The following account is fictionalised version of real events, any names (people, teams etc) and locations are made up but the events are all real and have happened to myself, coaches I know or things I have witnessed.
Sunday, 11:45am The final whistle goes and we’ve been beaten again. It’s a common occurrence this season and unfortunately it looks like we’re going to get relegated. We had a very good year last year but unfortunately we lost a few players. We’re playing at U15 level this year and that’s around the age that kids start to turn away from sports. We lost two players who just gave up football. Two went to a local academy and one went to another team to play with his friends. The players who came in to replace them, despite our best efforts just weren’t as good and so we’re having a “bad” season.
I put the word bad in quotes because it depends wholly upon your perspective. What do you think grassroots football is for ?
On the one hand, there’s the traditional view of a good season; you get promoted, win a cup or make the playoffs if that’s how your league is set up. Perhaps you got promoted last year and so a good season this time round means you stay in the same division. Or maybe you’re a club that exists to give as many kids as possible the opportunity to play football? In which case your measure of success is more likely to be measured in how much better individual players are over the season or how much they enjoy themselves.
I shake hands with the opposition coaches, give a quick pep talk to the players, try and emphasize the things that went well in the game. We played some good football in places, but we didn’t do enough to get the ball from the opposition and gave them too much time without putting them under pressure. I tell the players this, tell them we’ll work on it in training and wait for the spectators to wander over.
I take a minute to listen to the other coach’s team talk. He’s pointing and jabbing his finger at the assembled group of players, he’s going full Warnock on them, not that they’d know because they’re all staring at their feet, I doubt they’re listening. Meanwhile my players are already talking amongst themselves about what they’re going to do better next week and how they’re going to win. I wonder what he’s like when they lose? I pick up the cones that made up the 2 “technical” areas, I need to mark these or I get fined £10. No “Respect Barrier” is another club fine.
Once I’m home I fill in the the FA’s Full Time system for today’s game. I need to give marks out of 100 for the ref, managers, players & parents of the opposition. Fill in the referee’s ID number & county affiliation, mark the pitch, what type of pitch, details of any injuries anyone who was injured last week & couldn’t play, did the players shake hands before the game and did the managers check registration cards of the players before kick off … and that’s before I get to the bit where I fill out the team sheet with scorers etc. I have to do this before 6:30 or I get fined £20.
Monday lunch time at work I get a call from one of the player’s dads; it’s usually a dad, mums normally talk face to face. Little Jimmy isn’t a left winger, he’s a striker and I should play him up front more. We have a discussion for almost 30 minutes about how, at the age of 13, kids are not strikers, or wingers, or goalkeepers, they’re players who are still developing and growing. As they grow and their body changes they may not keep the speed they had 12 months ago, they may not be the tallest player on the team any more or they may not be the strongest any more. I try and explain my philosophy that every player benefits from an extended run in any position. Then we get on to tactics, and how we’re naive and should be playing a diamond formation that adapts to a christmas tree when we’re “in the attack”. In the end I spend almost an hour, my whole lunch break on the phone with him and it ends with a threat to take him to another team.
Sometimes on a Monday night the local coaches’ club gets together for a demonstration by a guest coach; they usually happen every couple of months and it’s a chance to watch professional coaches and how they interact with the players, a chance to pick up some tips. Rather than take away specific drills I try and watch their mannerisms, how they communicate, where do they stand, what are they looking at. My biggest problem as a coach is observation, all too often during a game I’ll find myself watching as a spectator rather than a coach so this is my opportunity to see how others do it. Recently we’ve had Chris Sulley, Graeme Carrick and Dean Saunders amongst visits from the heads of various Premier League academies (Newcastle and Liverpool).
We’re at home this weekend so Tuesday is the day I need to get all the match details to this week’s opposition. A couple of texts is all it takes, but not without a little moan about the kick off time. I need to get this done by 9pm or I get fined £5.
Wednesday is training night, we are lucky in that we have some astroturf with floodlights so the weather is never really an issue, my only gripe is it’s a bit small, but we do better than many so I can’t really complain.
I spend my lunch break looking at drills that encourage players to press for the ball when we’re not in possession, we’ll work on the notion of 1st, 2nd & 3rd defenders, when to press, high risk/low reward and low risk/high reward areas of the pitch. It’s not the first time we’ve worked on these ideas and it won’t be the last, they’re not simple concepts and not easy to pick up. Some of the players understand so their role in the drills has to be more complex and some players struggle with the ideas and have to be given something that’s a challenge to them. I base all my sessions on small sided games (or SSG’s) because the kids come to play football, not stand in a line and kick the ball every now and again. I think this makes it harder for a coach to mix and match the players, but the players benefit more.
I plan the session with a full squad in mind, we have a notification system where parents can let us know if they can’t make it, we get a couple drop out at the last minute and by the time the session is due to start we’re 5 or 6 down, which means a quick change to the session on the hoof. This isn’t unusual and while it’s annoying when you’ve spent a good couple of hours putting something interesting, fun and relevant together you get used to it and plan in ways to adapt.
