Newcastle United – addressing the state of our nation.

This isn’t some kind of mock speech. It’s not an address where you’ll learn anything particularly new, but I do hope to add to what seems to be a growing number of fans thinking in much the same way. Because what needs to happen is going to take numbers. And I do hope to address the state of our club. And what a state it’s in.

Newcastle United are a proud club. We are 126 years old and as such have had a history that has been eventful to say the least. We’ve sat, several times, at the very top of the pile dominating English football and we’ve had our own personal rock bottom years too. We’ve never dropped into League 1, mind.

Sadly though, for the majority of the last 12 years, Newcastle United have been nothing short of a shambles and while there has been some relative success it has always been clouded by darkness, a lack of ambition and it would seem at times an unfathomable determination to do anything possible in order to alienate its fan base. We are a club stricken by disease and until we find a cure, Newcastle United cannot move forward and will continue, tragically, to be overtaken by the likes of Watford, Bournemouth and Southampton.

Mike Ashley ruined my club for me. His actions and his decisions made me give up on what had been a lifetime obsession. Born and raised in Newcastle I had followed my father in supporting our home town team. This had nothing to do with glory-hunting or bandwagon jumping; this was a decision made out of love, pride and blind loyalty. We were in Division 2 (the equivalent of the Championship) at the time. That was my story. That was the same story that many of us would have. But, having sat through so many highs and lows that I’d lost count I gave up my season ticket because of Mike Ashley and his cronies.

The infamous Hull City game made up my mind. It was September 2008, Kevin Keegan had just resigned and we were facing up to our first game without him, again. The atmosphere was toxic, the ground a seething cauldron of pure anger and hate. I sat, having previously been moved to a place in a different part of the ground away from people I’d spent years with, feeling alone and helpless to stop what was going on with the club. My decision was made that day. I would see out the season regardless of what happened – we were relegated – and I would never go back until there was no Mike Ashley.

I’ve never been back. It’s a decision that has been made slightly easier as I now have children and I live 100 miles away, but it still breaks my heart. As a kid and even as a young man, not going to St. James’ Park was something I couldn’t comprehend. But things change and people get older, move on and welcome other obsessions into their lives, like families. I had a family and had put some distance between myself and Newcastle. Neither reason would have stopped me going without Ashley though. I read the newspapers, watch the games and reports on television and scan through social media for news of my club. But it’s not the same. A chunk of me has been taken away.

So what started off as a small boy – I think I was 6 – going to home games with his dad and sitting fascinated by the colour and the noise and the fact that people genuinely got paid to play for my team, at the back of the East Stand, then blossomed into attending games with my mates and doing anything I could to scrape together the money to afford the ticket. As a teenager I started to travel to away games too, opening up a whole new world of following the Toon and just multiplying my adoration for the club. This continued as a young man and well into my late thirties. When I had kids I naturally assumed that this would be something we’d do together, like me and my dad had many years before. But no. Mike Ashley and his reign of neglect have forced my hand, like it will have done to many other fathers. So if you thought describing this whole scenario as heartbreaking was a bit over the top, then maybe now you can understand.

Recently, even following from a distance has been painful. We’ve had two stable seasons and the signs have been good. We’ve had a world class manager; a man who clearly loves the club, the area, the people. We’ve – sort of – broken our longstanding transfer record. We have a team that cares, and team that tries and who, it would seem, would lay their bodies on the line for our club. It had seemed like this never-say-die quality was going to be supplemented by even better players. But no. Despite meeting with his manager weeks ago and despite said manager providing a list of potential signings Newcastle United has ground to a halt. Rafa Benitez – he of Champions’ League winning, managing some of the top sides in Europe, Paul Dummett transforming, popping his glasses back in his top pocket after games, calling it a cloob, and telling us C’mon Toons! – has been dispensed with.

It came as a shock, but at the same time was no shock whatsoever. Whichever way you look at it the decision was the most Mike Ashley thing ever (until the next one) and had I been a betting man I could have cleaned up. The offer made to the manager was never going to match his ambitions and it would seem that this was wholly intentional. And in the end why would any manager want to stay at a club that wouldn’t let him manage?

Rafa Benitez will be a huge loss to us all. His arrival awakened the club and in truth it awakened something in us all, too. He brought vision, class, passion, expertise and understanding, where before we’d had John Carver talking about the guys at the club, Alan Pardew talking about himself and forever adding to a seemingly never-ending list of excuses and Joe Kinnear talking out of his arse. Rafa did none of that. Rafa gave us hope.

Rafa also helped bring back pride and dignity to not only our supporters but to the region too. It gladdened my heart to see the pictures of him and his staff taking in the local landmarks a couple of years ago, in order to learn more about their new environment. And then there was his work with the Newcastle United Foundation and the NUFC Foodbank – both causes that the likes of Pardew wouldn’t have touched with the proverbial bargepole. There will undoubtedly be lots more causes that Rafa took an interest in, lots more lives that he touched, that you or I will never know of.

Rafa Benitez got Newcastle United. He understood the people, the city and the region. He invested in us and although it’s a terrible cliché, he became one of us. He stands alongside Kevin Keegan and Sir Bobby Robson as one of the greatest Newcastle managers of the modern era, as well as one of the most popular. It’s nothing short of a crime that the powers that be at our club – it’s not theirs – have allowed his contract to run down and essentially dismissed him. I understand that he wanted to leave, but that has nothing to do with anything or anyone other than Mike Ashley and his gang of halfwits. These people have made our club into a shambles by taking backward step after backward step and all of it without any real communication with their customer base; the fans. While all of this has gone on, off the back of – relatively speaking – another successful season, the club have churned out ‘no comment’ after ‘no comment’. In the end, what was happening was as predictable as it was inevitable. Most of all, it was heart-breaking.

Meanwhile, somewhere in the background, a takeover has been brewing. Someone in possession of both a shedload of money and a modicum of common sense had seen the potential of our club. It was really going to happen this time, right?

Wrong. Even amidst talk of a takeover it’s been difficult to get excited. There was optimism for a short while; someone was communicating with the fans. We didn’t know who they were or whether they had the money to buy the club, let alone whether Ashley would sell, but these people were telling us it was on. But as with Staveley and Kenyon (Christ, even like Barry Moat!), the trail has gone eerily quiet. We’ve gone from the bookies giving us relatively short odds on signing Kylian Mbappe to the majority of people suspecting yet another false dawn in a matter of weeks. A Newcastle United story if ever there was one. Aye, another one! But just because it’s all so very Newcastle United doesn’t make it any easier to take. And the silence from the club – apart from the now universally mocked ‘ no comment’ – is simply astounding. Astounding and absolutely unacceptable.

So what exactly is the state of our nation. Well, as I previously stated, it’s nothing short of a shambles. And that’s being reasonable. The club is quite simply an utter mess. At the time of writing we may or may not be being taken over by a billionaire. There should be a sense of optimism at the prospect of being labelled the new Man City and preparing ourselves to ride the wave of success that would inevitably bring. But there can’t be, can there? In actual fact, we can’t even be too sure that our owner, who put the club up for sale, actually wants to sell the club. And the fact that even one fan might regard this as a possibility is completely ridiculous. I’ve found myself looking at the buyer’s name to try and work out if it’s an anagram for something else that would reveal that we were being cruelly misled. We’ve seen an interview from Ashley himself, discussing the possibility of selling the club on more than one occasion and still, he might as well be saying that he’s attempting to sign Mickey Mouse for  world record fee (for a mouse).

As I write we have no manager. We had one. A world class one. But those in charge of the club decided that his help, guidance, advice and football knowledge wasn’t really needed anymore. Not exactly a forward thinking approach. However, add that to the fact that pre-season training starts in a couple of days and you wouldn’t get many sane people questioning you when you tell them you expect another relegation this season. On top of that we know that Lee Charnley is in charge of appointing the next manager, and I don’t think I’d be alone in finding that prospect as one that sends a chill down my spine. That said, I’ve got to the point where I’m actually not that interested anymore. Whoever becomes the new manager will still inspire the same lies, lies and more lies that any other manager in the Ashley era has been faced with. And whoever they are, you’d be surprised to see them get anything more than another lick of paint to the training ground in the next few year, let alone any stellar signings.

The transfer window has been open for quite some time now and we’ve still done nothing. No incomings – so little change there then – and plenty of ridiculous stories linking us with players who we simply won’t buy because of the finance involved, which is exactly the same as previous seasons. Think about it, last season there were several clubs in the Championship that comfortably outspent us. Christ, we haven’t even sold Joselu yet and from what we read in the press he’s been heading through the door for the last three weeks! But hot off the press comes new of Ayoze Perez’s departure and the seemingly strong possibility that Sean Longstaff may also be sold. And still, according to some in the media, it’s not Mike Ashley’s fault, he’s doing nothing wrong and us Newcastle fans are unreasonable. 

We could go on and on, but frankly it’s worse than depressing. Some people believe football to be a waste of time and a triviality that they sum up by telling you it’s ‘only a game’ or ‘it’s just a load of people chasing a ball around’. Well, they’re wrong. It’s an obsession for lots of us. It’s might well be the thing you love the most and if it isn’t it’ll be right up there. In times where mental health is an ever-growing issue, football can be something that brings unbridled joy and a smile to many a face. And if someone wants to trivialise something as wonderful and pure as that, then maybe they’re the trivial one. I’ve experienced many emotions across the course of my lifetime and some of the most joyous could have only been provided by football and specifically by Newcastle United. The joy, togetherness, laughter…even the heartache. Let me illustrate. On one occasion I sat in an ice rink and held hands with my two best mates while chanting ‘We three are one’ in order to somehow help John Burridge save a penalty. Our held hands were placed on top of a cut-out-and-keep picture of Uri Geller’s hand and our feet on top of each other’s, just to add that extra layer of stupidity and detail. Burridge saved the penalty – joy. We were three teenagers lads holding hands – togetherness that was ahead of its time, I think you’ll agree. We still laugh about it to this day. It was the first leg of the play-off semi-final against Sunderland and we lost the 2nd leg and didn’t get promoted – heartache. You’ll read this and understand exactly what I mean. But Mike Ashley, Lee Charnley, Keith Bishop, Dennis Wise and any of the others at the bottom of life’s barrel don’t understand at all. They wouldn’t go to anywhere near the lengths we go to in the name of their football club. And that’s exactly why things have to change.

