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

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

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

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

But then came our second game of the season.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grassroots Football: End of Season reflections.

As the curtain falls on another year of grassroots football I thought I’d reflect on what has been an eventful season. The prevalence of Covid-19 has had a major bearing on how the season has run, but then when you factor in all of the usual ups and downs of running any kind of sporting team, it’s safe to say that things have been demanding in the extreme!

A little bit of background: regular readers will know this already, but I coach a football (soccer) team for under 12s. I’ve done it now for the past four years and it’s a source of great joy and satisfaction as well as fatigue! The highs are right up there, but the lows can be an absolute pain.

The global pandemic wrecked the previous season (2019-20), but you’d hope that this type of thing would prove to be a once in a lifetime event. Unless of course you are a Hollywood actor, or you live in the Bible. Sadly though, with wave after wave of the virus hitting, grassroots sport was paralysed again and we found ourselves back in lockdown and unable to train or play for large spells of season 20-21. In fact at one point it genuinely felt like the season would be abandoned and we’d be looking at waiting 7 or 8 months before a ball was kicked in anger again. And then, just as we were beginning to lose hope, the rules were relaxed as vaccinations took effect and we were able to get going again, albeit with tight restrictions in place.

So what are my reflections on the season gone by? Well, they’re a funny old mixture of satisfaction and extreme frustration. We finished 7th in a 10 team league. 7th in Division 7 of 8. So, it’s safe to say that our performance overall wasn’t what I’d hoped for. There have been times when we’ve played wonderful fast moving, flowing football, but there have also been times when we’ve played like a team of strangers, both to each other and to football! It’s the kind of inconsistency that leaves a lot more questions than answers and has also meant a lot of time spent trying to figure out what the problem was and how we could be more consistent as a team.

When I started coaching the team they were Under 8s. We were the 2nd team and even then there were a range of abilities. My goal – no pun intended – was always to coach my players so that they were comfortable with a ball at their feet. I’d like to think that with the majority of my players I’ve achieved that. I’ve always wanted to instill the importance of playing a quick passing game into my players. Pass to a team mate, move off the ball, look for space and look for angles; play the game on the grass, in the right way. I think that for a large proportion of the season we’ve got there with these goals, but a lot of the time physicality and focus have cost us.

So these are two areas that we need to work on with pre-season and next season in mind. I still feel like some of my lads are very immature and prone to just switching off in games and that’s when mistakes happen. Since we started playing again after lockdown in January we’ve been competitive in every game and only lost one by more than one goal. In all of these games we’ve had spells of playing wonderful football; we’ve been good to watch. And yet, there’s always the risk of a mistake.

Teaching the boys the value of a team ethic has been more important than ever this year. For a few years previous there had been a bit of a tendency for boys to mix with only the people from their primary school and it caused problems. The feeling that this was everyone’s team and that everyone was a team mate took a lot of getting through. And while I don’t think we’ve quite got the message through, we’ve definitely made great strides with it this season. You can hear it on the pitch with the encouragement that they give each other and the positivity. Rather than criticising a team mate who takes a bad touch or misses a chance, now we’re more likely to hear one of them shouting that it was “unlucky” or “just keep going, don’t let your head drop.” They’ve never been the loudest of teams, but we’ve improved vocally this year and it’s something I’m genuinely happy about.

The team ethic has come into play with our physicality too. While some teams have fielded several players that look like fully grown men this year, we’re still quite a small bunch. It’s meant that we’ve been bullied off the ball at times over the years and worse still, we’ve allowed it to happen and simply complained, rather than trying to be stronger. That changed a little in the period since around April this year. We’ve talked and talked about it in training and before, during and after games and the message seems to be getting through – don’t cheat, but fight for the right to keep the ball and win football matches. This is definitely something that we need to keep working on as well as carrying it forward for next season.

Next season will be a big step up for my team. They move from playing 9-a-side football to 11-a-side and that means playing on a bigger pitch with bigger goals. We’ll have to adapt to new positions and different formations and all of this presents a real challenge. I’m hoping that the size of the pitch will help us because we pass the ball well. However, I’m conscious that it should help others too who rely on how well their stronger players can run with the ball. With this in mind, part of our build up to the season will be spent working much more on fitness and trying to improve players strength, pace and stamina. If we can get closer to teams physically, the way we play the game might just give us an advantage.

