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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book Review: ‘Why Running Matters’ by Ian Mortimer.

For many of us running really matters. It’s been a lifelong interest for me and something I’ve done with varied levels of success, interest and effort since I was very young indeed. As it stands, I think I’m going through what some might call a slightly evangelical phase with my own running and probably boring most of the people I know in singing its praises. So a book on why we run was a very exciting prospect!

Ian Mortimer isn’t a runner, in that it’s not his profession. In fact, where running’s concerned he’s not unlike myself; middle aged, enthusiastic competitive and probably a bit more injury prone that we’d both like. However, while I’m a humble English teacher Mortimer is a historian and the writer of the best selling Time Traveller’s Guides series.

On approaching his 50th birthday, Mortimer made a series of vows or challenges to himself. In amongst them were taking part in 45 Parkruns and 5 half marathons across the year, producing an album of his own music, seeing a Shakespeare play and organising three concerts by world renowned musicians. In amongst it all, he’d write this book. Phew!

So the book itself is one hell of an achievement. Finding time to write it in amongst all that running and other activity is quite something. By coincidence, I am too approaching my 50th birthday and while Mortimer’s challenges prompted similar thoughts of a series of challenges or ambitions, I was glad I’d picked it up in August when it was far too late to attempt as much as Mortimer did!

The book chronicles Mortimer and his running companions’ performances at the Park Runs and the half marathons, while also attempting to contemplate exactly why it is we run. Because clearly, like the title tells us, running matters, but it’s what it actually means to people that is explored here.

A source of irritation throughout the book was that Mortimer is a really decent runner! Mean spirited I know, but reading about his times and placings in various Park Runs left me feeling quite jealous and more than a little bit irked! But I suppose this is part of what the book is about; we run to be competitive. And the book delves into this in great detail because Mortimer seems incredibly competitive and so while his times were irritating – and accompanied with a smile from this reader too – it left me feeling quite a warmth towards the man himself. His determination was inspirational while remaining quite comforting. Every time he went out to run he was looking to improve on times and performance, which is very much my approach. Sadly, I’m not always successful here!

Reading of Mortimer’s running adventures all over the south west of England was really interesting. HIs descriptions of the various courses, weather conditions etc felt comfortingly familiar, even though I haven’t taken part in any of the races. But his thoughts and theories all held weight with me. And the atmosphere of all those Parkruns did too! Mortimer also wrote a lot about running with his sons and while occasionally the dose of schmaltz involved was a bit much, as someone who occasionally runs with his own son, I could empathise his his pride and enjoyment in doing so.

‘Why Running Matters’ is a really interesting and well-informed book. Mortimer knows his stuff. He’s an experienced runner who has thrown himself into races and challenges of varying levels over many a year. It was this that had me nodding along enthusiastically throughout my time reading. And although it would seem to have a bit of a niche target audience, I would argue that there’s something here for a lot more than just those of us who run. Mortimer’s year is undoubtedly inspiring and the discussions on the competitiveness, camaraderie and the at times almost meditative side of running would hold the interest of many a reader, whether they run or not.

If you’re a runner who wants to read about running, then – obviously – this is the book for you and you’ll certainly get a lot out of reading it. However, even as a non runner, if you’re someone looking for inspiration or even just a gentle push towards the door and searching out something to do with your time, you’ll enjoy ‘Why Running Matters’. And if you’re one of those people who watches runners from the comfort of your car as they pass and just wonders why, then the book will at least help explain what on Earth it is we’re thinking when we leave the house to pound the pavements squeezed into all that lycra!

I give ‘Why Running Matters’

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Hopes for Summer

It’s been a strange old year. The academic one, that is. I’ve found it a bit of a struggle, but always try to keep stuff to myself – he says, writing a blog that thousands hundreds fourteen or fifteen people will read – and so I don’t think many people would realise. Apart from a few people that I’d class as relatively close to me, who either notice that I’m not myself or that I might just confide in.

It’s cliched, pompous and pretty poor form for me to say that I’ve been to Hell and back, mainly because I haven’t. But I think it’s fair to say that I’ve boarded the bus to there a few times in these last twelve months or so. I just got off a few stops early.

I won’t divulge much by way of detail, but a lot of my problems have been either work related or age related and despite the presence of more than enough good people in my life, I’ve felt very alone at times. If you know me, please don’t mistake this as a cry for help; it’s not. Imagine the mess I’d make of one of those! But, I have felt alone. It’s no one’s fault. Worse things probably do happen at sea, as they say. I mean, imagine who you could get stuck next to on a deckchair on your dream cruise for instance. That’s if cruises even do deckchairs. I’m aware that everyone has their problems though.