I’ve never understood why Mike Ashley wanted Newcastle United. Not on a human level anyway. I understand the desperate need to grow his business, but even then, his junk shop was hugely successful and he was rich beyond his wildest dreams, without Newcastle United. So, as we know, it comes down to a simple matter of greed. He cannot get any pleasure, any fun, any joy out of our club. He can’t get what we get from Newcastle United. And in that aspect he can’t even begin to understand what it feels like to be one of us. He rarely even watches them play. He quibbles about buying players and employs PR staff to peddle us lines about being unable to compete with mediocre sides and relatively small clubs in order to try and dampen our enthusiasm and optimism for this thing that we’ve been brought up to love. He treats us like idiots even though you don’t have to be Einstein to work out that the Premier League is awash with money. So where’s ours, Mr Ashley?

Why bother, Mike? You’ll never be accepted and never be taken seriously. Face it, even your friendly apologists are on the payroll in some way. Our club has been dragged through the mud by your regime, suffering under the hands of people like Jiminez, Lambias, Kninear and Wise – although little Dennis’s hands were only tiny. We’ve been lied to and strung along and this has to be the last straw.

So how do we solve a problem like Mike Ashley? I don’t have a grand answer in terms of the protests that we could organise or a guaranteed way of removing that man from our club, but I know a way that we can and should hit back. It’s not original, but I reckon it would be effective. And if me writing this gets even one person to take some action, then we’ve had some success.

We no longer give him our money and we expose his lies to the world by boycotting games. As I mentioned previously, I gave up my season ticket years ago. It wasn’t a decision that I took lightly. Newcastle United have been a lifelong love and I adored everything about going to games. The sense of belonging was something to cherish even when we were being hammered into humiliation; something I’d grown used to. But the highs made it all worth it. Every chant that made me laugh reminded me of what I had. Every goal produced a joy that largely went unmatched elsewhere. Climbing the steps to look out over that ground, that pitch and watching those black and white stripes emerge from a tunnel meant the world to me. But I knew that I had to give it up. And I knew that others would be like-minded.

It’s hard. It’s unimaginably hard to face up to the fact that you’ll not be in your seat when there’s a game. It haunts you and you dream of the day when you’ll feel like you can go back. Like everything has slotted back into place. Because there’s something missing without it. And it’s an absolutely huge something as well.

But you have to give it up. Only for now. A temporary necessity, if you will. To keep going is to perpetuate the myth that everything’s alright. And it’s not alright. It’s not your club anymore. The shell is the same, but there’s a cancer attacking what’s at the heart of it and the only way to fight is to stop feeding it. That man wants you in your seat because it feeds his ego and helps to publicise his shop. Thousands of people sitting around his tacky logo looks like thousands of people endorsing it. But you can’t. You can’t endorse Wise, Kinnear, the Sports Direct Arena, Wonga, Xisco, Pardew, price rises, wheelie bin ice baths, paddling pools being used for the recovery of professional athletes at the training ground, selling off your best players and not replacing them and cheaply manufactured strips that denigrate our name.  And you can’t endorse a regime that gives you John Carver, but tosses the likes of Shearer, Hughton and now Rafa Benitez away like used toys. That regime don’t want a Newcastle united. To endorse that is to open yourself up to the fact that it’s going to just keep happening.

So give up that season ticket. Walk away – just for now – from this relationship. And for a while, don’t look back. Fill that void – just for now – with something else. Rediscover family and friends, take up a hobby, follow a new sport or a different team (nonleague, of course). Do anything – just  make it lawful – but don’t go back until he’s gone. Because one day we’ll get our club back.

Proof that family and football don’t mix.

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On Friday 12th April Newcastle United secured yet another ‘against all odds’ style victory. The 1-0 win away at Leicester City was, in a way, quite remarkable. We’d lost the previous two and were in danger of being dragged back into the relegation fight. Leicester, on the other hand, had won their previous four and were keen to let us know about their confidence via any available media outlet. We’d lost Florian Lejeune to another knee injury while they had Jamie Vardy in the form of his life. And so on and so forth.

As ever our lads put in an amazing shift, covering the ground, sticking doggedly to Rafa’s instructions and throwing themselves headlong time and again into tackles and blocks. Meanwhile, off the pitch, our travelling support were simply magnificent, turning out in vast numbers, out singing the home support throughout and then staying in the ground afterwards to show their appreciation for Rafa and his boys as well as just having a bit of an impromptu party.

That night tributes were payed to the team and the support – and rightly so. Sky pundits congratulated everyone concerned and social media was awash with videos of 3,000 Geordies asking ‘Who’s that team we call United?’ as loudly as their throats would allow, given their performance over the previous couple of hours. Rafa and some of the players joined in and Salomon Rondon even asked if we’d been playing at home. Magnificent.

However, as great as it all was, I was left wondering – in the very back of my mind – if anyone had spared a thought for me. In fact, I wondered if anyone would spare a thought for the thousands who would have had to go through the kind of trials I had gone through just to watch the game.

Now before we get started let me explain that this article isn’t quite what it seems. I’m playing the fool a little bit and laying on the sarcasm in quite a heavy dose. I’m not in any way making a parallel between myself and the people who took time off work or travelled through the night and stood in the cold and who do so every time we play. In terms of away trips I’ve been there and done that many times; I know the hardships but I’ve also shared in the joy. And I know that plenty of people will regularly have to go through a lot more just to watch us play on the telly. I’m simply talking about what should be the simple act of watching the match at home on my own telly on Sky. Let me explain…

On Friday I finished work after what was an extremely long, arduous term. I’m a teacher. I came home quite fancying a pre-match nap, but found that my family were indulging their passion for X-Box, or as I call it, shouting at each other with headsets on. So the nap was going to be impossible. Instead, as a little treat and a way of trying to take my mind off the match, I left them in the front room and disappeared into the kitchen to do some dishes. La vida loca, I know. Later, at the peak of excitement, I cooked the kids their tea. Beat that.

I don’t enjoy the build up to games and I never have. If I’m at work I have plenty to take my mind of it, but if I’m at home it’s always there nagging away at me and making me think ridiculous thoughts about whether my choice of pants, shirt or even mug will affect our performance. Stupid, I know and as Stevie Wonder once said, Superstition ain’t the way. It’s a habit that I can’t break though.

So on Friday night it was a case – as usual – of just doing anything and everything both to stay awake and to take my mind away from the game. The importance couldn’t have been lost on any of us and if, like me, you often take a pessimistic view, then you could have been excused for worrying that we could easily get beat and be pulled back towards Cardiff.

After a while though the build up to the game was on the telly. My family however were still hogging the living room like travellers on the local fields. Minus the alleged petty theft and casual violence though. Although my wife is quite handy at times.

Undeterred, I turned the telly on and was dismayed at the amount of coverage Leicester were getting. Vardy this, Rogers that, Maguire the other. So the usual type of Sky coverage then. Guessing that this was set for the long haul I ducked out and grabbed the ironing board, because when I said I’d do anything to take my mind of things, I really meant anything.

And so I set off ironing while watching images on a screen with the sound muted. Images of Carragher and Neville bigging up Jamie Vardy. This is Extreme NUFC watching, after all.

As a bit of time passed I started to feel a form of mild outrage though. Why were my family insisting on staying in the living room? Could they not naff off out for a walk or move their (metaphorical) caravans into the kitchen? Mild outrage turned to mild temper and, wait for it…I turned the sound on. Luckily just in time to hear Kelly Cates announce that they’d be back after the break to focus on Newcastle. Time to stop ironing, take the chair in front of the telly and focus on the Toon.

By this point my family are knee deep in the middle of a game of Monopoly. No, really, they are. And with Monopoly comes competition. And with competition in our house – surely in any house – comes shouting. Actually, in our house shouting seems to be the default setting. Whatever had prompted it, it was just more to get in the way of my enjoyment of the match.

Now at this point some people would be forgiven for wondering why my family don’t seem to care. Why, for instance at the risk of blatant sexism and gender stereotyping, my son hasn’t joined me. Well, this is because the rest of the family are all Leeds United fans. I moved here in my mid-twenties, married a Leodensian (that’s someone from Leeds, not a posh word for a lesbian or a lion tamer) and settled here. I’ve now lived in Leeds for twenty years or so. And at the risk of outraging many Geordies, I simply let my kids decide who they wanted to support, when the time came. Both plumped for Leeds, their local club. In essence they’ve swapped one misery for another, really. But more of that another time, eh?

The game is now creeping ever closer. We’re mere minutes from kick-off and I am well and truly settled in front of Sky Sports. I know our team and at the very back of my mind there’s a lingering sense of optimism. It is however, competing with an ever present planet sized chunk of pessimism that comes with being a Newcastle fan. So while I sense we can get something, I fear it’ll be a hiding.

Alongside the optimism/pessimism conundrum I’m now starting to get slightly irritated by the others in the room. As mild-mannered as I am, I’ve had to turn the volume up. Apparently the issue of going to jail and not collecting £200 is way more important than what’s going on in Leicester. I can’t really hear what’s being discussed on screen anymore, but I suspect it’d only make me more nervous anyway. But it’s OK, I think, because both kids will have to have showers soon, in preparation for bed and my wife will be off cooking the tea. It’s almost 8 o’clock for pity’s sake and I’m starving.

Needless to say at kick-off nothing has changed. No one is off showering, no one is cooking and none of the squatters has left the room. I attempt the odd subtle ‘Howay the lads’ in order to drop a hint, but to no avail. My son has bought Mayfair and now can’t afford much else – classic mistake. He’s blaming everyone else and asking for the rules to be bent. The Monopoly volume has actually raised while I’m subtly displaying the quietest outrage ever witnessed.