Thursday there is a league managers’ meeting, they’re fairly rare and we just sit around and discuss the same things we did the last time we met. Not enough facilities, the facilities are too expensive, the league just fines us to make money, some argument over a rule change that’s been implemented for over a season and of course the tales of how good football used to be and how it’s ruined nowadays by political correctness.
Rovers boss Tony Mowbray has been discussing his plans for the January transfer window. Ahead of the game at Northampton on Saturday Mowbray said “We’re pretty much down the way on January, We’ve been working pretty hard to get a recruitment department in place for a few weeks now, it’s not about dragging a few lads off the streets. “We’ve been through extensive procedure, it’s not something that is really going to affect this window, but moving forward hopefully the recruitment will be seen as good recruitment and there will be evidence of why we’ve signed players. “For the owners there will be lots of reports, there will be lots of reasons, statistics, as to why we’ve signed footballers in the future. “This window, it will be pretty much like it was in the summer I think. It will be difficult for Steve to come in and jump straight in to it. “I’m pretty confident we’ll get things done. We felt as if we had a pretty decent window in the summer and I see no reason why we can’t do the same kind of work and add some quality to the group and keep pushing on.”
Mowbray also wants to ensure that the players currently at the club also continue to perform “I think there are areas we need to strengthen and the best time to strengthen is from a position of strength. I thought the club showed some good intent in the summer, spent some money on players, Bradley Dack and Dominic Samuel have both come in and done reasonably well, hopefully there’s more growth in them. “It’s players of that ilk that we need to invest in, keep bringing to the club and hopefully they can grow and develop with the club. “Hopefully they can be part of the history as we move forward. That’s what we’re trying to do, strengthen from the position we’re currently in.”
Rovers have confirmed the appointment of Steve Waggott as CEO who joins from Southend United, having previously worked with Tony Mowbray at Coventry.
Talking to the club's official website Waggott said "I am both delighted and honoured to be appointed CEO at a club steeped in football history. As CEO, I will pool all my previous football knowledge, skills and experience to work with the owners, the management team and staff, both on and off the pitch, plus the supporters and the many stakeholders attached to the club to continue to build a strong and stable platform for future growth and success."
At BRFCs we want to expand our writing pool to include people who can write about wider football issue, with that in mind we are delighted to welcome Stuart Grimshaw to our writing team, he will be focusing on Grassroots Football.
Even before the gentlemen of Sheffield FC laid down the rules of soccer that we know today, there has been grassroots football. Whether it was Shrovetide football, kids in the street with jumpers for goalposts or one of the larger local clubs with a team or two for each age group, a committee and hundreds of volunteers. People have always gathered to kick, carry or throw a ball at a goal, and even though the opportunities to play are becoming fewer, it remains the most popular activity in many countries.
"Football is for everyone and can be played anywhere and everywhere. Football is a school of life that is also fun. Let the kids be kids." No, not a Guardiola, Mourinho or even Allardyce quote, this irony-free statement comes from the fine, upstanding citizens of FIFA.
Considering they say it can be played anywhere, their videos of techniques being demonstrated are all filmed on finely manicured grass, by kids in kits that don't have holes in and with footballs that haven't been chewed by that dog that invaded the pitch that time.
Grassroots football has always been the poor relation to professional football, it's never basked in the warm glow of sponsorship, sugar daddies and TV money like its older brother Premier League which has more money than it knows what to do with (Don't believe me? What about Andy Carroll to Liverpool for £35m ... Robinho to Man City for €42.5m?) it feels worse than ever. The closest a grass roots club gets to a sugar daddy is when one of the players dad's stumps up £300 from his building firm to buy a new kit.
Austerity has councils under huge pressure to slash budgets; Blackburn with Darwen Borough Council's budget for Leisure, Culture & Young People was cut by £2m from 2015/16 to 16/7. They don't have funds to maintain pitches, even basic maintenance such as cutting the grass as often as is needed, or marking out the lines; never mind proper maintenance like renewing the grass over the summer or improving drainage so the pitches can be used more during the winter. It's not unusual to turn up to play with one of the crossbars, much like Rovers’ back four under Owen Coyle, hideously bent out of shape.
Schools have long since sold off their pitches to cover short term gaps in funding, and those that are lucky to have a new 4G pitch as part of their redevelopment are hugely overpriced or hugely oversubscribed, sometimes both. There's no money to buy new land for pitches, there's no money to buy new equipment for the pitches, there's no money to pay for improvements to pitches.
What little funding is available is so sparse that very often only 1 or 2 teams actually benefit. How many times have you seen your nephew's posting on Facebook or Twitter asking you to vote for their club to win part of some company's community fund? Like greasy Lords of the Manor handing out alms to the poor as if it absolves them of any blame for the fact poor people exist at all.
I haven't even touched on the fact that kids don't (can’t...won’t?) play in the street any more, and any patch of grass worthy of the name, will have a "No Ball Games" sign planted in the middle.
What are we to do when one end of the football spectrum has never had it so good and the other hand has never had it so bad?
First we need to understand what grassroots football is and what it's for. It's not for finding the next £10m player, it's not Darwen FC or Padiham FC, non-league football is as far from grassroots as it is from the Premier League.