Given the age nature of some of my problems, you could be excused for mistaking this for a mid-life crisis. It isn’t. But if it was, I think only I could get it so badly wrong. No Porsche, no ponytail, no piercing or ill judged tattoo and no cringeworthy flirting with younger women as I struggle to cling on to my youth and masculinity. No, if it has been a mid-life crisis, I did it by writing a blog and some poems. Trust me to err on the side of a cautious crisis.

With all of this in mind, my summer break can’t come soon enough. Six weeks of not going to work but getting up in the morning with each day stretching out in front of you and a lot more possibilities than usual. Bliss. I’m even looking forward to the mundanity of jobs around the house and garden. Anything that takes my mind away from the type of things that I find are bugging me on a daily basis at the moment.

So what do I plan to do with my time? I always imagine that the summer holidays is some kind of blank slate upon which I will write a novel, do some sketching, do more running and fitness, watch some football, do some decorating, but in fact life gets in the way. The mundane still needs to be done, so there’s food shopping twice a week, days out to places I don’t really want to head to, but have to in my role as dad and husband, shopping trips for uniform and school shoes and endless talking and planning about jobs that we need to get done, but run out of time to do. So it’s a balancing act between idealism and everyday life.

A friend used to say that, as teachers, our summer holidays were worth £10,000 a year and I have to say that I’ve always agreed. I can live without the extra money, but don’t even think about taking my holidays away.

I imagine that at this time of year every teacher is simply hanging on in there for the end of term. I’m exhausted and I need to know that there’s a block of time when I don’t need to be up and out of the door before 7.30am five days a week, I don’t need to be dealing with the demands of 30 pupils and everything else that comes with working in a modern academy trust.

Most of all I need the time and space to be able to think. I’ve been a teacher for over 20 years now and have found things a little stale this year. At the very least, summer gives me time away form it all, enough to be able to re-charge my batteries, so to speak and to work on regaining some of my old enthusiasm.

I have some serious questions to ask. I need to think about retirement plans because ideally it’s not that far off and I want to be well and truly prepared so that I can spend it doing stuff that makes me, my wife and my family happy.

I also need to give thought to my present role. While I don’t feel tremendously unhappy, I also don’t feel tremendously fulfilled and it’s clear that something needs to change. Whether that’s where I work or just how I go about doing my job, I don’t know, but it needs some serious thinking time. I still have ambitions as a teacher and I think I’ve let things drift a little off course. I love my job, the school that I work at and the people that I work with, but something still doesn’t quite feel right and at least this summer gives me time to figure things out. Summer might just give me time to relax and be able to start all over again in September refreshed and raring to go.

I started writing a novel during lockdown. I know, I know…half of the population started writing novels and screenplays over lockdown. But I genuinely felt that what I was writing was good. It was a fully formed idea, rather than just something half baked that I believed I could make into something as I went, but it got shelved somewhat once I returned to work. It is without doubt something that I’ll be revisiting over summer, with the intention of getting at least a first draft finished. I figure all I’ll need is a typical British summer with just enough rain to keep me indoors for long periods of time and I’ll have the timeframe needed! It’s definitely something that I feel positive about though, and definitely one of the most exciting aspects of my summer.

There are lots of other things that I want to achieve over summer, as well as the kind of things that just need doing and can no longer be avoided when everyone knows you have so much time on your hands!

I’ll be looking to run more and get fitter and I think that will involve as many early mornings as I can manage as I just love the freedom and solitude of being out running at that time of day. I even have a race to take part in in early August and I’m looking forward to testing myself against others again. It’s been such a long time since I ran among lots of people, so it’ll be very strange, but I’m sure hugely exciting too. If nothing else there’s a blog that’ll come out of it! Once I get that out of the way, I’m hoping that there might be the opportunity to compete in at least one more as well. I think I need to get back to fitness workouts too, so if nothing else I’ll be revisiting my old friend Joe Wicks’s YouTube channel and flinging myself into that!

We have a holiday to go to as well. We’ve managed to book a week in North Wales, despite rising costs and demand, post Covid, and it’ll be lovely just to relax on our favourite beach. It’s always a good place to do all of that post work reflection!

I’ve also considered taking in a bit of sport. I don’t think it’ll be football, as I think I fancy something different. Before lockdown I was looking into going to watch our ice hockey team, Leeds Chiefs (now Leeds Knights) but Covid scuttled that plan. I think it’s something I’ll revisit, but the season doesn’t seem to commence until September. I’m considering taking in some games in the upcoming new format of cricket in the UK, The Hundred. We have a team based in Leeds and I reckon that the shorter format might be enough to keep my son’s interest, so I may well have a look.