As the clock on the game ticks past 10 minutes though, I’m beginning to get more than a bit irritated. There is literally no sign of Monopoly finishing. No sign of children starting to get ready for bed. No sign of my tea. And no chance I can concentrate on what’s unfolding before me in Leicester. We’re holding our own though. I can’t relax however, as in my suspicious mind the moment you think a positive thought Toon-wise is the moment Manquillo misses a tackle or humps an over-hit backpass towards our goal. And of course off to my right three of the loudest people I’ve ever met are attempting to have a conversation about a bloody board game while all talking at the same time.

I repeatedly turn up the volume which piques the interest of my son who starts to ask questions. Bloody questions! I’m trying to concentrate on the game! He knows the players, the score is on screen, he can see who we’re playing! Aaaaagh! This truly is extreme NUFC watching!

The half is now ticking by quite nicely and we’ve got a foothold in the game. In fact, we’re the better side. Things are settling down a bit. My wife has departed for the kitchen and strangely, my son is now quite placid. And then my daughter starts dancing. The Monopoly board is still on the floor so she’s improvising somewhat, twirling ever closer to me in the armchair. After probably not even a minute it’s too much.

“Will you bloody sit down?!”

“Alriiiiiiight!”

Her outrage is palpable. She’s 12 and has mastered the art of answering back. And after all, what’s a living room for if it’s not for dancing around all the garbage on the floor while swinging dangerously close to an enormous Smart TV?

The tension has become too much for me. We’ve now reached the stage of the game where you can almost reach out and touch half time, but when there’s actually still quite a while to go. The half hour mark, as it’s known, when sometimes, just sometimes, even Newcastle fans can relax. But this game is so important. And as with every occasion I watch Newcastle on the telly I have to get up. I can’t sit still any longer so I’ll stand. Maybe if I wander around for a little bit time will miraculously pass. Whatever it is, the dancing has snapped something in me and I’m up.

My son decides that he’ll have a little wander too and between him, a now sulking pre-teen, a Monopoly board and three piles of fake money, it’s quite the job to actually find somewhere safe to place your feet. I turn my back for a second and my son chooses this time to engage me in conversation – probably asking who we’re playing again. I’ve momentarily left the game behind.

Luckily the volume has had to be turned up to a silly level so I just here the commentator’s voice go up in tone significantly. Something’s happening and it involves Matt Ritchie, a man in possession of a magic hat and a wand of a left foot.

Instinctively I spin round. Miguel Almiron has just lost the ball, but it’s heading back to Ritchie. My son is practically standing on my toes for some reason and it’s tempting just to push him over. Instead, I place my hands on his shoulders and hold him still. All this to watch a game of football. But this is extreme NUFC watching.

On screen, Ritchie feints, drops his shoulder and pushes the ball past a Leicester defender before delivering a great ball into the box. I can see Ayoze Perez moving towards it, but two small hands are also grabbing at my midriff. I scream at the telly.

“Get across him!” as Ayoze does just that. As he meets the ball with a powerful glancing header I simultaneously pick my son up and deposit him onto the armchair in front of the telly, while my feet leave the ground. Kasper Schmeichel’s dive is futile and in a flash the ball is in the net. I’m a foot off the ground punching the air and screaming again. I land on a pile of Monopoly money and skid, somehow keeping my balance, but scattering my son’s savings and property portfolio all over the living room. Who cares!This is no time for Monopoly!

My son – we’re his second team – leaps up into my arms as I celebrate. I attempt the trademarked Ayoze fingers-in-ears celebration with a child hanging off me, only to look utterly stupid as for once Ayoze doesn’t bother with it. It doesn’t matter. We’re deservedly 1-0 up.

The rest is now history. We won. Thirty eight points makes us look safe. However, that wasn’t the end of my headache. Oh no. As the second half got underway my daughter finally decided to have a shower which created more problems. Even with the volume pumped up high I still found myself competing – and frankly losing – with her shrieking the latest R&B dirge like a tortured animal channeling Beyonce. And no, I’m not exaggerating. Maybe I’m a little bit odd or maybe I’m just a grumpy old man, but I feel like I need to be concentrating fully on the game, almost as if I might spot a runner and be able to warn someone on the pitch – ridiculous, I know – and my daughter’s singing meant that I just couldn’t focus on matters on the pitch.

And then, just after half-time, my wife decided that tea was ready! Nine o’clock at night and I’m faced with a plate full to the brim of Mexican food. Chicken, salsa, rice, soured cream, all waiting for me to clumsily knock it off the plate as I watched the match with it on my lap. Would a half time tea have been too much to ask? I now have an X Factor audition upstairs and Speedy Gonzales’ tea in my lap when all I want to do is watch my team on the telly!

I try in vain to eat without throwing rice on the floor and also manage to drop soured cream on my jeans and all the while I struggle to really watch what’s unfolding in front of me. However, by the hour mark I’ve finished and despite the mess that I’ve made, we’re still 1-0 up.

Thankfully, we’re into added time before my next problem arises. But extreme NUFC watching has one last twist for me. Just before the fourth official holds up the board to announce our now traditional 5 minutes of added time my daughter arrives back on the scene. I’ve managed to see off my son who thought it best he watched the second half while perched on the arm of the chair, leaning on me and asking a series of inane questions. He’s now gone to bed. But then my daughter returns from her shower and decides that, despite her dad’s obvious tension, she has a few questions of her own. The main one of which will almost see me completely blow my stack.

With three points on the line and her dad watching his team, the team he’s spent forty odd years watching and frankly, obsessing over here is what she asks me.

“Is Alan Pardew still the manager?”

My family and football really don’t mix..

Leeds United: falling apart or ignoring the chaos and building a bright future?

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So Tyler Roberts didn’t kick the ball out. Public outrage! For what exactly? What about the noble English art of sportsmanship? Do me a favour! But, but…Dirty Leeds? Well, no. Clearly not. From the outside looking in it looks to me that there’s a lot of blame being thrown around in the wrong direction. One thing’s for sure though; it was the start of a series of events that could shape the short term future of Leeds United.

To recap, during their final home league game of the season, against Aston Villa, when an opposition player went down injured, Leeds carried on playing and within seconds had scored the opening goal of the game. Cue hysteria! Sky pundits -who when they’d played the game themselves most likely were anything but angels – took the moral high ground so high they needed to parachute back down to ground level and the land we call ‘Havealittlethinkaboutthat’.

As the ball hit the back of the net there was a bit of a scrap between opposing players. Or, if you prefer the correct football media parlance, a melee ensued. The mass of bodies became a moving brawl, trundling across the field of play, pausing for a second or two before finding the strength, or the moral outrage to go again. Eventually, with the added excitement of stewards on the pitch – yes, on the pitch! – things calmed down enough for the referee to take some sort of appropriate action. Or so we thought.

The media and social media fallout since has been somewhat incredible. And as a football fan and a supporter of a team that, in my opinion, doesn’t get the rub of the green with the media, it’s made me wonder why. So, is it just a Leeds thing? If for instance Manchester City or media darlings Spurs or West Ham or God forbid, Manchester United had done the same, would it have been OK to play to the whistle? Would doing what you were taught as kids – play to the whistle – have been acceptable then? Because that’s all that happened really.

Oh, I know that if we slow it down it looks like he’s going to put the ball out, blah, blah, blah. And he might well have been thinking that. But he didn’t do it. And in doing so he broke no rules. None whatsoever. Or again, if you prefer media speak, he didn’t contravene any of the laws of the game. Fair enough, he broke some precious unwritten moral code. But how are we governing the game here? Because if it’s based around morals…well, football’s in more trouble than we imagined!

As for the goal scorer, Mattheus Klich, I feel sure that he wouldn’t have been aware of any fuss that might have been going on around him. What he did was what we all would have done. It was Boys’ Own stuff – he had a chance to score a goal in a huge game. His team were stuck in the middle of a bit of a goal drought. He was a professional footballer doing his job. And it was actually a good finish.

So did Leeds do anything wrong? Well, for me, no. Not really. Surely it’s just instinct to play the ball forward? And if we then look at the actual injury we might easily just think that there was very little to kick the ball out for. From my standpoint as a complete neutral there wasn’t even a foul. Both players went in for the ball, there was a momentary tangle and then Kodija went down. Yes, he was injured and subsequently went off, but I don’t recall a stretcher or a head injury.

We all know what happened next. Chaos ensued. Villa players took the moral high ground while also taking the law into their own hands, while Patrick Bamford took the opportunity to showcase his acting skills. Unfortunately, rather than winning an award he earned himself a ban. In fact, in many ways he was the only Leeds player to really do anything wrong. And if we’re punishing bad acting then some of those Villa players need pulling up for their impressions of modern day football hard men. I’m not sure the likes of Bremner, Clarke or Gray would have been too intimidated.

In among the moral outrage Bielsa emerged as the voice of reason, which given his language skills was quite some achievement. With a true British sense of fair play in mind he ordered the Leeds players – and yes, that does include you Pontus – to let Villa run through and score an unopposed equaliser. Villa then withstood the Leeds pressure to hold out for a draw, but that was never going to be the end of the matter. With a multitude of cameras covering any game these days more wrongdoing was uncovered and the scandal lived on. Bamford was banned, a Villa player was excused for punching an opponent and the debate about the rights and wrongs raged on.

Meanwhile the football season continued. Leeds stumbled into the play-offs with Villa a possible opponent further down the line. Another meeting would be compulsive viewing, but both teams have to make it happen. Villa have languished in the Championship for a few years now without ever realistically looking like they might get out, despite a play-off final last year. And their good run has to end at some point. Will their players cope with the pressure.

Elsewhere, Derby have stuttered through the season and only clinched their play-off spot on the final day of the season, while West Brom have only never really looked that convincing all year.

