Picture this, a cold, damp and dreary November Sunday morning on the local park football pitch. The dulcet sounds of 22 blokes in varying degrees of hangover and fitness levels wearing ill fitting football kits, shouting "time", "man on" "Refeeeree", their voices being carried along with the early morning mists to the vast crowd of one man and his dog.
Not the prettiest of images and one very far away from the world Messrs Messi, Ronaldo and Aguero occupy, but it's still very symbolic of a typical game of grassroots football. Or is it?
So we've sort of set the scene but what is Grassroots football and what does it mean to me?
If you've read the "about "section on my website www.enjoyfootball.co.uk and if not why not, do it now,straight away, avec toute vitesse, (you can hang around a bit and have a look at what we do then return back here) then you'll work it out that I love Football and in particular the Grassroots version which is where I have spent my footballing days as follows.
Spoiler alert, I played at a very low level. The Junior School team were, despite my heroic weekly Captain Fantastic, herculean efforts, a bunch of hard working ne'er give up triers. Yes I say the middle section very tongue in cheek and the whole sentence could read we weren't very good and got beat regularly. I could only get into the 2nd eleven of the High School team ( thanks to a certain ex pat - he knows who he is, being so flipping good). I was deemed only good enough to be a sub for the junior Sunday team ( gets a game with 10 minutes to go). I've recently discovered why now (after 40 years), simply my face didn't fit, but that's a whole different debate.
I did manage to get into a couple of decent open age Saturday afternoon sides one of which got to a Semi Final. Alas all 3 goals were apparently my fault. At the end of that season I left this particular team having only played half a season and feeling like an outcast which is not a great feeling. I also played in the local Sunday league again for a number of sides and so we go full circle and return the above scenario on a cold, damp November morning.
So why on earth did I bother. Quite simply I loved playing and would never give up. I enjoyed it (mostly) , the lads I played with enjoyed it, we had camaraderie, banter even at a younger age and we were mates even if it was just for the game, season etc. That aforementioned semi final excepted and indeed that team as I didn't really know them that well and they never accepted me as I was a foreigner from over the river. Other than that , we had one goal and that was to play and try to win. I made some good mates throughout the years and even now I still see them regularly.
There is a time when the boots get hung up. No more getting out of bed on a Sunday morning to play on mud bath pitches, in rain, hail and snow. You miss the game for about 10 minutes then immediately regret retiring. So you do something about it. Get involved with 5 a side. This lasts a few years until something goes horribly wrong with your knees, back or other body parts (see below). Then you retire again
Playing Football is about the experience. Meeting new people all the time and forging those friendships. The banter, the highs the lows. If you won something then great. During this period of time I was never in a team that was successful in winning a tournament, league, cup or any other competition. Although the Junior school side that I, as aforementioned , was Captain of won the inter schools five a side trophy but I was ill on the day so didn't take part. But did that matter? No not really. Yes we all want success, but success to us was winning that game after a lot of defeats, not getting nilled, scoring from your own penalty area (wind assisted twice), playing out of your skin and giving the eventual cup and league winners one hell of a scare. We dwelled on it for about 10 minutes then it didn't matter then we moved on to playing something else or in the latter days having a pint.
This is my view of Grassroots Football as it was but is it any different now? Well yes and no!
When my youngest child indicated an interest in playing football at the age of 6, I had no intention of getting involved other than being a parent on the sidelines giving encouragement. Well that lasted all of 5 minutes and straight away I was hooked into the idea of getting involved and coaching kids football. What I found though was that there were some fairly big differences form the game I knew at junior level. The Junior game was more widespread, well it seems that way to me and is more structured with organised leagues.
But the biggest differences I found were with the wider emphasis on coaching and safeguarding. When I started I was an awful coach and manager expecting the kid's at 7 to know how to play the game. How ridiculous was that. So the introduction to the FA Coaching courses and qualifications to me was a godsend and showed me the way forward as opposed to the attitudes that were around when I started playing and I refer to the above reflections when I played at junior level.