But it can’t all be exciting over summer. There are a lot of humdrum jobs that need to be caught up on. I have a back garden that resembles a jungle and is in need of major maintenance. My wife seems to have big plans that centre around the movement of some long standing shrubs – and we’re talking plants that are my height and above here – and I would imagine that this will end up being a time consuming job.

Summer always sees decorating rearing it’s ugly head in our house too. My daughter’s bedroom – recently started while she was away on her Duke of Edinburgh expedition – needs to be finished. Our kitchen and dining room still awaits and our bedroom could really do with updating as well. And I see that I’m stretching myself quite a bit here and that there’s quite possible no chance at all that these rooms will all get finished, by the way! But if we can’t be optimistic at this time of year, then when can we be?

I hope to be able to visit my parents for the first time in something like 20 months, but I’m beginning to wonder if it’ll be able to happen. Having spoken to them, they still seem very reticent and fairly paranoid about Covid. Despite us being double jabbed, I think that my mother in particular would rather avoid contact and I have to respect that. There’ll no doubt be conversations to be had, but I’m starting to wonder if the thought of hugging my parents once again will remain just that for a while longer yet. Hopefully I’ll have some nice weather to offer some comfort instead…

So, with a few days still to get through at work, my summer holiday feels like it’s more important than it’s perhaps ever been. Clearly, I’m going to benefit from the time, but hopefully I’ll find lots to do and be able to enjoy lots of it with my family and friends. I’ve no doubt there’ll be a few unexpected surprises; there usually are, but in all, I’m just hoping to feel a lot more settled about everything by the time September rolls around again. I feel that I need to be coming back to work feeling an enthusiasm that not only gets me through the first week, but keeps me going for long enough that I’m not starting to feel restless again.

Whatever form it takes and whatever you’ve got planned, enjoy your Summer everyone!

Euro 2020 Diary: The Final Instalment

Ah, the morning after the night before. For completely different reasons, had England won the final of Euro 2020, this would have been a difficult entry to write. As it goes, on the back of such a cruel loss, it’s tough to know where to start.

In fact, I started by staring at this keyboard. For quite a while. Then I flicked tabs on the internet to have another look at the BBC Sport football page. Then I looked at social media on my phone for a bit. It didn’t change very much.

I’ve tried to avoid writing too much about England as I’ve written these diaries. And although I’ll abandon that stance quite soon, I’ll think I’ll revert back there to start with.

It’s been a helluva tournament. A month’s worth of football and I’ve enjoyed every bit of it, until around 11pm last night that is. What’s occurred in and around stadiums has been an absolute spectacle though and it’s been wonderful to indulge my love of the game.

  1. I’ve done a bit of freelance scouting for my team. Every football fan does this at major tournaments though, don’t they? We all watch the games with half an eye on our club side, searching for the diamond in the rough that, in our heads, we can recommend to our club side. We all know that we have no influence whatsoever and that said rough diamonds are probably playing beyond their ability just because of the lift that a tournament gives, but we still do it.

This time round my keen eye has picked out a few Italians, Elmas the attacking midfielder who plays for North Macedonia, the Welsh lad Ethan Ampadu and a few others. As ever, I’ve found that most play for big clubs and would cost way more than Newcastle United’s budget, but it hasn’t stopped me looking and playing the ‘expert’.

Sadly, I imagine our manager will be scanning the list of free transfers and players available for loan as we speak. Alas, my role as Head of European Scouting was fun while it lasted.

2. Why would you go to a game in fancy dress? Come to think of it, why would you go anywhere in fancy dress? Even a fancy dress party is about a dozen steps too far. During this tournament I’ve witnessed German fans dressed head to toe in lycra as the German flag. French fans dressed as Asterix and Obelix, Dutch fans dressed as oranges…oh wait, that’s just the colour of their football shirts, England fans dressed as St.George and actual lions and during last night’s final there were Italian fans dressed as Mario, a pizza and even the Pope. Some Scotland fans even attended games in skirts.

I don’t get it. Given the heat which has been a fairly regular feature in the tournament, I get it even less. But imagine simple logistics like sitting down in an Obelix costume. Imagine the conversation stopper that is, ‘Lads, I’m thinking of going to the final dressed as a pizza’. And the feeling of looking like an even bigger tool when some bloke a row down from you steals your thunder by dressing up as his actual holiness the Pope. I understand the excitement and the fact that people get carried away, but fancy dress? Never.