And that leaves Leeds. The biggest club left standing? Arguably, yes, although I’m sure Villa fans would argue otherwise. Personally though I’d love to see Leeds make it to the Premier League. It’s been a long time without them and Elland Road is the kind of ground teams and fans should want to be visiting. No disrespect to any team in the Premier League, but a club and a city like Leeds is bigger and more high profile than most and if this is the league that claims to be the biggest and best in the world, then you’d hope it would recognise the value of a Leeds over say, a Bournemouth or a Watford.

Looking at current form though, it’s clearly going to be an enormous challenge for Leeds in the play-offs. They aren’t in any kind of form. They’re not taking chances, despite creating a lot and they don’t seem to have a striker with that killer instinct that’s needed in such massive games. I genuinely believe that with someone like Dwight Gayle up front Leeds would already be planning for life in the Premier league. Without and they’re relying on Kemar Roofe, fresh back from injury, but yet to truly hit form. Furthermore, there are some problems in defence – as illustrated against Ipswich – with the absence of Barry Douglas proving crucial.

Leeds don’t go into the play-offs in great shape. However, there are factors that might just see them through. Firstly, there’s Bielsa himself. We know he’ll have done his homework, that’s for sure. Besides that though, he has a group of players that are not only capable of playing incisive and attractive football, but who are in clearly in awe of him as a coach. Bielsa has transformed Leeds’ fortunes and although the play-offs are a real test of his mettle and methods, his standing in the game dictates that he should still have enough to pull the team through. If you’re a Leeds fan, you’ve got to hope so!

Elsewhere – and maybe I’m clutching at straws here – I’d point to players like Kemar Roofe and Jack Clarke. Both, to some extent are returning from injury or illness and both searching for form. Could such major games inspire them? Roofe has scored goals while fit and you’d expect him to continue to do just that, while Clarke is a young player that’s likely to produce a trick and a moment of magic, things that Leeds are in real need of now.

Can the crowd make the difference? Well, you’d expect so. Leeds – like my own team Newcastle – have a loyal and long suffering fanbase and it can’t be denied that they make quite a racket, especially inside Elland Road. That should be inspirational; it has to be. These players must be desperate to get to the Premier League, given the season they’ve had and so the occasions that they’re going to be faced with over the next week or so shouldn’t frighten them. One of the key factors, you’d imagine, will be whether or not teams rise to the occasion. Anyone feeling intimidated isn’t going to attempt that killer pass, won’t play the ball first time and is liable to fluff the chance that comes their way.

Having spoken to Leeds fans there seems to be a split in opinion and feeling about how things are expected to go. Some are adamant that Leeds don’t do one-off games and have reverted to the safety of the pessimist. Others however have decided that Leeds’ play-off record has got to change sometime, that this group of players and this manager are good enough to handle the pressure.

It’s been an interesting season for Leeds. It’s been an interesting last fortnight. It’s could be an even more interesting next week or so.

The 2018 – 2019 Season – a grassroots football review.

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As a long season in the Under 10s section of the Garforth Junior Football League draws to a close, and every coach’s minds turn to next year and how we step up, I thought it right to have a little look back. A moment of reflection or a review, if you will.

There’s nothing self-important here, by the way. I coach a team of Under 10s and while in my mind they’re a very special bunch of lads, in truth we’re nothing special at all. Not to be disparaging to my boys, but there’ll be hundreds, possibly thousands of teams just like us around the British Isles. The thing is though, these boys and this team have brought me so much joy over the last year that it’s more than worth a few thousand words. And it’s been a hell of a season.

I took over the coaching of the team part way through last season and while I’d like to think I got the boys a lot more organised, we still weren’t winning games. We were undoubtedly more competitive, but we still ended the season with just the single win.

Needless to say, I was desperate to see our fortunes improve this season. We organised some friendlies in June and July and having attracted a few new players, for once not only did we have numbers available, but we were actually improving. We quickly developed a noticeable style of play and identified key players for key positions. And the results were improving too.

Despite the optimism, we started the season with a 2-0 home loss, but it was clear for anyone to see that we’d got better. The team we played, North East Leeds, had dropped down from the division above us, so we took quite a bit from the game and although we didn’t score, we went close.  And not too much short of a year previous we’d conceded 18 goals in a game, so a 2-0 loss here was nothing to be alarmed about!

A week later we travelled to Horsforth for an away fixture against a team who we’d played a few times last season, losing all but one where we’d equalised with 8 seconds to go! I must admit though, even early on in the season, I felt fairly confident. However, I wasn’t expecting quite what happened. We were fantastic that day. The desire to win was evident from the very start and we were passing the ball beautifully. By half-time we were leading 3-1 and ended up winning 4-2; a huge win for us. This was only the second time we’d scored more than 2 goals in a game since I was put in charge! It was only our second win ever! I think we were all a little shocked. This winning thing felt strange, but great!

And so began a four game unbeaten streak. We won the next two and drew the fourth game. Suddenly getting lads to turn up and want to play wasn’t a problem. In fact, by the last game of this particular run we had 6 subs. At times in the previous season we’d turned up with just 6 players! Now we had more than enough players and every last one of them with smiles on their faces. That said, you should try getting 6 subs on a field and giving everyone a decent time!

Next came one of the most disappointing parts of our season though. We lost 4-2 away from home against the team who’d beaten us in the first game of the season, but the worst of it was that we were 4-0 down at half-time having performed really poorly. For some reason the boys looked unfocused and a little overwhelmed. We rallied a bit in the second half, making sure that we were as positive as possible with our half time chat, but nothing would shake the memory of that first half performance. I sulked for the rest of the day and couldn’t stop thinking about it for the rest of the week! It’s funny how, even as a calm, rational adult, such things can affect us.

The next game brought a change of emotions and in many ways summed up what grassroots football at this level is all about. It was another away game and I was tickled to see that our opposition played in black and white stripes, like my beloved Newcastle United. As the teams were warming up though, the opposition coach came over for a quiet word. He explained that his team were having a poor season and had been getting hammered every week. He’d taken over just before the season started when they only had 6 registered players and the whole thing was a bit shambolic. He asked if we’d sub one of our players should we get too far ahead in the game. Knowing how things had been for us the previous season, I quickly agreed.

We won the game 7-1 and were excellent. We were fair, our players encouraged theirs and it was a pleasure to witness. I have to admit I felt guilty though. I felt sorry for their boys. This team were exactly what we had been the season before and I was pleased that, although we won in a one-sided game, we were magnanimous and mature about it. The best part of the whole morning came when our opposition scored. Every spectator, every coach and every player cheered. A lovely moment that got lovelier at the end of the match when all players shook hands. Our opponents left the field with some pride and something positive. Yes, we’d won at a canter, but it had clearly felt good not to be mocked and even better to have scored.

Our next two games continued the pattern we were setting. We played the same team – one league game and one cup – and won both well. Winning the second game also meant that we qualified for the Quarter Final of the cup, something that we wouldn’t have thought possible only months before. In their brilliantly naïve fashion our boys also took this to mean that we could genuinely go on and win the thing, which made me smile but also alerted me to a level of expectation that I’d not really felt before. A cup quarter final would most likely mean playing a team from a league above us and I feared that we could be in for a bit of a thrashing. Waiting for the draw to be made for the next round of games certainly had me tense though! I was relieved when we drew a team that we’d played before. We’d lost to them in the latter part of the previous season, but hadn’t been embarrassed, even though they’d stuck five goals past us. Maybe we did have a chance after all. This childlike optimism was catching!

As is the way with football we were brought crashing back down to Earth in the next few weeks. We lost our next three games and learnt a few lessons along the way. The teams we played were physical and pushed us around quite a bit. And we let it happen. My lads are quite the polite bunch when it comes to their football and so, when teams employed an under 10s version of the dark arts, we didn’t stand a chance. But this made me think. How could we combat such physicality? I didn’t want my team to start pushing people around and I wasn’t about to get the weights out, so how did we fight back, so to speak? I found myself scouring YouTube for tips and eventually stumbled upon some great ideas from Italy that looked like a bit of fun as well. I managed to ally these ideas with one or two of my own and for the next few weeks in training this is what we worked on. I’d recently gained my Level 1 FA Coaches badge and was brimming with ideas.

We’d have the boys pairing up and then working on their balance and their core strength while throwing footballs to each other. One exercise involved balancing on one leg while holding a football before pivoting the whole body forward so that you touched the ground with the ball. Then, keeping their balance, they’d pivot back up and bounce the ball to their partner who’d do the same again. Trust me when I tell you it was hilarious! The amount of our players who simply can’t stand on one leg is unbelievable. It was like watching the world’s worst flock of flamingoes!

Other balance games involved jumping over a line, landing on one foot and holding the pose until told to ‘Go!’ and sprinting five to ten yards. We’d also get them to sit down and balance with their legs out in front of them while holding the ball. The ball was bounced to their partner who’d balance and catch it after a few seconds. The drill would end with the pairs working on shielding the ball from each other, twisting and turning in order to hold their partner off and protect the football. It was amazing how quickly they started to use their new found strength and balance in games and extremely satisfying when we noticed it happening.

And then it was time for our Cup quarter final. Every available parent, sibling and even some grandparents travelled over to Wakefield with us and the excitement was tangible. Even at my age, I was desperate for us to win, desperate for us to put in a performance and compete and as a result I was feeling ridiculously nervous. The boys had worked so hard in training and in every match they played just to get to this point; where they could tell themselves, ‘We’re a good team.’ We warmed up, had a chat about our tactics, focus, work rate and supporting each other and we were ready to go.

The game went reasonably well, but in the end we were narrowly defeated. We fell behind midway through the first half when we didn’t close down and simply allowed our opposition to shoot and score. It’s something we have a tendency to do and probably common at this age. But we’d been the better side up until that point and I couldn’t help but be disappointed. Another sign of our progress though was that the boys didn’t let it get to them (unlike their coach!) and they carried on looking for an equaliser.

Not long before half-time, it arrived and it’s safe to say that the proudest man at the game was me. My son smashed in an equaliser, following up as the goalkeeper parried out a shot.  I’d spent months sitting watching football with him and telling him that every good striker would follow the ball in, and he’d done just that. As he jogged back to his half of the field he looked my way and we both clenched our fists in celebration. It was one of those tiny moments of joy that you get as a coach and a dad, and as such, one of my favourite moments of the season.

