10k race rolls round. This worries me a lot. I’m a relatively competitive person and hate underperforming. I realise that at my age I have no hope of winning or even finishing close to the front of the race. But I’ve set myself a personal target of at least beating last year’s time and I honestly can’t see it happening. I’m at the end of a very long, demanding term. I’m tired and everything aches. Usually, running is the thing that cures this for me, but at the moment, it’s not.

In fact, aside from injury and illness, even my enthusiasm is presenting a problem for me. Last Friday, I’d planned to leave work early and go out for a run, as I do every Friday. I managed the leaving work bit, but halfway home it started to snow heavily. I was safe in the knowledge that it didn’t look to be snowing on the horizon – home – but it still managed to put me off. Subsequently, when I got home it was just a case of reeling off a list of excuses in order to convince myself that I shouldn’t go out. It worked. It didn’t rain or hail for another couple of hours, but I still managed to convince myself I’d made the right decision and it actually made me feel pretty terrible for the rest of the weekend.

I’m hoping that my excuses have given me the rest that I might have needed. I’m planning on going out again tonight, but only for a shorter 5k run. I’m hopeful that this will restore my enthusiasm and my faith in my ability a little bit. I really need to get my mind right and hope that my legs and my back will follow!

For the next couple of weeks I’m off work as it’s the end of term and our Easter holidays. So, the big plan is that I’ll be able to go out running at least a couple of times per week and start to build up a better level of fitness. I’m hopeful that this will help restore my enthusiasm too. It’s a lot better being able to run when I actually want to, rather than just cramming one in after work. I’ll probably make sure that I go out relatively early in the morning as it means I’ll have the rest of the day to get through any jobs that I have to do or even to go out for the rest of the day with the family. Fingers crossed for some good weather!

Another bonus about the Easter holidays is that I’ll potentially have a running buddy – my son. He’s only 12, but has always been a good runner. He too had lost his enthusiasm, but after relentless nagging from me, he’s recently started going out running again. Hopefully, for the week that he’s around – we have overlapping holidays, his last week being my first – we’ll be able to get out together. Although, I love running on my own, it’s always quite nice to have his company and it means we can chat as we cover the miles. It’s just a nice father son thing to do as well.

So the next month promises to be make or break as far as my hopes for my latest 10k race go. Last year I finished 271st out of 812 runners. The winner clocked a time of 32.46, while I ran the distance in 51.51, meaning I was a long way behind them, which given my age and level of fitness is understandable. This year, as well as improving on my personal best, I’m hopeful of moving up through the places as well. Getting into the top 250 runners would be great.

The race takes place on May 15th giving me over a month to get myself sorted out and ready to go. At the moment, I feel about as far away from ‘ready’ as it’s possible to get. It promises to be an interesting and possibly painful month!

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.

Winter Running Tips – a cautionary tale to update!

Earlier this month I published a blog of 5 Winter Running Tips. One of the tips was to make sure to warm up and warm down properly; a reasonable ask, I’m sure you’ll agree. Here’s what I actually wrote.

Make sure to warm up and warm down properly. Whether it’s Winter or not, this is a good tip to follow. However, if you’re planning on going out running in freezing temperatures, then making sure that those muscles are fully stretched and warmed up is essential. The temperature alone should be the only shock that you get; you don’t want to have gone 100 metres and find that your body just doesn’t feel right. It’s Winter; you’ve got every excuse you need for turning round and heading back to that warm bed or front room with the fire on! At least if you’re fully warmed up, you’ll have a fighting chance of getting into a rhythm nice and quickly and after that, it’s all about just running! Warming up will help prevent those little niggling injuries that could mean you’re back on the sofa before you know it. Similarly, by warming down once you’ve finished, you’ll feel much, much better. I sometimes finish my run within a half mile of my house and then get home with a combination of light jogging and walking, just to make sure nothing seizes up. I always stretch again once I get back to the house and make sure that I take on plenty of water to rehydrate. It’s no fun when all you want to do is flop down on the bed, but it’s a lot better to have warmed down for ten minutes or so.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, leads me on nicely to my cautionary tale. I went out for a run on Friday just gone. It had been just short of two weeks since my previous run, because I’d been a bit poorly. Not Covid, but some kind of Winter bug that knocked me for six and meant that I’d chosen to rest the previous week. I could’ve gone out, but despite the weather being perfect, decided to listen to my body a bit and give myself a rest. This, after all, had been another of my Winter running tips; rest when needed.