3. Why have England fans been booing national anthems? I mean, I know what reason most will give for booing the German anthem, but I think it’s time to leave this behind lads and lasses. In fact, go to Germany. Spend some time there. Immerse yourself in wonderful things like trains that arrive on time. Visit the museums, sample the night life, enjoy the people who are truly lovely, sit in an enormous beer garden and feel stunned at how friendly it all is. Don’t boo and hate because of ancient history. Don’t boo any nations anthem. Just rid yourself of your small mindedness and show a tiny bit of respect. And listen carefully; some of them – as I’ve pointed out in an earlier diary – are absolute bangers!

And why are people booing Denmark’s anthem by the way. We’ve all stood barefoot on a piece of upturned Lego in our time, but it’s hardly worth all that energy on an anthem that is a little bit rubbish and means literally nothing to you.

4. We couldn’t quite bring football home, could we? But that’s OK. We’ve been not bringing football home for years.

It was heartbreaking to watch the final as an England fan. We started so well, scored early and offered hope for a while. It looked like we might finally see a tournament through. But, to cut a long story short, we were beaten by a better side on the night.

While I’m beyond disappointed this morning, I’m going to try to be positive. We have a young, vibrant, gifted squad of players with more waiting to come through and represent their country too. The future looks bright. The experience gained last night could and should stand the team in good stead in future tournaments. We’ll have our day, I’m sure of it.

Mistakes were probably made last night, if we’re being honest. Most notably with the penalties. As a result of missing some penalties, the now usual barrage of racist abuse has appeared from a spiteful, hate filled, thick as mince underclass and this kind of thing clearly needs to be dealt with. But just for now, let’s applaud the courage of those that stepped up. Bukayo Saka, who took and missed our final penalty, is 19 years old. At his age I was frightened to talk to new people, shy beyond belief. I wouldn’t put my hand up to answer questions in university seminars, hated going into the pub on my own to meet friends, blushed noticeably if a girl spoke to me and was just too immature to appreciate the opportunity afforded me in being able to go to university and study for three years. Bukayo Saka stepped up to take a crucial penalty in front of a packed Wembley Stadium while 30 million people watched on telly. I bet he’d have no bother walking into a pub to meet his mates and he’d be at ease in a seminar. Give the lad some respect and some love. And give the rest of the squad and the coaches and officials exactly the same while you’re on.

The England team have left us with even more amazing memories. They’ve beaten pretty much whoever has stood in front of them and it’s been absolutely brilliant to play a tiny part in it all as a fan. That overrides a missed penalty kick. So while I’m disappointed this morning, I see no point in apportioning blame and forgetting how much enjoyment this tournament and our teams has given me and countless others over the last month or so.

5. Finally, spare a thought for Jordan Pickford. Jordan is a Sunderland fan and I’m a Newcastle fan. We don’t know each other, but I get the impression he wouldn’t like me just because of my allegiance. I’m not a big fan of him because of his allegiance either. He is however, the England goalkeeper.

Jordan Pickford was magnificent in the penalty shoot out last night. He didn’t deserve to lose after saving two Italian penalties and I felt heartily sorry for the lad. And while I’m hopeful that he has his usual meltdown if he plays against Newcastle next year, I hope he has a brilliant season.

So that’s me signing off on the Euro 2020 diaries. It didn’t quite go our way, but I can’t say that I didn’t enjoy it. Here’s to writing about it all again when the World Cup in Qatar starts at the back end of next year!

Poetry Blog: Euro 2020 – A short anthology

As a football fan, I’d forgotten how much I missed tournament football. I’ve detailed lots of factors in my Euro 2020 Diaries that I’ve been writing for the blog (links below if you fancy a read), but it’s safe to say that simple things like the noise and the colour have been amazing and it surprised me how much it affected me when seeing it all in full flow again.

Euro 2020: Fan Diary Entry 1

Euro 2020: Fan Diary Entry 2

I think the first time it really struck me was watching the first of Hungary’s games and realising that they had a full stadium. I actually commented to my wife about what a remarkable thing it was, both of us knowing all too well, that I’d been in many, many a packed stadium before.

When the tournament was cancelled due to the effects of the first wave of Coronavirus I didn’t give it much thought. It didn’t bother me at all. Despite football’s importance in my life, life itself took prominence at that point. The realisation that I was at real risk of something that might well kill me stopped me taking football too seriously. Funny that!

However, fast forward a year or so and I am once again fully immersed in watching football. It doesn’t matter that I’m largely watching players I’ve at best only vaguely heard of; I’m loving every minute. It prompted me to write my blog diaries, but then one day I was hit by the urge to get all poetic. I was thinking about the remarkable on-pitch events surrounding Christian Erikson and the subsequent rallying cry of what seemed like the entire Danish nation. And it got me to writing. And once I stopped, well it wasn’t as if I couldn’t stop, but I found myself writing four poems there and then. So, I suppose I did stop after all.