We continued to battle on after equalising and for a short while we looked likely to get another goal. However, it wasn’t to be, and in the final few minutes we were first denied a penalty (home refs, eh?) before conceding a goal from a corner. Another followed and that was us done for. There were tears at the end. My boys had genuinely believed that they could win and this had hurt them. But they were quickly reminded that they’d done themselves proud and that this showed how far they’d come in a very short space of time.

We went the next two games unbeaten with solid performances, before a game that had all of the good and bad of grassroots football. We played a team we’d previously lost to and were 5-0 down at half-time. The pitch was heavy, but the light drizzle that greeted the start of the game quickly gave way to heavy snow and for the first time in a long time players were asking to come off. But it wasn’t just the weather. The opposition’s coach was ridiculously loud and quite aggressive and some of the boys commented that they couldn’t concentrate. If intimidating the opposition is your thing at Under 10s level, then get on with it and feel good about yourself, but it’s not for me. We kept the talk brief at half-time accentuating the positives of our team and telling them to win the second half. And they did just that. The game ended – still in snow – 6-3 to the visitors, but we’d made an impression on their overly loud coach and he’d asked us to finish early as the snow got harder and my boys were pressing for another goal. I agreed and we finished the game, but we’d made our point! Once again I was left immensely proud of my boys, even if I was soaked to the skin. We gathered together in the clubhouse afterwards – players, coaches, parents and siblings – and made a massive puddle together!

As the season ticked on we began to play teams from the division above. The FA seem to just thrown in these extra games without explanation. We still had league games to play and even as I write and the season is finished there are teams in our league that we’ve only played once or not at all. I’m sure the task of organising the games is both onerous and thankless, and I’m not criticising anyone, but I can’t fathom out why we don’t seem to play the right amount of games.

Against opposition from a higher league we lost both games. But narrowly and we always gave a good performance. In fact, it felt like we really should have won them, but a combination of factors seemed to get in our way. Most of this was down to missing chances, but there’s one moment I’ll remember for the rest of my days. At 2-1 down, going into the closing seconds of an away game against Division B opponents, our right midfielder found himself in the opposition box with the ball in front of him. As the goalkeeper advanced he pushed it past him and was sent crashing to the turf by a high kick that had more in common with events in the octagon than Wembley. Surely a penalty, right? Wrong.

But this is where things took a turn. A bizarre turn. That football fans reflex prompted me to call out – ‘Ref?’ I simply asked the question – was that a penalty? No aggression, no attitude, not even particularly loud. I think both of us on the touchline asked. So what followed was mildly ludicrous and really quite amusing for me. The ref in question literally jumped up and down and screamed at me – ‘He got to the ball first!’ (he didn’t). I actually found myself asking him to calm down. I pointed out that I was merely asking a question, that there was no aggression and that, as the coach, I simply had to ask the question. He was not amused. But then again, neither were my team of 9 and 10 year olds. My own son was outraged and in tears in defence of his dad – ‘He can’t talk to you like that!’ – but we wisely let it go. We hoped, like the pundits tell us, that these things even themselves out over the season.

This then left our final two games of the season. And if ever I needed an indicator as to how far my boys have come in just over a year it was with these two results. The first game was at home and we were back to a league fixture. We’d played this team a number of times already in both league and cup games and remained unbeaten against them. However, the matches had always been tight. This time was very different. We won 8-1. I was stunned. I was thrilled. But I couldn’t really enjoy it. This had been the type of walloping we’d been given for most of last season and I must admit, I felt sorry for the opposition and their coach.

Don’t get me wrong, it was brilliant to see the lads enjoying themselves. They just controlled the game from start to finish and I was able to rotate players in different positions and give everyone a fair chance. But there were times when the other team just folded. Whatever they tried just either didn’t come off or was snuffed out by our team and it didn’t feel that satisfying after all. I’d watched players, coaches and parents revel in beating us last season and now I was left wondering what possessed them. I actually apologised to the opposition coach at the end of the game and I wasn’t really that sure what for.

Our final game of the season took us back over to Wakefield and as we warmed up I allowed myself the customary glance over at the opposition. They were big, they seemed to be knocking the ball around with confidence. This would be a test. How wrong you can be!

After an even first few minutes we went ahead and never looked back. Again, I was able to give everyone a decent run out and also to rotate players into different positions. We also gave our goalkeeper some outfield time and he promptly scored direct from a free-kick! We won 6-0. Less guilt and sympathy this time however, as opposition players were vocally critical of our ‘physical’ approach when we came off. We weren’t physical. Never are, never have been. I encourage the boys to stay on their feet and not to dive into tackles and we don’t push and shove. Perhaps all the work on our strength had payed off. Or perhaps, after over a year of hard work, we’ve learnt how to pass and move, how to support and encourage and how we never give up.

So there you have it. The trials and tribulations of another season of grassroots football. My first full season in charge and what a season! Next up? A well earned break. I’m exhausted! Then later on in the month we’ll come together for the end of year presentation and celebrate what’s been an amazing campaign.

 

 

 

Sean Longstaff & the Geordie dream.

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What we all dream of as little lads in Newcastle: a statue just outside the ground that looks quite like you.

For Newcastle United fans, it’s been very much a season of ups and downs. No change there then. For many of us it’s been that way for decades. We’ll beat the likes of Manchester United, Barcelona or even Melchester Rovers one week but get beat by Hereford or Whitley Bay reserves the next. We’ll go out and sign Keegan, Asprilla or Kluivert but we’re also perfectly capable of landing a Rob Macdonald, Kevin Dillon or Gabriel Obertan. And in terms of managers there’s a Kinnear for every Benitez. Actually there’s two Kinnears for every Benitez, unfortunately. We’re that good at ups and downs.

In the absence of trophies we’ve often been forced to look for other highs. I mean, those Intertoto Cups don’t come along every week, you know. Often these highs have been found in the form of maverick players; David Ginola, Laurent Robert and Hatem Ben Arfa spring to mind. This sits well alongside the message that we demand a team that tries and not necessarily a team that is bringing home the Champions’ League each season. Give us effort and a bit of skill and we’ll back it. Sadly, we’ve had to. Give us trophies and we’d back those too, but I think we’re all realists when it comes to silverware.

One thing that is almost guaranteed to make us happy though, is a local lad doing well. Like trophies though, they’ve been few and far between over the years. Unlike trophies, I suppose, there have been some in living memory – because weirdly, some people really don’t count the Intertoto triumph.

‘Some of them might even be from Blaydon, like me.’

As a very young season ticket holder I didn’t realise that the players might come from different places. In my innocent mind these people in front of me, clad in those mesmeric stripes were just ordinary blokes from the North East. Some of them might even be from Blaydon, like me. And barring a few Scots and the odd southerner, I was about right. But I still wouldn’t say we had any local boys doing particularly well.

As I got older and my understanding greater I was aware of the likes of Kenny Wharton coming through the ranks and the likes of Chris Waddle and Peter Beardsley being brought in. And I worshipped them for being local, like me. These were lads who were out there, fulfilling my dream of playing for Newcastle United; fulfilling the dream of thousands of others too.

‘And then came Gazza.’

We’d heard about the past and the likes of Jackie Milburn – Wor Jackie – granted veritable sainthood for being not just one of us, but a fantastic footballer to boot. But it had been years since a local lad of that quality had come along. And then came Gazza. Paul Gascgoine. For some of us – lots of us in fact – he would quite possibly be the greatest player we would ever see wearing the black and white shirt. For me, I’m pretty sure that still rings true. Forget his demons, his personal life, his off-the-field habits; Gazza was a one off and a world beater. He had a God given talent. And here he was living within a few miles of the stadium and representing his boyhood club. I was around 14 when he was in his pomp at the Toon and, in footballing terms he was everything I would have wanted to be – outrageously skilful, tricky, quick and beyond compare. I worshipped him. We all did and our feelings were given that extra boost because of the fact that he was local.

I was there on the night of Wednesday 25th November when we played Blackpool – I think in a League Cup game – in the pouring rain, amongst less than 8,000 fans as Gazza won it with a peach of a goal and celebrated in front of the Leazes End with the Ali shuffle. It’s a memory that will never leave me. When he left the club it felt like someone had ripped my heart out and I couldn’t work out why a local lad would ever want to leave. I remember my dad had said it broke his heart when ‘Supermac’ left and now I knew how he felt.

‘…Paul Dummett will never really make the heart flutter.’

Since Gazza the production line hasn’t really given us many to believe in. Lee Clark and Andy Carroll both gave us hope, but never fulfilled their potential with the club. The likes of Steven Taylor and nowadays, Paul Dummett will never really make the heart flutter. But we’d all still give our right arm to do what they did. And then there was Alan Shearer, the local lad made good elsewhere who, thanks to Kevin Keegan, returned in a triumphant homecoming in 1996 for a then world record fee. Hard to imagine these days, right?

Shearer, of course succeeded in every aspect of the Geordie dream, taking the number 9 shirt and going on to become the greatest goal scorer that the club and the Premier League had ever seen. Trophies and medals didn’t matter – he fulfilled every little boy from the region’s dream, something that people outside of the region still seem to delight in not understanding. We’ll leave them to it.

Sean Longstaff is the latest off a slightly slow production line. He looks like he’ll take a slightly different path. He’s not the number 9. In fact as yet, we can’t quite pin down exactly what he will be. Is he a number 10, is he a deep lying defensive midfielder or will he become a Shelvey style quarter-back of a player? Keyboard pundits and hopefully Rafa Benitez will decide that. One thing’s for sure is that Longstaff is without doubt living the Geordie dream.

‘And wow, has he looked the part.’

Those in the know have suspected for a while that here was a kid who would make it. But I must confess, as the past couple of seasons have gone by and he’s been out on loan, I had started to wonder whether he’d make it with us. However, just as he was breaking into the squad, injuries to Shelvey, Diame and then Ki’s Asian Cup call up pushed him into the starting line-up. And wow, has he looked the part. Even as more accepted first-teamers have regained fitness he has kept his place in the team on merit.