At the moment though our main concern revolves around the recruitment of players. the 12-13 age range is a tricky time with junior footballers as lots of them start to explore new interests and the drop out rate is quite high. So far, having asked parents who’ll be signing up next season I’ve had only 11 positive replies, which basically means we haven’t got a squad yet. Our goalkeeper has decided to drop football, leaving us without anyone to fill what is a really key position, so we’re on the lookout for a new keeper! It promises to be a crucial next few weeks, with the simple fact being if we can’t get enough players then the team will have to fold. I’ve already heard whispers of other teams that are in the same position, so it’s going to be a case of putting out adverts, relying on word of mouth and crossing everything that’s crossable in the hope that we can attract bodies! If not, I’m going to have to find something else to fill my everyday thoughts and Sunday mornings!

The other thing that I need to think about now is sponsorship. Grassroots football clubs are not organisations that are awash with money. But the kids that populate them tend to grow fast. So when it comes to kit, my lads have grown out of what they’ve got and we are in dire need of a new home kit. The last time we got one we could only secure sponsorship to pay for just over half of what we got, meaning that the club had to stump up money to help out. I’d like to avoid that this time round.

That said, schmoozing potential sponsors is not my thing and that is yet another problem. My assistant coach is usually pretty good at that kind of thing though and as well as this, we have parents of some of our players that have tried to get sponsorship in the past. In fact, our last home kit sponsorship was achieved by one of said parents badgering a business owner who drinks in the same pub as him!

If we do get the money then we need to get the kit, which shouldn’t be a problem, but again is something that irks me. Our club committee insist on sticking with the same supplier for all teams and frankly, I don’t rate the supplier. Our home kit for the last two seasons has been plain, dull and unimaginative, so I’m hoping that this year there might be a bit of flexibility.

A couple of years ago I used an online kit designer to come up with some ideas from a different supplier. I then put the idea to the club. You would have thought I’d just arrived at the meeting riding a sea horse while holding hands with a mermaid. Suffice to say, we stuck with our usual way of doing things.

A year later however, we decided that we’d buy a training kit that could double up as an away kit because our home kit clashed with several other teams in our league. We went with a neon yellow and grey number and it blew a few minds. And then, a coach from one of our younger age groups got in touch to find out which kit it was, as he wanted to order it. Gradually more groups did the same and now several of our age groups wear the same snazzy kit that we introduced. So there’s hope for a quiet kit revolution yet!

Overall, it’s been a season of highs and lows and it’s left us with lots to work on. I think I have a team of players that are capable of a great deal more. I think their potential is a lot greater than they realise and happily, I think the penny might have dropped a little with this. I’ll be going into the season with some targets for them, both individually and as a team, but in short I’ll be looking for a much better league finish. This season we finished 7th out of 10 clubs. Next year I’ll be pushing my boys for a top three finish (if we get the players and actually still have a team, that is…) and if results in the final four or five games are anything to go by, we can achieve just that.

We lost to the teams that finished 2nd and 3rd in the league, but were competitive in both games, particularly against the 2nd team. We defeated teams that finished higher than us in those final games too, most notably against the team that won the league. In fact, we were the only team to beat them over the course of the entire season; the only team to take any points at all off them as they won every other game that they played. And it wasn’t just a win; we made them look very ordinary and dominated all but the final five minutes or so. If we can take that performance forward, then we’ll be OK.

So here’s to another year of football with all of the challenges it brings. Let’s just hope that the pandemic isn’t going to cause the chaos that it has for the last two seasons though!

Life in grassroots football: How to turn your Under 11s four match losing streak into a personal crisis!

dsc_0576
Right lads, read this, take it all in and get out there and play like Brazil. Oh, and enjoy yourselves!

Every week, I try to make the last words that I say to my team exactly the same. “Enjoy it”, I say. And I mean it. I won’t lie though. I desperately want them to win because I know that winning football matches is a great deal more enjoyable than losing them. It’s simple really. But I always tell them ‘enjoy it’.

There’s no doubt that there’s a boat load of enjoyment to be had from running a kids’ football team. Certainly that’s what everyone will tell you. It’ll be a tonne of fun. They’re right as well. It is fun. So why am I currently turning our form into some kind of personal crisis then? Well let me attempt an explanation.