The first is my poem about the remarkable story of the Denmark national team and I suppose those who represent the Danish nation at the tournament. To quickly fill in a few blanks, their star player suffered a cardiac arrest on the pitch during their first game. He survived and the team have been battling on ever since. So here you go…

A Modern Fairytale

From that moment something changed in all of us and a modern fairytale was born.
Derided for our tribalism, mocked for our predictability,
now our unity would surprise.
As headlines were made and news spiraled around the world, 
we were focused.
Shaken from our reverie, shocked by what we witnessed,
old memories long since committed to the backs of minds, awoken once more.

And so, we adopted you. Tuned in, crossed fingers, sat tensed, silently praying
to someone or something in the hope that you could find
'us' some justice.
As best we could we shared the early elation, 
giving not a second thought to our own nation,
then returned to heightened tension, pacing floors, shouting
at screens and watching, forlorn as you ran out of steam
and didn't quite have enough.

As the whiff of a final chance floated through the air
and you gathered for one more time, the atmosphere crackled
with pride, optimism, anticipation.
That image, still fresh, would spur on a nation and its adopted
sons and daughters and we punched the air, as one, 
as the net bulged again and again, edging you closer to a triumph 
that was surely written in the stars.

As you celebrated, a wall of red, white and blonde
our game once again reminded us of its power,
producing joy where once there was fear, shock and mourning,
we will always remember these moments of unity, 
when once, we were all Danish, weren't we?

Shortly after writing my Danish poem, I watched the last North Macedonia game. It turned out to be the final international appearance of Goran Pandev, a player I’m well aware of, but also one I’d lost track of somewhat – I mean, I follow football, but you can’t know every player’s every movement, right?

Pandev was substituted late in the game and given a standing ovation by the crowd as well as a guard of honour by his team mates. The game literally stopped while this happened. Once play re-started the crowd chanted his name for a good few minutes too. I just thought it was a wonderful few moments and something that said a lot about our game. So I wrote a poem.

Goran Pandev

If there is a word for a figure that is not quite a legend, not quite an icon, 
then it is needed for times like this.
A celebrated career, yet only known to those of a particular ilk; dedicated, obsessive,
those who glory in the fact that the devil is in the detail.
Born to a nation that many could not find on a map,
scorer of goals that most cannot recall, let alone say that they saw,
it is all the more remarkable that as you leave the field,
for what many would not realise is the final time,
there is a guard of honour, a standing ovation and a rousing, hearty chanting of your name.
A tribute, not just to you Goran Pandev, but to all of football.

England versus Scotland was always going to provoke something in me. As a proud Englishman, it’s a fixture I love, regardless of the sport. It’s the one that both sides always want to win and dared not lose. A classic, bitter, historic rivalry.

As it turned out, the match was largely a non-event. England, overly cautious and perhaps overawed by the occasion, Scotland, performing above the sum of their parts, but still only arguably the better of a bad bunch. The teams shared a point, before ultimately going their separate ways; England qualifying for the knockout stage of the tournament, while Scotland would fail to get out of the group stage.

On England v Scotland

The oldest fixture in football.
This is not just a game, yet not the war that some would have you believe.
There is a hatred on both sides, a mistrust, a pride, an ancient grudge 
that will forever break to new mutiny at the mere mention of the fixture.

All common sense, rationality and right thinking is cast aside
as Edward's army, Hadrian's Wall, devolution, independence,
invading Celts, broken crossbars and of course, 1966, dominate our thoughts,
our conversations.
Bitterness, nationalism, the iconography of two flags, tartan and St. George are
forced to the fore. Nails are bitten, alcohol consumed,
friendships cats aside, a nation even more divided
and for 90 minutes it feels like we hold our breath
and watch through our fingers, faces covered, limbs tense,
a calm exterior a thing of the past.
Our capital invaded, our stadium full, our heroes reminded of their history, their duty.
And yet, on this occasion it will not matter. One side deflated,
the other, seemingly elated; neither wins the day.
Wherever loyalties lie, we'll meet again, we'll see your like again.

I’ll finish this blog with a very short poem concerning the England player Jadon Sancho. Sancho is a young player who has achieved a great deal in a short time, having moved to Germany to ply his trade. And yet, for the first three group games of the tournament, he didn’t get a sniff of action on the pitch. For the first game, he didn’t even make the matchday squad and as a player with such obvious gifts, this became a talking point. He’s since agreed to join Manchester United for something like £73m and has actually played one game in the tournament. The team however have played six. So, like most of the country I was a bit puzzled. Unlike most of the country I wrote a poem in his honour.