Longstaff has slipped into the team playing like he’s been there for years. An unassuming youngster with a quiet confidence and a wealth of natural ability, Sean is very definitely an old head on young shoulders. His eye for a pass, accuracy and work rate are allied to a certain amount of steel and strength in the tackle and he looks every bit the complete midfield player. Let’s not forget that he’s come up against more or less the best that the Premier League can offer in terms of midfields so far and has more than held his own, earning praise from not only Rafa but Pep Guardiola along the way.

For us fans his emergence is a joy to behold. And while we’ve willed him to do well, in truth, it hasn’t looked like he’s needed us really. He’s clearly a special talent. The next Paul Dummett? Yes, but only in terms of being the latest local lad done good. While Dummett is hard working and functional, Longstaff oozes class. Both are doing their club and city proud, but Sean promises so much more. In fact, until injury struck he had looked a shoe-in for at least the England Under-21 squad.

‘Thankfully, the family remained on Tyneside…’

And yet, he could have gone the way of many others of the past, including Michael Carrick, with whom he’s drawn comparison from several experts this season. Sean’s father, David, was a much admired ice hockey player and at one stage it seemed like the family may move to Canada where there were offers aplenty for David’s talent. Sean himself even indulged in the sport. Thankfully, the family remained on Tyneside and Sean, as well as his younger brother Matty were able to pursue their own careers. The Longstaff boys weren’t destined to follow the Robsons, Shearers and Carricks by moving away, but could yet emulate their successful careers.

Longstaff’s performances so far this season have been full of promise. As mentioned previously, he’s slotted in with ease and looks more than comfortable with the burden placed on his young shoulders. He understands exactly what he’s achieved and what the levels of expectation will be like. After scoring in the win against Burnley at St. James’ Park he told journalists, “You ask any young boy in Newcastle and I think that’s the ultimate dream – to score a goal in front of your friends and family.” So pleased was he that he forgot which side of the ground his parents were actually on, running instead to the opposite side in celebration!

‘This boy can play.’

Statistics show that Longstaff’s strength is in his work rate. The data suggests that he’s covering well over 10km per game. And this isn’t simply just ‘running around’ or boyish enthusiasm. This is calculated graft, reading the game and a natural awareness of simply where to be or where to get to. However, this is not what has supporters excited, although it’s undoubtedly appreciated. This boy can play. Look at his passing and there’s an element of Shelvey or Cabaye. Dare I say it in terms of accuracy there could even be a touch of Gazza. Whichever way you look at it, he’s our brightest hope – locally – in many years.

Sadly, a knee injury seems to have curtailed Sean’s season and it looks likely that he won’t pull on the black and white shirt until July or August. However, even with only 13 appearances in league and cup, Longstaff has given Newcastle supporters something that they have and will always cherish: a local lad living the Geordie dream. Long may it continue.

 

‘Spygate’ – an enormous fuss about absolutely nothing and an utter waste of time.

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Binoculars? Check. Pliers? Check. Huge fuss and a two hundred grand fine? You what!

It’s been well over a month now since we heard the first squeals about Spygate in the media. And bizarrely, it’s taken almost all of that time to actually sort anything out. But after what was beginning to seem like an endless investigation by the English Football League, it all came to a stuttering end with an absolute whimper.

If you haven’t heard, in the lead up to their game against Derby County it came out that Marcelo Bielsa had sent a member of his Leeds United staff to ‘spy’ on a Derby training session. And oh, the footballing world went mad.

‘…I’m on an even keel where Leeds are concerned.’

Now, I’m no Leeds fan. I’ve lived in Leeds now for over twenty years and my wife and son are both fans, but I can’t and won’t betray my Geordie roots. I’m black and white; always will be. However, living here for such a long time has given me a different perspective on the club that it would seem everyone loves to hate. I can draw parallels between Leeds and Newcastle, between their fans and ours and that allows me to feel a certain amount of respect for them as a club. As such, compared to a lot of people I’m on an even keel where Leeds are concerned.

However, it seems that for many, Leeds will always be renowned as ‘Dirty Leeds’, forever defined by the antics of Revie, Bremner, Wilkinson, Strachan and Jones. And so, what happened in the wake of so-called ‘Spygate’ was really not that big a surprise.

Firstly, the introduction to the live coverage of the actual game in question – Leeds v Derby – was utterly dominated with talk of men cutting holes in fences. Ironic really that where pundits should have been using the homework they’d done to talk about tactics, formations and key players, they instead talked about Bielsa and his homework on tactics, formations and key players.

‘…Bielsa calmly admitted that he was solely responsible…’

Frank Lampard, the Derby manager, was interviewed and declared, ‘I don’t think that, at any level of sport, it’s right to send a man to break into private property.’ He also said that he was ‘very surprised’ by it. At one point I thought he might be about to have a little cry. Furthermore, in the same broadcast the Sky pundit and former player, Keith Andrews branded the whole thing not only ‘disgusting’ but ‘immoral’. A reminder – we’re talking about a bloke looking through a fence and not someone drilling a peephole through the wall into the showers. Meanwhile Bielsa calmly admitted that he was soleley responsible, but that he’d broken no rules. He would famously detail all of his other EFL spying via a Powerpoint presentation in a specially called press conference. Elsewhere, the likes of Martin Keown were ridiculously outraged and called for a points deduction for Leeds while Paul Merson – never one to shy away from hyperbole – disagreed, saying that such a punishment ‘would be a joke’.

Twitter and the internet in general exploded with talk of what should and shouldn’t be done. Vitriol spewed forth and it became difficult to see the woods for the trees. Maybe the spy himself could’ve swapped his wire cutters for a strimmer and an axe to help us all out?

‘…Leeds would be given a slap on the wrist…’

And then a few days ago it was all dealt with, without any of the fanfare and drama that the ongoing investigation had seemed to be preparing us for. The EFL issued a statement that amounted to the fact that Leeds would be given a slap on the wrist in the form of a £200,000 fine and that a rule change would be made, with clubs no longer able to spy on each other within 72 hours of a game. So, in the end, even the punishment admitted that this probably wasn’t an isolated case.

So what’s to be made of it all then? Well, for me personally Bielsa and Leeds have done nothing wrong. And the league’s rule change pretty much makes it clear that spying goes on and that, in fact, it’s an accepted part of the game. Remember, no laws were broken. And in fact, a closer look at it all tells us that the biggest crimes committed here were with some of the reactions and lies. When someone like Martin Keown is the voice of moral outrage you might be able to sense that the argument is not that strong.

Look at what Lampard himself claimed. According to Frank, the first they knew about any of it was when the police were on the training pitch, and thus much to Frank’s annoyance, his very important session was being interrupted. And yet the police themselves claim otherwise. Not only did they state that they did not interrupt a session, but also that although a man was questioned, he was outside the training ground and no mention was made of any pliers being readied to cut through a fence. A spy? He hardly sounds like James Bond. Lampard’s claims of a man crawling through the undergrowth just brought about images of David Bellamy, rather than football’s version of the Milk Tray man – and yes, I realise that both of those references really show my age!

How can anyone justify a points deduction here? At most it’s a little bit un-sportsmanlike, but then this is football, where sometimes finding sportsmanlike behaviour can prove to be nothing but a long and fruitless search. A bit like investigating someone spying on a Derby training session then. I love football, but we’re talking about a sport where cheating and un-sportsmanlike behaviour is rife and where often, if we’re honest it’s ignored at best and at worst, applauded.

‘Diving has become an art form.’

Bleating about what essentially amounts to scouting reeks of hypocrisy when we take even a brief look at the behaviour of those involved in the game. Every game that you watch will feature a player claiming for a throw-in, a free-kick or corner that blatantly wasn’t theirs. Occasionally players shout at ball-boys who they feel are taking their time getting a ball back. And who’s to say if the home club haven’t ordered their ball-boys to do exactly that? Diving has become an art form. Blocking and grabbing at corners is the same. Referees have been abused for years. Pitches watered in certain areas in order to benefit a team and recently there was the fact that Liverpool cleared snow from only a selected part of the pitch during a game against Leicester. Every corner taker tries to place the ball outside of the D, every free kick taker moves the ball and every player taking a throw-in will meander down the pitch in order to gain an advantage. Some bloke watching a training session and making notes is not really that big a deal. Especially when you take into account that people are sent to scout the opposition every week, albeit during matches and not training sessions where shape and set pieces etc are being worked on.

From a neutral point of view I have to say I look at Spygate and wonder if all this fuss is simply a Leeds thing. I mean, they’re hardly a favourite among anyone connected with football. Revie’s Leeds were hated, Wilkinson’s Leeds were hated, even O’Learys’ Leeds were hated, although for me that was more down to O’Leary than any style of play or players involved. Even spending money seemed to be hated when it was Leeds doing it. I mean, you’ll hear a great deal more disgruntled noises about Peter Ridsdale’s fish than you will about the spending of teams from Blackburn in the 90s to Manchester City today.

Would every team in the league provoke such reactions when they didn’t actually break any rules? Of course not. It’s hard to imagine Guardiola or Pochettino – both devotees of Bielsa and his ways –  seeing their clubs vilified for similar actions. In fact, it’s hard to imagine many teams in the top two tiers of English football provoking this sort of response. Perhaps my own club, Newcastle, could rival the level of outrage. I mean, if we dare to criticise the way our club is run pundits are fighting to get to the head of the queue to put us in our place or trot out the lines about our unacceptable expectations. I have a feeling that the likes of Richard Keys and Dennis Wise would need coronary care if Rafa had sent someone to watch a training session. And talk of pliers could well have them foaming at the mouth. (I must therefore start that rumour). Looking further afield, I’m sure that the likes of Millwall would also face a fine for essentially doing nothing wrong, but I’m afraid my list pretty much ends there.

‘It all makes a two hundred grand fine for watching a training session seem just a little bit over the top.’