“I take it all very personally”

First up – and I know from conversations with other coaches that I’ve got no exclusivity here – I take it all very personally. When I played, as a kid and as a much younger man, I wanted to win. Desperately. Now, as an adult, I won’t ever send a team out thinking that any of us will enjoy it if we get beat. I certainly won’t. I don’t even enjoy it when we’ve got beat and played well. I might tell the kids that it was enjoyable to watch, but that’s a carefully placed white lie. When I played I would brood on defeats or bad performances for days on end. Nowadays, as a coach, it wakes me up in the middle of the night. ‘What could I have done to prevent that from happening?’ I tell the kids that I enjoyed watching them play, but inside I’m already asking myself how I could have changed things in order to avoid that defeat. Or I’m wondering how what we did in training on the Thursday and what we spoke about before kick-off didn’t make it to the match.

Kids don’t enjoy defeat either, especially when it’s a run of them. This thing that was meant to be fun isn’t anything like fun when the other team are laughing at you or celebrating yards away as you sit and have a drink of water miserably at the end of the game.

“I didn’t shout and bawl and I wasn’t cruel.”

And then as a coach, what do I say? I understand the need for positivity, but I think sometimes you have to be human too. Sometimes I just find it really tough to choose my words. And it becomes something that I worry about. Another reason to lie awake on a Saturday night. After our last game, and at the end of the four game losing streak that kind of prompted this blog, I’d had enough. I didn’t shout and bawl and I wasn’t cruel. But I couldn’t tell them lies. Not on this occasion. It had genuinely felt like every instruction given had been ignored. It had genuinely felt like, as coaches, we’d been let down. Of course I didn’t tell them that, but they were left in no doubt that they simply hadn’t been good enough. We’d been forced to make three substitutions because of the attitude of some of the boys and the fact that they’d decided to shout at not just the ref, but their coaches, parents and each other too. Of course, I then worried about that as well! Should I have been negative? Did I need to say anything? Would I need to sit them down again before the next training session and be all ‘cuddly’ and positive? In the end I said no more, but I must have thought it through at least a dozen times in the days between the game and training.

I did end up spending even more hours on football that week coming up with a code of conduct for the boys with some ‘rules’ and sanctions. I gave it out at training still feeling like I might be taking it all too seriously, but then comforted myself later with the thought that I’d taken out the bit where I wanted them to sign it! I’d planned to photocopy each of the signed code of conducts, so that I had a copy as well as the boys! I’m still keeping it in mind for next season though! After all, they’ll be coming up to 12 by then…

As coaches we took that day personally. In the heat of the moment I genuinely considered quitting as it just felt like I wasn’t making any kind of difference any more. As I do on many a Sunday, I found some time to sit and think things through in the afternoon after the game and came to the conclusion that I was taking things a little too seriously. There was no option but to carry on, making sure that training was purposeful and fun and that we worked more towards getting things right in games. After all, it’s an under 11s team, not someone fighting to win the Champions’ League. But it demonstrates how easy it is to become completely obsessed by the small part we play in football. And I’m sure I’m not alone in being this way. I hope I’m not, anyway!

“…I’ve allowed running a team to become too big a part of my life.”

The lengths I go to and the time I put into my team probably pales into insignificance when measured against some coaches. But I still feel that I’ve allowed running a team to become too big a part of my life. In the lead up to a game I can be regularly found scribbling down teams and formation on the backs of envelopes or scraps of paper. I’ll invariably then proceed to lose the envelope and have to search out another one and do it all over again! The trouble is that a combination of a big squad of players – we have 16 kids for a 9-a-side team – and a poor memory means that every team is different again as I forget a player and include someone else. Suffice to say the whole envelope thing can be unnecessarily stressful!

I used to keep a record of every game we played as well. I’d mark each player out of ten, record scorers and write a paragraph or two about how we’d played and things to change. Family life and work has put pay to that particular obsession though as I can just never find the time anymore. Again though, the little orange book is something I’m thinking of bringing back for next year!

When I’ve got time I get out my little magnetic board with the counters that represent players and play about with it, working out who’d be best where and what I’d need to tell them in order to get the best out of them in said position. I haven’t yet had the bottle to use it at an actual match, but the time will come when I finally convince myself that it’s not that embarrassing and that it’s what other coaches do! I’ll stress myself out about that too.

“…please don’t get me started on dog walkers!”