I continued to follow this advice on my run, reasoning that I’d do four miles at most, just as a way of easing myself in again. It all went well. I was a little more tired than I’d imagined, but set myself a different route with more uphill sections, so I reasoned that this would naturally take its toll. I’d managed a steady first couple of miles before upping my pace for the last, flatter couple, finishing strongly if more than a little tired. And then I started to give myself problems. Initially, I stretched for a while, trying to make sure that my muscles didn’t stiffen with the sudden inactivity. Next, I went through to the kitchen, grabbed my bottle of water and took a few big slugs. And then I got distracted.

Instead of continuing with my normal recovery process – taking on at least a couple of bottles of water, having a banana, eating some nuts and seeds and stretching some more – I started to make my kids’ tea. Then I had a look at Twitter. Then I filled the sink and did some dishes. Another look at Twitter. The next stage of my kids’ tea.

Before I knew it, I’d gotten washed and changed, cooked my own tea and was sitting down to watch some TV. Later on I would indulge in a beer and some chocolate, before hauling myself into bed just after midnight. And then it happened.

At just after 1.30am I was woken by intense pain in my thigh. Cramp in my quad, in fact, but cramp like I’d never known it before. The level of pain was so ridiculously intense that it felt like it burned. Not having ever had cramp here before I didn’t really know what to do, so I jumped out of bed and stood stretching my leg out as best I could. Then a hamstring cramp. This was agony. People talk about seeing stars – especially cartoon characters! – but I never believed it. But, wincing with pain, I closed my eyes tightly and was greeted with the ‘sight’ of a border of stars around the darkness behind each eye! I broke out into a cold sweat and felt decidedly nauseous, so I lay down to try and stem the tide of pain and sickness. For a panicked few seconds, I actually thought I might be having a stroke! Maybe it’s judgements like this that saw my career in medicine go up in flames!

Eventually, trying not to wake my wife, I got back out of bed and hobbled to the bathroom, taking refuge on the cold tiled floor after drinking some water, and staying there for around 20 minutes. After this, I cautiously returned to bed.

The cramp would continue to strike. Not as bad as the first time, but enough to wake me each time. At around 6.30am it woke my for the final time, keeping me awake for another half hour, this time striking in my calf. When the alarm woke me some time later I was only able to hobble to the shower and was in some discomfort for the rest of the day. Days later and the hamstring still doesn’t feel right. The memory of that cramp continues to haunt me (not that I’m being at all dramatic here!).

I’ll end this cautionary tale with a reminder. PLEASE BE SURE TO WARM UP AND WARM DOWN PROPERLY IF YOU’RE GOING ON A WINTER RUN. IF YOU DON’T, THEN DON’T BLAME ME WHEN THE CRAMPS ATTACK!

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 naïve, 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!

The Uselessness of the Long Distance Runner (with apologies to Alan Sillitoe)

The date is Friday August 13th 2021 and it’s 7.12am. A ridiculous hour of the day, really. Our protagonist (me) is out running and over the course of the next 46 minutes he will run for 5.36 miles before feeling tired, getting confused and heading home. His confusion will haunt him moments after he drinks a chilled bottle of water in his kitchen. Why did he not run the extra 0.85 of a mile which would have led him to a distance of 6.21 miles, otherwise known as 10km? What an absolute knobhead! Never mind, in a few days he’ll go back out and run the full 10km.

Fast forward 22 days. It is Saturday 4th September and our protagonist hasn’t been on a run since the aforementioned Friday 13th August. He’s feeling frustrated. He’s feeling quite angry. He’s not enjoying this period of inactivity. He’s still a knobhead. And he feels useless.

On Friday 13th August, by about 7.15am I was regretting going out on my run. I had a sore shoulder brought on by a ridiculous combination of decorating my kitchen and a brainwave while coaching my Under 13 football team that told me, ‘Yes, Graham, go in goal for the shooting practice! Throw yourself around like a man possessed! Ignore your age and show these young whippersnappers how it’s done!’ Now, with every step taken, pain shudders right up my arm and through my sore shoulder. By the time I’ve registered a couple of miles I have pins and needles in my hand and my index finger has gone very cold. Ignoring the signs that this could be a stroke or the beginnings of a heart attack, I run on. I really am a knobh…well, you know the rest.