Even the fine seems ludicrous to me. When Serbian players and officials racially abused England Under 21 players in 2012 they were fined £65,000. Argentina were fined less than £60,000 for instances of homophobic chanting in 2018, having been punished for the same thing on eight separate occasions in the two previous years. And in 2015, Croatia were fined less than 7000 Euros for having a 14 metre swastika on their pitch during a Euro qualifier. It all makes a two hundred grand fine for watching a training session seem just a little bit over the top. Almost like the FA took one look at who was involved – Leeds – and who had been upset – the Golden Generation’s Sir Francis of Lampard – and thought, well we have to be seen to be doing something. After all, Lampard scored that goal against Germany that went over the line but wasn’t given. There’s a contribution that needs rewarding.

That said, the reaction of other Championship clubs didn’t help either. Eleven clubs complained about the so-called scandal, with the likes of Bristol City calling for a points deduction. How many would have asked for similar if it had been Bristol City themselves being accused?

All in all, in my opinion, there’s been far too much made of very little here. Several people inside the game have made similar claims about their own clubs; players texting line-ups to each other, training sessions being watched for years and yet, all of a sudden with a foreign manager and a less than popular club it’s all over back and front pages and we need to bring back the death penalty. Well this particular well-placed neutral thinks that people need to calm down. We live in a world where the pursuit of marginal gains is somewhat worshipped. Look at the lengths in the world of cycling that Team Sky go to gain an advantage. In my world – education – we’re encouraged to do more and more to help kids gain a few more marks. And in football, they’ve been doing research on the opposition for years. ‘Spygate’? Get a grip.

 

Miguel Almiron: A New Hope?

 

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Forget the money, the league and anything else; we all know they only sign for the bridges.

After several months of will we, won’t we, with peaks of excitement followed by troughs of an all too familiar despair, on Thursday 30th January Newcastle United, finally signed Miguel Almiron, a player identified as a priority several months before by Rafa Benitez.

The signing also broke a long-standing and well-publicised transfer record for the club. Fifteen years after we signed Michael Owen from Real Madrid for £16 million, we completed our search down the back of the settee to scrape together the slightly more than £16 million (although even that figure is shrouded in mystery) that it would take to complete the transfer of Almiron. So what does this mean for us, the fans? And what could it mean for the club?

‘We want a team that endeavours to be better.’

Firstly, Almiron’s arrival brings excitement. Every fan of every club loves a new arrival. They bring a chance for change. At a very basic level they mean that your team might be a bit better. As Newcastle United fans – despite what attention seekers like Merson, Keys and Gray might tell you – that’s all we want. We want a team that endeavours to be better. We’re realistic and understand that the Premier League title and the Champions’ League are out of our reach; but we do want our team to compete. Put simply then, Almiron gives us a better chance to compete in an increasingly competitive league.

Now I can’t confess to being the type of person who has the time or the inclination to sit and watch the MLS. As such, I have precious little knowledge of Almiron. But I’ve watched the clips shared on social media and via YouTube, and with fingers firmly crossed, I’d say we’ve bought a proper player. I’d like to think that I’ve gathered enough experience of football over the years to be able to be fairly sure of that. Almiron appears to bring the kind of flair and imagination that entertains; that gets fans out of their seats. In terms of continental flair players, think more Hatem Ben Arfa and less Diego Gavilan. And that can only be a good thing. It’s what we wanted from Kenedy and what, sadly, we’re still left wanting. Let’s hope then, that Miguel can fill the void.

He certainly looks the type who’ll drive us forward. A strong runner with more than a touch of flair and pace. He’s shown that he has an eye for goal with 22 goals and 19 assists in his last two seasons and so I’d hope that the least we could expect is excitement. If he can chip in with a few goals and assists before the end of the season, then he’ll have settled in nicely. He also, from what I’ve heard and read, seems like someone is isn’t afraid of hard work, which given our league position is again the kind of player that we’ll need. Flair is OK to a point, but in the position we find ourselves in, graft is king; especially in the eyes of Rafa.

Again, from hearsay – the noun, not the manufactured pop group from Pop Idol – I gather that Miguel is very much a positive influence around a club. Certainly from the photos and interviews with former colleagues, he seems quite the contented soul. The football fans in Atlanta, it seems, are nothing but grateful for his contribution over the last two years. And on a very basic level, he smiles a lot. So let’s hope that’s a good indicator of a player! With the Hispanic influence of the likes of Rafa and his staff, Fernandez, Manquillo, Ayoze, Perez, Kenedy, Rondon, Joselu – yes, even Joselu – he has a better chance of settling in quickly and if his roots mean that he can strike up some kind of understanding with our centre forward, then all the better.

‘…for every Rafa, terrifyingly there’s a Marcelino.’

We have a history with players from South America though and so we all know that it’s not always that simple. In terms of influence and positivity, for every Perez there’s a Mirandinha and for every Rafa, terrifyingly there’s a Marcelino. We can only hope that Almiron settles quickly. And in terms of a Mirandinha comparison we can only hope he refrains from kicking goalkeepers up the arse.

Some have questioned Almiron’s size, wondering if he has what it takes to adapt to the sheer physicality of the Premier League. In truth, only time will tell, but if you look at players around now like Aguero, Sane, Sterling, Salah, Fraser and Erikson as well as players from the recent past like Modric and Suarez, then size isn’t everything. You could argue that all of these players are also exceptional footballers, but again with Almiron we don’t yet know.

In terms of the future Almiron could have a huge effect. Could his signing be a signal that the purse strings are being loosened? Well, given the overwhelming evidence of the last 11 years, then you’d say probably not. But given that you’re a Newcastle United fan, you’re the eternal optimist by definition, otherwise you’d have given up the ghost years ago! So let’s hope that his signing leads to more of the same. Could Almiron help bring success? Conceivably, yes. But it’s obvious that he’s going to need help in the form of more signings of at least similar quality if we’re to start battling for trophies. While his signing brings a certain level of optimism, it doesn’t blind you to the fact that January still left Rafa with a great deal less than he’d asked for.

Which brings me to the man himself. Rafa Benitez. A man who has invested so much into both our club and community over the last few years. Although still not enough if your name’s Richard Keys. And if your name is Richard Keys, then pop off back to hanging around the sixth form gates; this blog’s not for you.

‘But this is NUFC and life is never, ever that simple…’

It’s been speculated that Almiron’s signing might well be the gesture that helps persuade Rafa to sign a new contract. And it’s true, there’s a certain poetic kind of logic to that. He desperately wanted the player, so why would he leave mere months into coaching the fellaa? But this is NUFC and life is never, ever that simple or straightforward. It’s a nice dream, but really? Almiron – and I mean this in the most respectful of ways – should be viewed simply as a start and I feel sure that Rafa will think very much the same. I mean, for all the good feeling he brings, we’re still playing with somebody else’s centre forward leading the line and a bloke bought from Stoke’s reserves as back up. So while signing Almiron might make Rafa feel like we’ve got more of a chance, I’m sure it won’t make him sign the first contract that’s stuck under his nose.

Looking at the signing from another ‘future’ angle, I wonder what he might do in terms of the development of players like Sean Longstaff, Mo Sangare, Kelland Watts and the like. Certainly in terms of Longstaff who will at the very least be training with the first team for the foreseeable future, Almiron could be a fantastic influence and totally compliment his style of play. And from a slightly different angle it could be interesting to see how he might link up with the likes of Shelvey.

‘He won’t have missed the league table…’

As ever with Newcastle it’s important to look at the darker side of things though. Almiron comes into a club that in many ways is in turmoil and into a team that is fighting relegation. It’s to be hoped that he settles quickly and begins to exert his influence on the team so that we can start to gain even more positive results. However for any player coming into a fight such as ours there will always be a question mark. That said, I’m sure he’s coming in with his eyes well and truly wide open. He won’t have missed the league table and I’m sure that he’s been informed of the current stand off between fans and owner. It has to be hoped though that his focus is solely on the team and results. He’s certainly going to find that he’s a long way from Atlanta in every sense of the phrase.

One thing is absolutely certain about the signing of Miguel Almiron. Our fans will be behind him from the off. His signing has caused a definite excitement; one that we haven’t had from a signing for a number of years. For me, there’s even a certain parallel between signing Almiron and signing Asprilla. Granted Asprilla was already very much established in the game, but still in terms of how he’d settle and what he’d produce, an unknown quantity. Well Tino definitely produced the goods. Let’s hope Miguel can do the same.

Whatever happens, the signing of Miguel Almiron is a step in the right direction. Whether it’s a baby step or some sort of seismic leap…well we’ll have to wait and see. Whichever way you look at his signing though, it’s going to be an interesting next few months. Same as it ever was then.

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

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

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

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

As a Coach…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As a fan…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

‘I’m knackered during the warm-up!’ – the trials of an aspiring coach.

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As a qualified coach, I know how to keep things simple for the Under 10s! Not quite sure I’ve mastered drawing though…

For the whole of December I spent my Saturdays and some of my evenings working towards my Level 1 FA coaching badge. It wasn’t something I actually wanted to do, but after a few gentle shoves from my club, I found myself heading for Huddersfield early on the first day in December. This would be the start of four consecutive Saturdays spent slogging through mornings of various classroom based theory and afternoons of practical sessions. But it would be worth it, right?

I actually qualified as both a Level 1 coach and a referee around twenty years ago as part of my teaching qualification, so, I must admit I felt a little bit put out at the insistence that I do it all again. That said, I suppose it’s obvious that such an old qualification should be considered no use after such a long time and so perhaps, with my team and my club in mind, I should be grateful for the chance to become qualified once more. But, at just after 9am on a Saturday, approaching the place where I’ll be put through my paces, I’m not feeling very grateful at all. Today will last from 9.30 until 5.30 after all – and that’s after having done a week at work. Could it be that I’m just too old for this kind of caper nowadays?