And then, in terms of obsession and crisis, we get to the pitch. Our pitch takes up so much of my time that it’s criminal really. I live quite close to the club, so in times of bad weather I’m forever thinking about it. What will that near side touchline be like? Will the top goalmouth be holding water? Is the grass too long in the corners and is it possible that my lines have disappeared again? As a further consequence of living close, I’m forever checking the weather forecast for the week a well, just in case there’s a few days worth of rain that I need to panic about while being unable to actually do anything about it.

All this is of course before we even touch on the subject of kids using the pitch to ride bikes on. And please don’t get me started on dog walkers! It seems that every time I go over to re-paint the lines someone has let their dog use our pitch as a toilet and then conveniently not noticed! And I swear that every time I’m leaving having re-done those lines someone will proceed to walk their dog over our pitch, even though they can see me coming out of the clubhouse! I’m beginning to feel paranoid; that someone is watching me paint the lines while simultaneously winding up Fido ready to go and run all over our grass!

It gets worse. I can often be found hanging out of my bedroom window, craning my neck to see if I can get a view of the pitch from about 400 metres away. I can’t, but it never stops me trying! Sometimes I’ll see dog walkers or, Heaven forbid, kids playing football and quietly curse to myself while trying not to worry too much. I’ve genuinely become a pitch bore and I fear that I may need to seek some kind of professional help in order to shake the disease.

The final form of obsession can be found on the morning of any match. As a supporter I’ve been ridiculously superstitious for as long as I can remember. Nothing too crazy…just the lucky pants, the lucky socks, the lucky top, not using any plates, bowls or mugs that are the same colour as opposition shirts, the lucky pebbles found on a beach stuffed into coat pockets, buying a programme from the same place week in, week out. Just the kind of things I’ve found as a Newcastle United fan that are proven to work and responsible for all of our success over the years. I mean you can’t always rely on the likes of Mike Ashley, Joe Kinnear and Alan Pardew.

As a coach I’m much the same. If we lose I won’t wear the same top for the next game. I’ll change tracksuit bottoms after a bad result too. I put things out in a certain order when I get to the pitch. I haven’t quite got to the lucky pebble level yet, but I know it’ll happen. I just haven’t found the right pebble yet!

We finally have a game again this weekend after the last four were postponed due to the weather. After what has felt like months and months being obsessed and feeling like I’m in the middle of some kind of personal crisis I have an outlet! I hope that we go out and play well. I hope that the formation I’ve been considering will work and that the changes I’m planning won’t be too much. I hope we can win. And, you know obviously, I hope everyone enjoys themselves. Whatever happens I’m sure I’ll sulk and moan and overthink every last second of it!

 

 

 

