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The Challenges of a Grassroots Football Manager

Walk on through the wind

Walk on through the rain

Though your dreams be tossed and blown

Walk on, walk on

With hope in your heart

And you’ll never walk alone

You’ll never walk alone.

Jose Mourinho, Pep Guardiola, Jurgen Klopp and David Moyes all household names, instantly recognisable and lauded across the land.

Samantha Jones, Ali Khan, Fred Smith and Abdul Ali, names that don’t slip off the tongue as easily and nobody recognises them except, maybe, in a 5-mile radius of where they work. These are the grassroots managers, the men and women who keep the game alive for the footballers of tomorrow.

Team selection, injuries and tense match finish these are the things that managers have in common, regardless of the level that they coach at.

The first difference in grassroots football is what people expect within the game, and these expectations are vast and varied. For example, some clubs want all the best players at their clubs and will go out of their way to get them; some coaches want to develop players to help them improve as best they can; some officials want to work their way up the refereeing or coaching pyramid; some players just want to enjoy the game and socialise with their friends; some parents want their child to become the next Cristiano Ronaldo. Managing all of these expectations, providing equal game time and keeping everyone happy is a herculean task in itself.

The other main differences begin even before match day, texts sent out two days ago giving the time of the meeting, asking for confirmation. Only a few replied back, once again tactics and team selection will be decided on the morning of the match. Thank goodness it’s a home match. No begging for cars this weekend. One less worry.

Match Day!  The day of the week where you imagine nothing can go wrong. You have planned for it, talked about it and trained for it. Showing up an hour before everyone else to put the nets up. The freezing cold metal of the post is almost unbearable to touch. Looking for clips to hold the net up where the brackets have been broken off the posts. Finally, all is ready: First aid kit, water bottles, flags, spare shin pads, match ball and respect barriers.

The first cars arrive and the parents ask “what time will the match finish?”

“Twelve”

“Grand we’ll be back then” the car speeds off probably to go home for their breakfast. I was hoping they might stay and give a hand but some people are just too busy.

Finally, the players start to arrive, what can go wrong now? Firstly, Hammad the keeper turns up with no boots or gloves. They’re locked in the car and he can’t get them. ‘Whhaaatttt?’ I hastily ask around the other players and coaches whether anyone has any spare gloves, they don’t. The hunt goes on but I also need to be on the pitch, the players need warming up. I finally get a pitchside. We decide that Shazzeb is our best option for replacement keeper, only he doesn’t want to do it. I can’t blame him; I wouldn’t want to either. Compromise reached, Hammad will play in goal with trainers and gloves 2 sizes too small.

Beep! Beep! A text message flashes up on the screen. One of the best players in the team can’t make it. He is ill. To put this into perspective, this is the third match this season that he has been sick for. All bouts of sickness coinciding with wet weather. Rain, the best weather for ducks, not the best for grassroots footballers. Your best two players finally show up, twenty minutes late, we are kicking off in less than half an hour.

As the team starts to warm up the opposition manager draws your attention to the only source of heat for miles around. A steaming pile of dog mess right in the middle of the pitch. Scooping it up with two nearby cones, trying to ensure that none gets on your hands, all illusions of grandeur are well and truly erased from your mind.

Finally, the match kicks off. Similarities to the professional game are visible here, but so are the differences. Equal playing time, Rotating players on and off, running the line, celebrations and commiserations. The final whistle goes. The field empties in record time as parents show up and whisk their children away. Looking around, you realise you are alone, down come to the nets, away goes all the equipment, minus one match ball which was kicked over a nearby fence by one of the substitutes. All done, time to head for home. Was it worth it? Will I be back next week?

You bet I will!! See you on the side-lines.

Why?

Grassroots Football is kept alive by a group of men and women who give up their time every weekend, nine months a year; these volunteers go by the collective name of ‘Coach.’ Long after their own children have been and gone or long before they have arrived, these volunteers provide football for many, many children dreaming of being the next superstar. The question for them is WHY?

Putting up nets on a cold winter’s morning, freezing your hands against the cold metal posts. Hammering pegs into an icy ground. Standing on the touchline, braving the icy blasts of the wind. In all types of weather, there they stand, giving words of encouragement while others play the game. WHY?

Making last minute team and tactical changes as two or three players haven’t shown up. Leaving for an away match at 9 actually means departing 20 minutes later when everyone has shown up. Unanswered texts. Mysterious absences. Putting out a different team every week.  WHY?

Parents using football as a ‘drop and run’ service, promised lifts to away matches not materialising. Begging for match fees to be paid. Dealing with tirades about lack of game time. Begging your friends, family and long distant relatives to referee a game. Running the line and receiving an earful of abuse. WHY?

The answer is BELIEF. We believe that we make a difference. We believe that every child deserves a champion, someone who will never give up on them and believe in them. We all spend time in life doing things that we have to, that we are obliged to. Coaching is a choice, it is a passion, it is an obsession that never lets you go. Coaching in grassroots football is a love of the game in the purest sense.

In grassroots football you never lose, you either win or learn. As a coach you learn to celebrate the small triumphs. To share in the joy of a first save, a first goal or goal line clearance, the first time the team’s kit is pulled on and a face beams with pride. Learning what it feels like watching a player’s talent and dedication develop into a skill.  Learning by realising that actually you don’t always need to have the right answer, the right tactic. Realising that sometimes it is better to let the player make a mistake. Realising that sometimes they learn more from the mistake than being told what to do.

Coaching is actually putting yourself second, it is not about you and your ego. It is about the game and about the player. Making the tough decisions for the greater good of the team. Choosing to play an attacking player with talent in defence to teach them to defend. Choosing to play a player so they can have equal playing time and have their opportunity to develop. These are all decisions that could be shirked, but you don’t. A coach realises that teams don’t learn, players learn, development is a personal process even in a team environment.

To all the volunteer grassroot coaches out there, I applaud you, I salute you and I admire the job that you do. I would also like to remind you…..

A good coach is such a wonderful influence on so many young lives; know that you make a difference.

Roll on next season.

World Cup Fever….Wildcats Believer

Luton United Football Club undertook its first session directed exclusively towards girls. The Wildcats centre was held at Riverbank primary school. The centres are an initiative driven by Football Association and one the club strongly supports. If admissions have to be made then the first has to be would anyone from a community that historically has been hard to engage. Where academic excellence is a priority over physical exertion. So has Adam and I arrived to set up, thoughts immediately turn to, would anyone turn up, would any one see the benefits, is there any real point. For Adam and I, it was like turning up to the first day of work. We clearly made the cardinal error of having turned up too early and this further enhanced our anxieties. We always felt that this was important and positive for the community. Having spent several years developing, the boy’s football we knew the struggles we would face and but this time we are experienced. So as that first parent and child arrived and Adam got to work, those thoughts and feelings of would it work started to dissipate. As more girls arrived with parents we started to believe and got to work. Having exhausted ourselves and put every effort and focus on girls enjoying themselves.  We now turn our attention towards building and making sure that first group return. We might not get everything right, we might end up failing but what we do have is a belief that we will be successful and as shown by the first session the support of the community that they want it to succeed.