Jadon Sancho

You could have been at home,
socialising, enjoying the typical efficiency
of Tuetonic transport systems
or sipping a smoothie or even a beer 
in a Dortmund park.
More likely, you could have gone on holiday,
said '(Foot)balls to isolation', 
but no. You're here, under-used,
cast aside, destined to warm up perpetually.
What a waste.

I hope you’ve enjoyed these poems. If you haven’t, don’t worry, Euro 2020 will be over soon and life can move on. Don’t give up on me! I could well write something that’s right up your street very soon!

Euro 2020: Fan’s Diary Part Three

I write this as we’re a day away from England versus Germany. Superstition tells me to make no predictions, while England’s form suggests that we may never win a tournament in my lifetime so whether it’s Germany or Guernsey we’re playing doesn’t really matter. History reminds me that we’re never comfortable against the Germans.

Asides from the inevitable discomfort produced by the Germans, it’s been a thoroughly enjoyable tournament so far. It’s been brilliant to see fans in stadiums once again, despite the limitations on crowd size. And as ever with tournament football there’s been no shortage of drama, tension and upsets.

So here’s what made the cut into diary entry number three.

  1. Fans make all the difference. The sights, the sounds and notably the colour have been an absolute delight. Whether my senses have been heightened by the fact that I’ve got used to watching football played out in empty and therefore soulless stadiums, I’m not sure, but fans have brought an HD element to our viewing.

There aren’t many better sights in football than the delirium of fans celebrating a goal. ‘Limbs’ I believe is what the football hipsters refer to it as. I watched the Czech Republic beat the Netherlands last night and the sheer ecstasy behind the goal for both Czech goals was fantastic to watch. Keep your perfect volleys, your overhead kicks and your rabonas, what I want to be watching is shirtless, out-of-shape blokes hugging each other screaming and tumbling over in celebration. That loss of self control doesn’t seem to happen in other sports. And neither does the need to shed ones’ shirt in order to watch the match.

Another almost minor and obvious detail about the fans that has been brilliant is just the colour. Be it a wall of red for Spain, Switzerland or Denmark, a chunk of orange for the Netherlands, masses of yellow Sweden shirts or a block of white for England v Germany, it doesn’t matter. It’s always a startling sight and it’s often very much a tournament thing.

2. Why do TV editors cut away when fans spot themselves on camera? OK, I think I already know the answer to this one. But let’s treat this as very much a rhetorical question. They cut away to avoid people mouthing obscenities or perhaps making offensive hand gestures. But aside from the fact that there’s no harm in any of that really – and they could cut away as they do it – why bother? Every time someone spots themselves on camera via the big screen in the stadium they’re absolutely thrilled. So don’t cut away! Let them have their few seconds of fun! I personally love it when people see themselves. The waving, the laughter, the jumping up and down or grabbing the badge – surely this is showing fans at their best? Why not enjoy that? Why not savour it? After all, we heard enough foul language from players when crowds weren’t in, but I’m not sure it damaged anyone. I absolutely loved hearing Matt Ritchie ask the linesman, “How have you given that, you wee prick?” when he gave our opposition a thrown in. It made me and many others laugh out loud.

So why can’t we see a father or mother with their kids enjoying the sight of themselves on camera? There’s no harm here. One minute I’m watching people enjoying basking in the limelight, smiles everywhere and then the camera cuts away only to repeat the whole process another four or five times. It’s just weird.

3. Sometimes watching the national anthems is as good as watching the match. And sometimes, it’s actually better.

As a football fan, I want the players representing my team or my nation to be passionate about it and we see that regularly with the anthems. One of my favourite bits of the whole tournament so far has been watching the Italians singing their anthem. Firstly, it’s just a cracking tune. Secondly, they love singing it and they mean every word (I looked it up and some of the words are ‘Brothers of Italy…Italy has awoken’ so that sounds passionate!)

Alongside the Italian anthem I’d put those of France (chooon) and Wales (just seems to be shouting, hey what shouting it is!) as some of my favourites.

I must admit that our own anthem – ‘God Save The Queen’ – struggles to keep up in terms of its immediate appeal. But I still love singing it or more likely just standing up for it. I think our players are awful at it, but I still love it. It makes the hairs on my arms stand on end. I know a lot of people struggle with it because of their opposition to the royal family, but I don’t have a problem with them. If someone gave me several castles to live in, I wouldn’t think twice about it! I just think that, in terms of sport and identity, our anthem isn’t a great fit. But certainly, it provides yet another wonderful experience alongside everything else in tournament football.