For anyone feeling worried, don’t. I didn’t have a stroke or a heart attack. But I did end my run in a lot of pain. But don’t worry, twenty days later I got some help. Between that time and the end of my run I googled the problem and settled on the fact that I’d managed to damage a nerve somewhere between my shoulder and my chest. Despite the intense pain, a bit of self diagnosis told me that it would heal itself and that in the meantime I should just take Ibuprofen. I also decided that continuing to decorate would help.

I realise now that I am still a good 8 years short of qualifying to be a doctor and that as a healer I make a good knobhead.

It has hurt me to have to avoid running and my reluctance to seek medical help – coupled with the amount of time it takes to actually get medical help post Covid and using our surgery’s new phone system – will subsequently cost me more time. I will lose fitness and my burgeoning belly will continue to burge. Or grow.

By the time I got medical help – two days ago at the time of writing – it turned out my diagnosis was right, but that I can’t get a physio appointment for another four days. And that will also be over the phone, so the physio’s healing hands will have to be very special indeed. In the meantime, I feel horrible.

I think I’ve made myself worse with comfort eating too. We went away to Scarborough for a few days and then Newcastle after that meaning five whole days of eating out and I didn’t even attempt to hold back and think healthily. ‘Are you having a pudding?’ quickly became not only a rhetorical question, but a stupid one too.

At home, what with it being the summer holidays, I’ve succumbed to a policy of ‘a beer a night’, which although that’s not heavy drinking, is a lot more than my usual. I’ve also relapsed in my dangerous crisps and chocolate addiction, making any trip to Home Bargains or B&Ms into an actual expedition. While I haven’t exactly piled the weight on – no surprise if you know me – this has still left me out of shape.

Having sought medical help and got my hands on some prescription pain killers and a telephone conversation with a physio, this morning brought another setback. Look away now if you’re young, fit and healthy. The ease with which this type of thing can happen in middle age might be a bit of a shock.

I was out in the supermarket, doing our weekly shop and had crouched down to scrutinise the very bottom row of school shirts. You’d be surprised at the rarity of sized 12-13 short sleeved white shirts in the George at Asda uniform section. Thus, I really had to peer deep and low to find what I wanted. But just before I located it I had an almighty spasm of pain through my lower back. I couldn’t move, was worried I might cry in front of some mums and toddlers – again – and it took my about 10 seconds to realise that I was holding my breath. When I straightened up to a standing position, the pain increased.

This will undoubtedly cost me more time away from running as I’ve struggled with my back for years. It once went completely as I arrived at work and put the handbrake on in the car! However, since getting fitter and stronger with the amount of exercise I got through in lockdown after lockdown after lockdown, it hadn’t been much of a problem at all.

Running has been an excellent help to my somewhat surprisingly fragile mental health over the last year or so. I’ve found this last year tough for a number of reasons, but whenever I’ve been able to go out running I’ve felt focused and free of any number of problems. I’ve also felt fitter and stronger and the distances run and the times achieved have been a real boost, mentally. Like I say, it has hurt not being able to run.

While I’m running I am almost forced to think things through. At my age, this is a good thing as it also allows me to take focus away from how much my body hurts! But it’s also an opportunity that I’m really pleased to be able to take. Other than traffic or people on pavements, I have little else to occupy my mind and I know that I can make decisions during this hour or so; I can solve problems.

Going out for a run means that I can think. I have time to think ‘things’ through, whatever they might be, and often by the time I’m back home I just feel a great deal lighter, so to speak. I head out, fresh faced and often feeling a bit weighed down by what life happens to be throwing at me and by the time I return I’m red-faced and sweaty, but visibly happier, even if I look like I might just be about to collapse.

Three weeks into my enforced rest, and only just back at work for a new academic year, and I’m really feeling tired and more than a little bit troubled by it all. Not being able to run is just horrible. Sometimes, I might allow myself to think that a rest might be nice, but 99% of the time I’ll force myself to get out and go for a run, setting a minimum target and then pushing really hard to eclipse it. I always feel better afterwards. Being injured like this has taken that away and it’s really not pleasant.

