It’s one of the curious facts of junior sport that approximately one in twelve children who wants to play football likes to be, in the vernacular of my region, in net. The replication of this statistic throughout the country keeps the game in balance: ten outfielders (give or take the odd substitute) and one goalkeeper. And on those occasions when the ratio is disturbed, the simmering emotions of the touchy touchline parents tend to boil over.
A couple of summers ago, no.2 son was playing a friendly end of season competition. With boys aged five or six, the club discourages specialisation and each player is rotated through the various positions – actually the two positions: not in net and in net.
No.2 son was part of a strong team, playing with several boys now part of the academy structure of local premier league clubs. The team won all their games. The coach was giving equal playing time to all and, notionally, asking the boys to play in different positions. All got to play in goal.
(There was actually one exception: no.2 son. In one of my greatest touchline faux pas, I had taken him to get a hot-dog, misreading the start time of the next match, missing his match in goal.)
Throughout the day there was a low but irritating buzz from a couple of parents – ObsessedDad and High-flyerDad – muttering about the coach and his tactics. But harmony beckoned in the form of a trophy for the winning team of a short knock-out between the best teams. How could we lose?
So, into the semi-finals our lads progressed, to meet a team featuring some boys familiar to those of our players attending pro-club academies. Then, as the boys lined up, there were gasps of disbelief. High-flyerDad’s lad, an uber-talent at six, had thrust his oversize hands into some infant goal-keeping gloves and stood between the sticks. The match resolved itself as a battle between him – every bit as outstanding in goal as anywhere else on the field – and the opposition. The rest of our team was swept away and out of the final.
The dads that had buzzed irritatingly all day, burst into condemnation of the coach and the club that had ‘wasted their whole day’ with this bizarre selection decision that had neutered our team. The coach tried to explain that High-FlyerDad’s son had volunteered to go in goal, but this was met with ridicule – what was he doing allowing the boy to decide?
And now roll forward to this morning. Another boy made a decision about being the goalkeeper. No.1 son’s team arrived at their under-13 league fixture without their regular keeper. The squad has another experienced goalkeeper and this was the lad who made the decision – not to play in goal.
The background seems to be that he played a game in net earlier this season and became very upset. He was on the verge of tears today when asked to play there again. Quite reasonably, the coaches did not force the issue and another volunteer stepped forward for the role at the back.
On the touchline, matters were not left to lie. The refusenik’s mother put up a defence of her son, which wasn’t based on him getting upset, but not getting enough game time as an outfielder. She was challenged on this and soon, then repeatedly, MoaningDad had shifted the focus from the mum to the boy: “If that was my son, I’d be across that pitch to sort him out. There’s no ‘I’ in team. Letting everyone down”, etc.
The boy making his very first appearance in goal was applauded loudly. Understandably he made a few errors – three in fact, but who’s counting? Each led directly to a goal, the third the decider in the last minute of a game heading for a 2-2 draw.
No.1 son reported that as the players and some of the parents gathered together immediately after the match, MoaningDad repeated bitterly his favourite adage, “There’s no ‘I’ in team.”
A strongly worded email has arrived tonight from the coaches about an incident and parents’ behaviour.
From all this, we can conclude: parents have a very easy job at matches, but some do it very badly; coaches have a very difficult job at matches and won’t necessarily be appreciated if they do it well; and a lad (or lass) that likes to play in net is essential to the harmony, if not the success, of any team.