There is argument here as to whether the FA Coaching structure is correct. I've heard and read comments from other Coaching organisations, coaches and others that the principles are wrong and they don't work. I for one like the idea of this structure and am happy to follow it as a guideline. I like the way the values are projected to get the best out of players however I do think there is an emphasis in certain quarters on trying to push kids through to professional teams and not for enjoyment. This is where in my view the Grassroots vision splits. I appreciate that this is a controversial point of view but it is my impression and I could be reading it all wrong, when the media, professionals and the hierarchy talk about grassroots football it doesn't refer to those 22 unfit blokes on a muddy pitch in November or the 8 year old who just wants to play with his pals on a Saturday morning. I feel that they refer to Grassroots Football starting at the academy's and having that win at all cost attitude and pushing them towards the England senior teams. Surely if the kid's enjoy it first then this will develop them in ability and can enter a pathway towards certain goals but if not then continue to encourage them to carry on playing for enjoyment .There is a place for all in Football but in my view, grassroots is what is says it is, football played by anyone for fun no matter what ability.
How do I fit into grassroots football and what am I doing about it? I'm only a small piece in a rather large jigsaw so can I make a difference? Well I think so yes.
Back in November 2016 I decided to give up a career in the Law.I had no plans at that point but after plenty of soul searching and writing list after list of what I could/couldn't do, it was abundantly clear that as my passion for the game at Grassroots was such that after 16 years as a volunteer coach, having gone up the ladder to under 18 and then restarting at under 7s, there was only one choice.
So I took the plunge and came into a highly competitive world of Football Coaching and started up Enjoy Football to bring the game to all who want to play. Where can I make a difference and what do I do that is different?. As I've already adhered too, my view is to try and have kids playing for fun and to the best they can. If I can get across to them a way of them enjoying the game win or lose then job done. However I'm not so foolish to suggest that winning is not important, it is and the kid's know this, If at least they have enjoyment and a good time then they will hopefully stay within the game. If that best does take them to a position were they are spotted by the pro's then so be it, they deserve to be there but I would always err on the side of caution as to people promising to get them signed up and into academies when it is wholly unrealistic for them to do so. On the flipside, would I recommend a player I saw who I thought was capable of playing at a higher level, then yes and I would actively encourage it.
Leaving the kid's grassroots football aside, thee are still thousands of adults playing the game. But what happens when they can't do it anymore. Most think they can, some do carry on but there is a point when retirement from the game is inevitable. Or is it? I've had 2 retirements, the first from Local Saturday/Sunday league when I was early 30's and hung up the gloves due to a spate of injuries and the second from 5 a side in my mid 40's when the knee/back went and I ended up having Surgery.
At the ripe old age of 45 I thought that's it, my playing career is over. No more banter with the lads or sharing those tales of the wonder save for the cameras or the double hat trick. The coaching kept me involved and I enjoy a pint every so often with friends I have made over the years within the coaching fraternity but it wasn't the same.
So for 5 years I was in the football doldrums. Like most 50 years olds, the desire was there but couldn't perform at a high intense level. Then out of a sheer chance of a conversation on a plane on the runway of Manchester airport whilst the baggage machine had broken down an waiting for it to be fixed , I discovered the game of Walking Football. Yes I'd seen the advert, I think most people have, but that's it. I'd never seen anything publicised about it and to discover that it was taking place on my doorstep (how I missed this for nearly 6 months I'll never know) then of course that was the answer.
I had no idea of the concept but I didn't care, it was the missing link, the way back in. I was eager and turned up at the next available session. I knew no-one at all. What I did find though was that I was made to fell very welcome and once more I got back into grassroots football and had fun.
Walking Football is a game that I have embraced, enjoy so I decided to introduce it as part of the make up of Enjoy Football. Through the sessions I have done the feeling of being part of something in football again has come back. Everyone, unless they haven't told me, who I have delivered a session to or has joined one of our regular sessions have enjoyed the game and have been surprised by how hard it is despite it's title. It has brought me into having a new circle of friends, meeting up with old friends and working with some truly inspiring people.
So that's it. Football, me and my dog. If your wondering were the dog comes into it then it's a bit of a red herring really as he just lazes around doing nothing watching me during the day go on and on about football, football football. .