4. There are some dreadful hairdos at the tournament. OK, so footballer’s hair has long been known for erring on the side of bad taste. If you know your football, think Chris Waddle’s mullet or Carlos Valderama’s afro as featured below.

However, I’ve noticed one or two that rival even classics such as these. Step forward, Croatian defender Vida, our own Jack Grealish and Phil Foden, Slovakia’s Marek Hamsik and of course, the German manager Joachim Low.

I’m no hairstyle guru – in fact way back when I copied the Chris Waddle mullet when he added the twist of perming only the back of it – but for grown men to be wandering around football stadiums looking like this, well, at the very least it needs to be gently mocked.

5. England beat Germany and I had to fight back the tears. It’s been 55 years since England beat Germany at a tournament. Longer than I’ve been alive. There have been some heartbreaking moments in that time, as well as some embarrassments. We’ve beaten them in friendlies and qualifying games, but not in a game that actually mattered for a long, long time. So it was bound to be emotional.

It wasn’t during the match. When we scored my son jumped into my arms both times, but we just kind of jumped around screaming. There were no tears; not even hints of tears. Bizarrely though, after the match had finished and as the BBC pundits were reacting I found myself immersed in the moment and realising that I might cry.

I didn’t. I fought them back, but boy was it close! Proof once again that football, derided by many as boring, is actually powerful, thrilling, emotional and vital to some people.

So with another week to go I’m hoping for more excitement from the tournament. I feel sure we’ll get lots.

Oh and…COME ON, ENGLAND!

As always, I hope you enjoyed the blog. Feel free to leave a comment.

Euro 2020: Fan Diary Entry 2

I cannot express my love for tournament football strongly enough. The sheer joy of watching several games in a day or even the challenge of trying to keep up with the events of a 2pm kick off while you’re still at work; I’m not sure it can be beaten. Whether it can or it can’t – seriously, it can’t – here’s my latest Euro 2020 Diary and some observations I’ve made over the last week or so.

  1. England v Scotland was as frustrating as ever. So much ground to cover here. Let’s start with the fact that it was an awful game and that much of the blame here lies with England. We were truly awful, although if you’re looking for plus points, we gave a masterclass in sideways passing. So if UEFA can tweak the laws of the game to include two new goals at either side of the pitch, we’re in business and that long wait for success might just be over.

Other observations? Harry Kane might be pregnant; certainly his movement is that of someone not far off giving birth. England fans seem incapable of providing an atmosphere unless it’s via social media and Gareth Southgate’s coat was horrendous. In fact his whole sense of style suggests he’s discovered a time portal that allows him to visit C&A back in about 1985. (C&A was a fashion retailer way back when, notorious for terrible clothes). I never imagined I’d long for the return of the World Cup waistcoat.

2. The Fourth Official in the England v Scotland game had a look of Alan Shearer about him. Except no one in our house agreed. And we still couldn’t win. Look at him though…definitely a hint of Shearer.

3. I love the concept of different host cities across Europe. I’ll be honest, when I first heard of this I thought it was a terrible idea dreamed up by an idiot. The kind of thing that gets dreamed up in education while I sit there thinking, that’s awful, who’s going to go for that before hearing that everyone else loves it. However – unlike in education – it works. Who knew Baku was such a great place and had such an ace stadium? Seeing the Allianz Arena in Munich on TV gave me a real kick as I’d been there myself. And did you know that there’s a railway in Budapest that – apart from the train driver – is run by children? I mean, apart from the fact that the stadium there has been full for games and it’s looked and sounded incredible, it’s got a railway run by kids!

Then you’ve got Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Bucharest, Glasgow, London, Rome, St. Petersburg and Seville – an incredibly diverse selection of European cities. And let’s face it, this could be done every four years for the tournament with a fresh selection of cities each time, without it ever becoming dull. Covid allowing, this is definitely one to add to my ‘To-Do’ list; even if it meant experiencing the inevitable disappointment of following England, I think it’d be quite something to do in a few different cities. In fact, it’d possibly be even better just going to games that didn’t involve England, just to enjoy the cities!

4. I’ve started writing Euro Poetry! As anyone who puts themselves through the chore of reading my blog regularly will know, I write a bit of poetry as well, usually publishing it as a blog. Well, I’ve just started writing some poems inspired by the Euros. It started because the whole Denmark story just felt very inspirational, so I wrote a poem about what they’d gone through – players, staff and nation – and the somewhat glorious outcome. After that things just spiraled and I wrote more and more. So I’ll be putting them on the site soon and hopefully I’ll be able to write some more as well.