Grassroots Football: The Gala Experience

dsc_0851.jpg

On Sunday 7th July I took my Under 11s football team to compete in the Wakefield Owls Soccer6 Gala, a tournament for various age groups across Yorkshire. This is our story. From previous experience I know that galas are a frenzied affair. There are teams as far as the eye can see, accompanied by parents, close relatives and coaches. And as an actual coach you’re attempting to be in several places at once, coaching your team, instructing subs, keeping parents informed, finding out what’s going on and where you’ll be off to next, as well as trying to stay composed and focused. This may well be what they term ‘mini soccer’ but at a gala it’s like the circus have come to town…and brought the auditions for Britain’s Got Talent with them. And on closer inspection, some of the under 7s do have more than a passing similarity to both Ant and Dec. Gala day begins early in our house as we need to be there to register our team by 9am. Having attended a family wedding the day before, this getting up early lark is not going to be easy. I struggle through a shower and make breakfast for the kids, while intermittently attempting to sort out my coach’s bag and footballs. We load up only the essentials today – first aid kit, bibs, etc and just the 5 footballs so that we can get some practice in without spraying dozens of footballs all over other people’s pitches; after all this isn’t the usual herding cats scenario that we know as training on a Thursday night, with 17 kids and footballs being relocated from anywhere within a half-mile radius. It’s strange how none of our boys can spot the bright yellow football that they themselves have just kicked onto a neighbouring pitch or a patch of grass 50 yards away on a Thursday! Away games can be chaotic in terms of travel. Despite living in Leeds for over 20 years I’m still not that well versed on its geography or that of the surrounding areas and so we’re often screeching up to pitches later than the majority of parents. But today, we’re early, negotiating the journey with no wrong turnings and easily managing to get parked. It helps that we’ve played here several times before, of course. I meet up with my assistant coach and his son. It’s not even 9 ‘o clock and we already have two players present, which is a relief. Just the other six to tick off now. We wander down to the clubhouse and meet some other parents and players before registering the team’s attendance. One of the mum’s makes herself the least popular adult with our squad by producing suncream from her bag and liberally lathering it all over the necks and faces of the boys! There’s an outcry that can probably be heard back in Leeds, but it’s better to be safe than sorry though, right? At this point there’s always a shared sense of determination and optimism. Football at this level is meant to be fun, but in truth, none of us have turned up today to lose while maintaining inane grins all over our faces. We all want to win and nobody is looking to be humiliated. It’s a nice, positive atmosphere to be part of and it’s even nicer to see the undisguised excitement of our boys. Before we know it, we have a list of fixtures and the excitement is ramped up a notch. There’s a managers’ meeting where rules and expected conduct are explained and in almost the blink of an eye we’re on our pitch, sitting the boys down to explain tactics, rules and teams. We’re feeling quietly confident; we have a good set of boys, all of whom can be trusted with the ball and all of whom have shown that they can hold their own against decent opposition. We’ve played three of the teams in our group before and again, never looked out of place. We do still have one nagging problem though. Our goalkeeper still hasn’t turned up. I’ve checked my phone and the text was sent on the previous Thursday, but not replied to. It’s looking increasingly like we’ll be re-arranging the team and start with one of keener outfield players in nets. It’s not ideal, but we’ll have to cope. And then, just as I call my new ‘goalie’ over to give him the shirt, I take one last hopeful look at the entrance to the gala. It’s a miracle. My goalkeeper is jogging somewhat dishevelled and shame-faced over to us! It turns out that they’d lost their door keys, but they’re here now and we can all settle down! Games are one half of ten minutes. It’s only six-a-side and there are no offsides. It’s generally quite hectic, end-to-end stuff and as a coach it can be quite stressful to watch. Usually, if there’s a mistake you’ve got plenty of time to try and put it right, but a game of just ten minutes puts the pressure on somewhat and you have to guard against casual mistakes as you might not have time to put them right. Our first game is against Allerton Bywater, a team we’ve never played. It’s quite an even match, but at the end I feel like we should have won it. Our boys look a little taken aback by the pace and despite warnings they’re fussing over corners and throw-ins, rather than just getting on with it. We snatch at a couple of chances, but defend well at the other end. It ends in a frustrating nil nil draw. We’ve got a point on board, but it could easily have been three. With five teams in a group we get to take a rest next as the other four play each other. It’s a baking hot day, so in one way the rest is welcomed, but it also means that we face three games back to back after this. With that in mind we’ll need to rotate. The rest does give a coach a little bit of time to think though. So I spend the next 5 or so minutes going round my players trying to stay positive, but also reiterating a few key messages and instructions. With that done and dusted there’s time to take in a little bit of the gala. It’s an amazing sight if you love your football. We’re surrounded by games going on and the sound of encouragement fills the air. A glance across at the under 7s brings a flash of nostalgia too and I think back to my son’s first games where he wore a kit that was more like a tent and he barely looked able to run, let alone dribble with or pass a football. The excitement across the site is tangible and it would be easy to get carried away and just wander off to take in some games, but before I know it we’re back to business and our next game. We play a Beeston side from the league above us next and again it’s close. I’ve brought our two subs in to start, the idea being to give everybody a rest, while also making sure that everyone gets a decent amount of football. We lose the game 1-0 though and again have enough chances to at least get a draw. But it’s not to be and if we’re going to qualify