I’m hoping that within a fortnight at most I’ll be able to get back out again and I’m hoping that I’ll be able to run far enough and for long enough to have a good old think! In the meantime, I’m looking forward to my telephone physio appointment, which promises to be a whole new experience and hopefully the thing that starts putting stuff right!

The uselessness of the long distance runner is not a feeling I’m enjoying.

Forget medals at the Olympics, let’s Pontefract 10k!

Facebook memories rarely fail to raise a chuckle from me. Some, I will share, without fail, every year. Others, just gain a laugh and then get scrolled through. Recently, one came up that makes me smile every time. It was the third year anniversary of me and my kids completing a 5km fun run. It made me smile for a number of reasons; firstly because in the three years since it happened my children have grown up so much and secondly because we all look so very pleased with ourselves!

This year though, it made me smile all the more because it came up on the exact same day that I completed a 10km race; the Pontefract 10k. It was the progress that pleased me so much. Not that I was now able to run twice the distance, but because of what this shift represented to me personally. It’s around 3 and a half years since I had to go into hospital for heart surgery, so while completing the 5km fun run was a real boost, this latest run has really cemeneted the feeling that I’m a whole lot better, fitter and healthier these days.

I entered the race partly because it was a goal that I set myself and also because a friend from work invited me to give it a go. He probably won’t remember, but around 3 years ago he asked me if I fancied doing a different 10k and I had to turn him down because I knew there was no way I’d be able to do it; no way that my body would have got through 10 whole kilometres! I felt terrible – like I was just being anti-social and making excuses. But it nagged away at me and then at the turn of this year, with a fair few 10km training runs under my belt, I made it my business to enter an actual race. So thanks Shaun, for the inspiration!

In the run up to August 1st though, I was convinced that I wouldn’t be able to complete the race. My fitness had dropped due to a period of isolation when my son caught Covid and then a series of niggling injuries interrupted my running even more. Self doubt, my old lifelong friend crept in and installed himself on a shoulder so he could readily whisper in my ear. He was there as I walked around the supermarket, there whenever I trained and my legs felt a little tired and more to the point, there when I lined up at the start of the race.

My aforementioned friend actually passed us – me and my family – as we waited by the start. I deliberately stood under a tree and hid a bit, just to avoid having to talk about what the next 55 or so minutes might hold. I was ridiculously nervous. The whole time that we stood there I glanced furtively around, knowing that there were at least two other people I knew, knowing that I didn’t want to talk to anyone. Ridiculous really! As I stood and then stretched and checked that everything was just the way I wanted it to be, I grew more nervous and more grumpy with my family, who had very kindly got up at 6.30am on this particular Sunday in order to be with me at the start line for 9am.

And then, before I knew what to moan about next, we were on the road and the race was starting. A word about a word. When I say ‘race’ please understand that out of the over 800 people who entered the run, only some of us were racing. Probably a few hundred, maybe more. But I’m sure for a lot of people the object was just to get around having had a bit of fun along the way.

It surprised me how quickly my mood changed once I got into my running. The race started in a park, running down the driveway entrance before a sharp right turn took us up what looked like a steady, but never-ending hill. Within a few hundred metres I was running steadily and feeling strong. The run from the Facebook memory had been one of the the last times I’d ran in a field of other runners and it surprised me how quickly I felt comfortable after so many solitary – but never lonely – training runs.

Running up that first climb, with a friend’s description of the course as being ‘undulating’ now ringing in my ears, I felt good. The nerves had settled, the feeling of being some kind of imposter had disappeared and here I was fit, healthy and passing people. Others had the audacity to pass me, but it didn’t feel like it mattered. My plan was for a fast final mile or mile and a half and so I felt sure that my time would come.

I ran wearing a smart watch and also with my Strava app running on my phone and found myself glancing at Strava more than ever before. I think the fact that it informed me I was running at 7.30 per mile pace and at times below alarmed me a little – I’m usually up around 8.30 at this stage of a run – and so I ran while battling to focus on slowing down and not getting carried away and also checking the app to see my progress. I seemed incapable of slowing down for around the first 3km though and was sure that I’d grind to an almighty halt at about 7km! It didn’t get quite that bad though.