5. I wonder if other nations cheer so much for the underdog. In the UK, it’s well documented that we love an underdog story. In football, every year produces several underdog stories as David meets Goliath (if you’re reading outside of the UK, neither David or Goliath are actual teams) in the FA Cup and we adore it. At the Wimbledon tennis championship, where British success has depended on Andy Murray for far too long, we’re used to cheering for our underdogs.

At any major football tournament smaller nations have a habit of capturing our imagination. But it has made me wonder if other nations do the same. Are the Germans willing Finland on? Do the Spanish cheer for plucky Wales? Are there Argentinians watching Rwanda in the World Cup, desperate for them to do well? And are the Italians hungry for Hungary?

The obvious underdog story during this tournament has been Denmark and it’s reduced me to tears as well as having me jumping around my front room, fists pumping and cheering like a lunatic. It’s not my nation and I have no known connection. It shouldn’t matter, but it does. Similarly, I’ve been desperate for North Macedonia to do well. Again, no connection, just a need to see the underdog give the big boys a tough time.

Tournament football always produces underdogs. Indeed this very tournament has been won by underdogs over the years with Denmark and Greece springing to mind. They are part of the fabric of the sport and I don’t think I’ll ever stop taking an interest.

As ever, I hope you’ve enjoyed the article. As the group stages end we move on to the knockout stages of the Euros. I can’t wait and I’ll look forward to finding more to write about.

Euro 2020: Fan Diary Entry 1

It’s safe to say that us football fans have waited too long for the return of tournament football. A year too long in fact, as of course this tournament should have been over and done with last summer.

We’re a few days in now and I thought I’d quite like to write a diary about the whole thing. I’ll be watching as much as I can on television, but also keeping up with things via social media too. Being abundantly English, I’ll be following England, but I’ll have an eye on various other teams and players too. I can’t pretend I’ll see every last minute of the tournament as I have a family and a life, but I’ll do the best I can.

So far, we’ve had an exciting start to the whole thing. The Euros kicked off on Friday night and even the build up to the game prompted an observation.

  1. Don’t the Italians look good in a suit? I mean, it’s kind of the home of style isn’t it? And Italian kits are always good. Without fail. But, as a man who wears a suit every day for work, I was taken with the tailoring on show, especially on the touchline. I hope I look as good in my suits as Roberto Mancini and his pal look when I get to their age.

And then, like a bolt from the blue, there was one of those moments of unexpected drama that will stay with us forever.

2. The incident on the pitch with Christian Erikson should teach everyone something. I didn’t see the game. As the drama unfolded I was working around the house and in the garden. Only when I checked my phone did I get a hint of something going on. The details were emotional to say the least. Not to make this all about me, but what happened brought back memories of my own heart failing a few years ago and it was a struggle to hold back tears. I came away from it all and checked back in later that evening.

The actions of everyone involved were admirable. The respect shown, the teamwork, professionalism, the dignity, the spirit, the diligence and the emotion; all incredible evidence of what we’re capable of as humans without even a moments thought. It was a timely reminder of the fleeting nature and fragility of human life. And in the days since, it’s been brilliant to see pictures of Erikson sat up and smiling in his hospital bed.

Sunday meant it was time for England and…

3. England won their opening game for the first time ever in a Euros! That’s it really. We we far from scintillating. We were solid. We got off to a decent start. Let’s see if we can build from this point. But remember; this is England, a team and a nation primed and ready to break your heart just when you decide to get carried away.

It wouldn’t be a tournament unless you go the whole hog, so…

4. I’m getting one of those sticker books. You know the one I mean…sounds like a posh sandwich. I’m not putting stickers in though. Far too costly and the kind of thing that will obsess me all too easily. So I’ll do it my way. I’ll keep you updated.

The sights and the sounds are as good as ever. Better in fact…

5. It’s incredible to see fans back in stadiums. I thought I’d be a bit ‘whatever’ about this, but actually it’s brilliant. The sight of the full stadium for the Hungary game stopped me in my tracks. On the same evening I saw a Facebook post from someone saying that watching 22 millionaires chasing a ball around was a waste of 2 hours of life. I rolled my eyes and swore under my breath. In Hungary a stadium full of fans reminded me of the sheer joy that football can bring. Trivializing it is like saying admiring fine art is a waste of time because it’s just a bit of paint and water or that the opera is a waste of 3 hours of your life listening to someone singing funny.

There are weeks left of this tournament, so I’ll keep it all diarised. It won’t be particularly serious, I’m sure. But let’s see what I can spot and let you know my thoughts on. In the meantime, feel free to let me know what you thought of the blog.

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!