for the main trophy we’ll have to win at least one of our last two games. The change in format doesn’t seem to be helping our boys. The pitch is much smaller than we’re used to and the length of game much shorter. And yet, every time we get a corner we’re over-hitting them, lofting them into the air and out of play on the other side of the field. Similarly, when we get a throw in we’re fussing about who should take it or taking an age trying to be ever so precise about where it goes, rather than just getting it taken quickly, down the line as instructed. We’re making mistakes and piling pressure on to ourselves. And we’re yet to score a goal. This changes in our next game. We’re playing one of the host’s teams – Wakefield Owls – and it feels like we are dominant. It takes us a while – which is the very definition of things being relative with a ten minute match – but eventually we get our goal. It’s a scrappy affair, with the ball bundled in at the back post, but they all count. It feels like we can go on and win from this position, but within a minute we’ve presented our opposition with the ball and they’ve scored. Suddenly the tables turn and we’re under pressure, but we ride this out and in the end (again!) we’re unlucky not to grab a winner after we hit the bar once and slam a few chances narrowly wide. It feels like we’ve finally gotten into our stride though. The games seem to be kicking off at different times and so we’re left waiting for our final group opposition, which gives me a bit of time to go around the lads once more, passing on instructions. We eventually sit them down and give them the big pep talk. That’s pep as in building the boys up and trying to make them feel more positive, rather than being any kind of tactical genius with a Catalonian accent. This is a big game for our boys. Exactly twelve months ago to the day we played the exact same opposition at the exact same stage of the gala and lost in a bit of a bad tempered game. It meant that we didn’t qualify for the latter stages of the trophy and a few of the boys ended up in tears. As it turned out we went on to win the less prestigious cup that the teams in the bottom end of each group played for, so the tears soon turned into smiles. But we really want to win now! It seems churlish and perhaps a little immature to talk about revenge, but then again, if we’ve not come to win football matches then why have we even turned up? The game is close, but frustratingly – again – we have more of the ball. We’re fairly dominant, but again we just can’t seem to score. We force the keeper into saves and we hit the bar, but that ball just will not go into the net. I’m struggling to retain any sense of professionalism by this point and each time we go close I’m either sailing through the air ready to celebrate or dropping on to my haunches like some kind of over emotional teenager. But that’s football. I don’t go along with the theory that we’re better coaches because we stand there saying very little. And I don’t think that it’s a case of the more vocal the better. We just all have different styles. I can’t help but get involved. I’m not negative, but I’m not particularly quiet either. And at this point on Sunday I was struggling to maintain control! The game ends in a 0-0 draw. This almost certainly means that we will drop into the lower end of the knock out matches. After a few minutes of standing around I head down to the clubhouse to try and get some more information. This is a well organised gala, so it’s easy to get our finishing position confirmed. And it’s exactly what we thought. However, some games are running over and so we’re faced with an anxious wait to see who our semi final opponents will be. I say ‘anxious’ but it’s of no interest whatsoever to my team who proceed to spend the next ten minutes or so practising elaborate corner kick routines. They even devise a celebration to fit the corners! That’s the brilliant thing about football at this level. Yes, it matters, but the emphasis has to be on enjoyment and my boys are definitely enjoying themselves. It’s getting the balance right, again, that’s key. Meanwhile, I’m having no fun whatsoever, sweating over the team for the semi final and fretting about how we’ll react to the pressure! We play another side from Beeston in our semi final and in the end we make too many mistakes. We lose 2-1, despite some frantic attacking once we’d gone two goals down. We pepper the opposition goal and manage to scramble one in but we run out of time. And that’s it. We’re out. We encourage our boys to shake hands, but for some it’s a step too far. There are tears and sullen faces everywhere I look. We try to get around each player, staying positive, congratulating them on all of the good things that they’ve done today and reminding them that they should feel proud. But it’s to no avail. These boys care deeply about this team and I have to admit that this makes me feel even more proud of them. As I walk around the pitch I hear a distinctive sound. It’s the sound of one very upset little boy and it’s a sound I’m only too familiar with. Like many coaches, I coach my son and for now he’s devastated. Despite the fact that he scored our goal he’s blaming himself as he misplaced a pass in the lead up to Beeston’s second goal. So the coach has to be put to one side and dad takes over. I want to scoop him up like I did when he was much smaller, but I know that he’ll be mortified. So, I crouch down next to him, give him a big hug and talk to him, telling him that it’s not his fault, that it’s no one’s fault and reminding him what we all learn in the end; this is football. We decide to watch the final as a team at the boys’ request and again, like we’ve witnessed all day, it’s a brilliant competitive match. Again there are tears at the end, but thankfully not from our boys who by now, my son included, have moved on. Afterwards we make our way down to the clubhouse where our team are presented with medals; a lovely touch from the organisers. By now, all of my boys are smiling and have their team photo taken holding medals aloft proudly, like they’d won the tournament after all. And there’s that lesson again; this is football. One minute your as low as you imagine you can be and then next you’re flying high. Whatever you feel, it’s an utterly brilliant game to be part of. Thanks to Karen and all at Wakefield Owls for their hospitality and another fantastic gala. We’ll see you again next year!

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

IMG_1884
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.

IMG_1881

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!