Grassroots football is 15 kids kicking a ball in their local park, the game ends when the kid who owns the ball has to go home. It's clubs like Blackburn Eagles, Clitheroe Wolves, Lammack Juniors & Wilpshire Wanderers, Saturday and Sunday morning football for kids under 16. It's weekend football for your local pub team (if they even have one any more) or local village side. It's booking a 7-a-side pitch after work every week and playing against your friends. Each one of these different types of football faces its own pressure, but they all boil down to money and not enough of it making its way down the football ladder.
The answer is clear. Professional football needs to support grassroots football. It's not a government problem, FIFA quite rightly says that football associations should be apolitical. Professional clubs need to do more than send an injured player, shuffling at the front of the class with his hands in his pockets like a naughty child and say that they contribute to their community.
The community football they run often costs a fortune, their academies and development squads are often treated like profit centres charging a small fortune for players to go and get coaching, all the time softly cooing to parents about how their child might make it.
Look at any British player in any team around the world, but especially playing for British clubs and they will have started out age 8 or 9 for a grassroots club, none of them went straight into an academy. I would say it's in their interests to support grass roots because that's where they get their players from.
There's currently a petition urging the government to put pressure on the Premier League to honour its commitment to spend £1 billion of the 2016-19 TV revenues deal on grassroots facilities. Most of the money goes on "solidarity" payments to the lower leagues though.
If little Jonny or Gemma plays any kind of grassroots sport, I urge you to sign the petition. https://petition.parliament.uk/petitions/200094
In my next article, I’ll run you through the life of a grass roots football coach.
We are delighted to introduce BRFCS brand new columnist Red Rose Rover who will be doing regular blogs and opinion pieces.
Community in the Football
Over recent years, the concept of a football club participating actively in its local community has become routine. It is no longer a differentiator of a big club; it is quite simply an expected function. Clubs are affiliated to their community trusts, who in turn use the power innate in the partnership to organise initiatives and events that mutually benefit the local causes. Even the Charity Shield was renamed to the Community Shield reflecting the prevailing mood.
However, it is the community spirit that can be found amongst football supporters within football grounds that never ceases to amaze me. At various times over recent years when I have questioned my sanity in returning to Ewood Park every season, my motivation for attending has slowly, surreptitiously yet significantly changed. On the field diminished, in the stands highlighted. As the results worsened, the social interaction became the main reason for returning; an overwhelming sense of not wanting to let anyone down.
Season ticket holders, who occupy the same seat, season after season, typically find themselves surrounded by familiar faces. Pre-match, half-time and post-match conversations lead to shared opinions, discussions, debates and fortnightly updates on events ranging from international geo-political turmoil, dropping all the way down to family news such as christenings and weddings.
Some of those stadium neighbours transition from being merely fortnightly acquaintances to firm friends. Like any neighbourhood, you don’t get on with everyone, but some personalities resonate more strongly than others. Some make you laugh. Some challenge your established world view. Some just have the happy knack of making you feel better for the encounter.
At the beginning of every season you look around and see who has renewed. There are little nods, smiles and waves of acknowledgement. The gang is reassembling. Just occasionally, a seat is unfilled and remains so for a couple of games. You hope it’s just a late, poorly timed holiday, but then eventually word filters through of a recent funeral and everyone in the vicinity shares the loss.
A good few years ago now, it was those people around my chosen seat that helped to keep me going whilst I was undergoing a course of treatment for a serious illness. I missed a batch of home games and when I returned, the polite enquiries as to my health were every bit as genuine as those I received from close family. In fact I joked on more than one occasion that the poor chap who sat next to me knew more about my life than my own mother.
But then Venky’s arrived and after the divisive and poisonous Steve Kean reign, my little group started to fragment; one or two at first drifting away but eventually resulting in that community withering on the vine. I missed the rituals. Arrive in the seat at 2:30pm to allow plenty of time to catch up.
“Did you see the game on Wednesday ?”
“Have you heard about who we’re trying to sign ?’
“Did I tell you my nephew’s just been signed up by the Rovers Academy ?”
“Here’s a quiz question for you…who was the last….”
Come 5pm; “See you in a fortnight…”
I wonder whether some of those long absent neighbours are still with us and please God they are, whether they miss it or not after so long away.
However, I see a few signs of the spirit that I have missed for seven or eight years slowly starting to return. Performances on the field make a big difference. Watching a winning side is naturally a lot easier.
But in my experience, it may also be in part due to the increased power and reach of social media. Over the last two or three years, thanks largely to Twitter, I have enjoyed sharing the experiences of a cluster of Rovers fans internationally and in turn having my whimsy indulged by them. It fostered a virtual community that has in some instances led to the creation of a real-life community.
I have been cajoled in to attending away matches again. I meet up with interesting, enthusiastic people who all seem to be doing interesting and in some instances, extraordinary things with their lives; tremendous physical challenges raising astonishing sums of money for great causes. I’ve moved on, but membership of this virtual community has helped to make watching football an enjoyable experience again.
Football does a great deal of positive work in the community, but the community spirit engendered within a football ground by football supporters can in my experience be a powerful change agent for good, in us all.
RED ROSE ROVER