For anyone who doesn’t know, I’ve been coaching one of the Under 10s teams at our local football club for the past year now. I went along as a dad watching his son and ended up being the coach; a common tale from what I can gather. However, given the club’s status as a holder of the FA’s Charter Standard, I’ve been made to get my qualification, despite my misgivings. And I must admit, despite my grumbling, there was a part of me that was actually looking forward to it. I’ve loved football for pretty much my whole life and so the chance to spend even more time indulging myself in it does have a bit of an appeal. And then of course there’s being a bloke and having an ego. I can spend afternoons fluking the odd bit of skill, scoring a few goals and generally kidding myself that I’ve still got it, whatever ‘it’ might have been.

On the first week I checked into the reception of the venue to be greeted by around 15 other reticent faces. Barely anyone looked like they could really be bothered. It wasn’t long however, before we were being ushered out of the reception back out into the cold and pointed in the direction of a hut in the far corner of the complex. This would be our classroom, the magic building where all of us would become the next Klopp, Benitez or in the case of the locals, Wagner. That’s David Wagner, the Huddersfield Town coach, not the pervy looking long-haired Brazilian fella from the X-Factor of years gone by.

Inside the hut we’re welcomed by Norman, an FA coach who will be our mentor and coaching guru for the next month or so. He’s smiley and friendly and seems to know his stuff. And he really gets on our good side by telling us we’ll be running through our practicals on the indoor pitch because it’s bitterly cold outside and he doesn’t fancy standing around in the cold for a few hours! I think I’m going to warm to him, if you’ll pardon the pun.

We spend the next few hours discussing things like the qualities of a good coach, how we treat our players and the FA DNA, which is the blueprint for how the English FA want the game to be approached and the same path that is followed by all coaches, right the way through to Mr Southgate at the top.  Our discussions are somewhat hamstrung though, as we battle to get a word in edgeways. We happen to have a ready made expert on the course. You know the kind – no actual qualifications, but more than willing to share his vast experience with us, question the bloke leading the course and ask questions that have just been answered, because of course, he wasn’t listening. He’ll be like this for the next four weeks. Has he mentioned that he coaches 3 teams? Just a bit. Has he told us about the gala that his team entered and won every game? Only a few times. Are we bored of hearing him talk and would we all like him to just shut up? Have a guess. More of him later though.

We also talk ‘invasion games’ which is a new one on me and for a second I’m left wondering how I could’ve missed this concept, given the amount of time I give to football. Turns out though it’s just a bit like attack versus defence. Later, I’m also introduced to other labels for stuff that I already have a name for. After nearly 40 years of watching, playing and coaching football this is a little bit like learning a new language! I’ll probably just stick to using the same terms I always have for the sake of my Under 10s.

Being the social animal that I am I spend lunch time in my car, listening to the radio. If you know me, you’d expect nothing less. On the walk there though, I’m collared by one of the young coaches on the course. I recognise him. He recognises me. It turns out that he’s an ex-pupil, now 22. I’m fully expecting a punch in the face, but he’s nothing but complimentary. He now works in video analysis for a rugby league team and he’s keen to let me know that he got his GCSE in English!

For the afternoon session – as it will be for all of our Saturdays in December – we take to the indoor 3G pitch where we’re either running coaching sessions or taking part in them. Having paired up in the morning we’d designed sessions to run and now it’s time to give them a go. Now, despite a health scare earlier this year, I’d like to think that I’ve kept myself fit, so a few hours running around a pitch holds no fears for me. However, it’s a different story at the end of the warm-up! I’m knackered! We warm up for around 15 minutes, with several short, sharp drills and by the end of it all I can feel my heart hammering inside my chest. As the first pair of coaches set up their drill though, I catch my breath and I’m up and volunteering as they introduce their game.

This is the structure for the afternoon then. Each pair presents their drill and for 10 minutes, those who can still move freely take part. It’s a harsh baptism for this particular 46 year-old! During the first drill I’m not too bad, but in the midst of the second I realise I’m chasing shadows. Experience takes over and I gather myself and start to work smarter. I can’t chase every ball anymore so I start to read the game, cutting off space when I defend and moving into it when I attack, reading what opponents might do and crucially, moving less!

As we stand around afterwards giving feedback, I have a look at my fellow coaches. I’m fairly sure that I’m the oldest. Several of the group are between 17 and 22. In terms of my fitness, I’m out of my depth. I resolve to grow up a bit and realise that I just need to take part. It’s a better alternative than running until I drop! My partner, Nick, is similarly knackered and we’re glad of the rest we’ll get when it comes to both setting up and running our drill.

Our drill is well received and there is no negative feedback. People have obviously enjoyed it, as has the coach running the course and he’s generous in his praise. Even at my age I can’t help but smile. Even at my age it makes me feel proud. It’s a huge positive to find that your peers have loved what you’ve set them to do and I feel like we’re standing out in the best possible way. I jog my way through the rest of the day and after we’ve given peer feedback and written down our homework, it’s time, thank goodness, to head home. I’m exhausted, but have had an undeniably enjoyable day.

My next stop on the coaching journey is another Huddersfield leisure centre. It’s a Wednesday night and we’re set for three hours of fun learning First Aid. I’m genuinely surprised that the main focus of this course seems to be cardiac arrests. I coach 9 & 10 year-olds, but I’m assured that it can happen, so I’m glad of the knowledge gained. Our rather confident and talkative friend is there and proceeds, once again, to do a lot more talking than listening. God help anyone who suffers with anymore than a dead leg at the side of his pitch.

I leave at 9.30pm and drive home praying that at least one chip shop will be open. My prayers aren’t answered though and I’m forced to head to McDonalds insetad. Silver linings? Turns out every cloud is a cloud after all.

The following Saturday I’m put through my paces once again. Same format – classroom based in the morning as the coach battles with the self appointed Special One of the group, who continues to give us the benefit of his experience as often as he can. He coaches three teams you know. He coaches girls. He coaches boys. No doubt he coaches everything in between too. I believe Pep Guardiola started in much the same way, but unlike our fella, he doesn’t like to talk about it.

We’re not even safe from him out on the pitches for the practical sessions either! During the instructions he always has a question and during the feedback there’s always something that he would’ve done different or a nit to pick! By week three, when we all stand in a circle during feedback he’s actually taken to standing in the middle of it, as if he’s the bloke running the course. Worse though, is the fact that he doesn’t get any quieter!

During the afternoon work out I manage to injure myself, which if you’ve ever played football with me in the past, will come as no surprise. I’m delaying an attack by jockeying backwards instead of diving into a tackle – we’ve discussed this in the morning session, so I’m putting my learning into practice in search of Brownie points. However, my tired legs can’t keep up with my brain and I tumble backwards going literally head over heels and narrowly avoiding being stood on by advancing players. I feel something pull in my groin and I know that it’s going to be a long afternoon after that! I’m a big boy and soldier on, but I’m limping quite heavily by the time we leave. Clearly tonight will be spent with my feet up on the settee, recuperating!

On the plus side of things we tweak our successful drill from last week and, if anything it goes even better. People know exactly where they should be and what they should be doing and in the very last seconds a pinpoint cross is headed in spectacularly right in front of Norman, our coach and the FA mentor who has turned up! You couldn’t script this. I go on to use the same drill with my Under 10s in our next training session and again, it goes well. I might actually be learning something! That stuff about old dogs is clearly rubbish!

I have another midweek session, this time only until 8.30 and it’s about Safeguarding.  Because of my job I’m familiar with the subject matter so it’s not too draining. The next night I have a Parents’ Evening at work and so by the following Saturday, I’m worn out.

There’s no let up though and to make matters worse Norman has decided that we’ll have a short time to work on our drills before we go to the pitches to run through them. A morning exercise session! We’ll be doing some drills this morning, then some classroom stuff, followed by the remaining drills. I know straight away that my body will seize up once I’ve stopped and so the afternoon session promises to be testing to say the least. I mean, did I mention that I’m 46?

As predicted, as we warm up in the afternoon I can practically hear my joints creaking. My brain is screaming things like ‘sit down’, ‘hot chocolate’, ‘Wurthers Originals, pipe and slippers’, but I have to ignore it and push myself on. We change our drill completely – the only group to do so – and again it works well. So well in fact that the coach tells us that had he been running a similar session he’d have done the exact same drill. With bashful grins we write up our feedback knowing that Nick had taken the drill from the FA website the night before! Turns out there’s no substitute for experience after all! A good day all round and now we’re nearly qualified FA coaches to boot!

With no midweek session, the final Saturday dawns and it promises to be a short one. We’re classroom based today, writing up our journals and discussing football matters with Norman. Sounds great. My feet certainly favour this approach, as does the rest of my aching, middle-aged body.

I was told before starting the course that ‘all you have to do is turn up…you can’t actually fail’. But this has certainly been far harder than that. From what I gather, the course has changed due to the FA’s new ‘DNA’ approach. I’ve had homework, research to do and been faced with a very hands on approach during all of the sessions. It’s certainly not been a case of simply turning up and feigning listening every day. We’ve had to be proactive. We’ve had to think for ourselves. We’ve been put on the spot. And God knows we’ve been tested physically – or is that just me and the other older members of the group? Whichever way I look at it, I feel like I’ve earned my title of Level 1 coach, that’s for sure.

When we’re finished we say our goodbyes and I’m off to my car, tired but happy. There’s lots to do – Christmas is three days away – but as I drive home I realise that the whole thing has definitely been worth it. I’ve certainly improved as a coach. The three training sessions that I’ve put on across the time that I’ve been on the course have been varied, enjoyable and productive. I can see my players improving and they’re enjoying what we do. We haven’t had the chance to put our learning into practice due to games being postponed, but I’m really hopeful that some of the things we’ve worked on will bear fruit on the pitch. Whatever happens, I’m now more creative as a coach and hope that when I’m stood on the touchline trying to resolve some kind of problem or other I’ll be better placed to come up with a solution. Mind you, until the FA come up with a module on tying laces with frozen fingers, there’ll always be something that I can’t solve. Perhaps that’s on the Level 2 course…

 

 

 

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

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

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

“…Saturday has almost gone.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“…scoring goals is always the dream.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Welcome to grassroots football!

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