The undulating nature of the course would take its toll though. Through 4, 5 and 6 kms, I slowed. I’m aware that we did run down some hills, but it just seemed like the uphill sections kept appearing in front of me, relentlessly. I dug in, tried to relax and just kept running, but it wasn’t long before it occurred to me that I couldn’t remember the last time I’d passed anyone. Runners were passing me though. Not in their droves, but every so often one would glide past and despite my best efforts I just couldn’t keep up! But I wasn’t dropping too far though, so I stayed calm and just relied on the fact that I felt like I could summon some strength up and have a better final few kilometres.

My mind began to wander though and I started to think about my operation three years previously. I thought about being admitted initially and the loneliness of the night in hospital wondering if I might die. I thought about hugging my wife and kids the next day, once I’d finally got home. I thought about waiting to be called on to the ward about a month later when I was operated on and I thought about the operation itself. The last thing I thought about before I snapped myself back to the matter at hand was my cardiologist giving me the all clear about a year later. I began to feel quite emotional, but knew that I had to pull myself together and get back to focusing on the running. Imagine the horror of running past some red-faced, sweaty old bloke who was weeping quietly to himself, snot and tears streaming down his face! Clearly though, this run was more important to me than I’d imagined.

A couple of minutes later, with my legs not feeling too bad – despite my pace slowing – I concentrated on distracting myself and for a few minutes at least, tried to just spot things to look at, like a nice house or the view. I made sure to reply to everyone who was supporting from the side of the road, again in an attempt to stave off mental fatigue and would occasionally take a slog from the water I’d picked up at the last feeding station.

It didn’t take me too long to pull myself together and be able to focus again and when I did, I began looking ahead and trying to focus on people that I might be able to catch and overtake. My legs still felt like they had some life in them and by the time I’d got to the 8km mark I’d been able to progress through the field a little bit. I decided that once I’d got to 8 and a half km I would up my pace some more and that for the final mile I’d be trying to run at something like 7 and a half minute mile pace.

But the hills Just seemed to just keep on coming. I knew I was nearly done though and by this point I was just determined to have a strong finish.

Halfway down the final hill and running fairly strongly, something brilliant happened. As I looked down the road I spotted my wife and children. I think I spotted them before they spotted me and so I gave them a wave. Once they waved back, it was my cue to quicken the pace again. The bottle of water that I was carrying was by now getting on my nerves, so I positioned myself near the kerb and when I passed them made sure to hand it to my daughter. Their whooping and screaming and clapping was brilliant to hear though and really spurred me on. I knew that I was within a few hundred metres of the finish now.

At the bottom of the hill we turned left and were back on the drive of the park with a slightly uphill dash to go until the finish line. Despite a sudden feeling of nausea I began to sprint – as much as a nearly 50-year-old who’s ran almost 10km could sprint – and was soon passing people. I really didn’t feel strong at all and was pretty certain that I was going to be sick, but it was just a case of digging in and getting through it. To my left I could see my wife and kids cutting over the grass from where they’d been on the roadside so that they could get to the finish. My son called out, ‘Go on Dad!’ and coupled with just seeing them there, it was enough to push me over the last few yards.

Me, knackered, attempting to power my way to the finish!

Right on the line, while I was concentrating on not throwing up, two people passed me. I spotted them in my peripheral vision, but it was too late and I didn’t really have the strength to react. I wasn’t particularly bothered though; I’d done what I’d set out to do and when I glanced down at my phone in order to stop Strava, I was thrilled to see that I’d ran the course in a little over 51 minutes, which from memory was one of the best 10km times I’d ever ran.

As I collected my water, medal and t-shirt I was in a bit of a trance. The medal quickly went into a pocket and the t-shirt got draped over my shoulder while I downed the water. I felt exhausted, but thrilled to have finished at the same time.

Within a couple of minutes I’d located my family who greeted me like I was returning from climbing Everest! We stood and chatted for a short while, but then with rain looking absolutely certain, we decided to head for the car and get home. Time to relax, have something to eat and maybe scroll through my phone for Facebook memories!

Later that day I found out that I’d finished in 271st place out of 813 runners and I have to say I was really pleased with that. My official time was 51 minutes and 51 seconds, my second fastest 10km run, so despite my mid-run lull, I’d managed to keep going pretty well.

I’m looking for more races to enter now, although with the football season starting soon, I’ll have to avoid clashes. The race has definitely whetted my appetite for more and I’ll continue going out training and trying to improve both my times and my fitness. I’ll definitely be running the Pontefract 10k next year too!

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!

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