Category Archives: whatever the weather

Summer tournaments

summer tournament

The school summer holidays are almost completely free of organised junior football (1).  The tradition that keeps the holidays only almost completely free is the summer tournament.

No.2 son took part in one such event on the first Saturday of the holidays. We drove 30 minutes to another town in the county, where a primary school was hosting eight under eight teams.

The logistics of exiting the cars of eight under seven teams’ families, whose tournament had just ended, and welcoming no.2 son’s age group was exercising a team of hi-vis toting stewards. I confused the parking situation by dropping no.2 son there and leaving before his matches were underway. I had the 1&onlyD with me and had decided an afternoon at her younger brother’s football tournament was a cruel and unnatural way of spending her first day of holiday.

It’s not the first time I have given short-measure to one of these events. And the experience of that occasion has coloured my view of all of these tournaments.

It was six years ago and no.1 son was the competitor. I had spent the previous night at a friend’s stag party and so was forgiven the 8am start (registration by 9am) to get to a park overlooked by a professional football stadium in the Pennines. Mother in the Middle took that shift, accompanied by two pre-schoolers. I was to join later.

As I lay in bed that morning, drifting in and out of a hung-over doze, I was faintly aware of the rain being blown against the bedroom windows. If I had thought about it, I would have remembered that my party shoes were by the front door, soaked from my staggering home in the wet early hours.

Waking around midday, I listened to a voicemail from Mother in the Middle: ‘When was I coming? It was impossible to be there much longer with the kids.’

I set off. Wet and blowy in our suburb became gales and downpours as I headed up into the Pennines. I found the car park by the stadium and headed towards the field. Kids being returned to cars were crying – sore losers, I thought. The walk from the car park’s edge to the playing area took in three terraces separated by steep grassed slopes. On each slope, heading downward, were people falling and sliding to the bottom. The same was happening to those people trying to scale the slopes. Families with pushchairs found them bogged in mud or were dragging them like sledges up hill.

The teams that take these events seriously, pitch gazebos – optimistically, as shelter from the sun. On this summer’s day, adults were clinging to gazebos to stop them from being blown somersaulting across the field. The crying I had heard in the car park wasn’t the response of kids to an unfavourable result, but the entirely reasonable reaction to being drenched and blown around. Few were dressed for the weather and those that came better prepared had already changed in, then out, of a succession of tops that were quickly soaked.

And still the football went on. The PA system had been abandoned and so the organisers sent runners around the field to announce fixtures. One of the curious aspects of this day was that there was hardly a single pushy Dad urging his progeny to the Final. Most parents were working out, given a few tactical defeats, how quickly they could leave.

I remember helping Mother in the Middle back up the treacherous terraces to the car park with the 1&onlyD and no.2 son. Back at the field, I hunkered down to watch the last action of no.1 son’s tournament. This consisted mostly of one team kicking the ball into the wind and finding it blown back past them and the other team hoisting the ball for wind-assisted goal kicks.

This year’s tournament was different in many ways but, again, I arrived back in time for the final matches of the tournament. No.2 son’s team were boasting an unbeaten record which they secured across all seven matches. He was expecting a trophy to mark this achievement. There was a trophy, but it was awarded imaginatively to the ‘most helpful’ team. Bags of sweets were handed out to all the players and no.2 son was content with that as his reward. I was just relieved that no.2 son had remained protected, not from hail and gale, but from the conventional climactic threats of the summer tournament: sunburn and dehydration.

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Footnote 1: I’ve argued elsewhere why summer without football is a good thing for other junior sports to thrive and would be even better if extended a month or two before the holidays start.

 

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Game for all seasons

It’s five weeks since no.1 son last played a football match. Three waterlogged pitches (and there’s another for this weekend taking on water as I write) and one frozen ground have halted his games either side of Christmas. No.2 son has been slightly more fortunate, but has also lost games and outdoor practices to mud and frost.

With the winter comes rain and cold. With the rain and cold come sodden, or frozen pitches. With unplayable pitches come match cancellations. And with cancellations come calls for football to be played in the summer.

The thought of football in the summer, as I stamp my feet on the touchline, bury my fingers deeper in my pockets, pull my hood back over my head against the wind, is so alluring. Instead of wallowing in mud, I could be lying back on the grass, absorbing the heat of the sun. Shorts and sandals, not thermal underwear and walking boots.

And the house wouldn’t get clogged with piles of muddy kit and we wouldn’t have to step around sodden, soiled football boots to get out the front door. There would be a few sweaty shirts, socks and shorts after each game, easily whisked in and out of the washing machine.

But I’m running away with myself. Junior football isn’t played for my convenience and entertainment. How would the players benefit?

There’s nothing better than running about in the sun. The pitches would be firm and true. Even time spent as a substitute would be pleasant. Keep them hydrated, but don’t worry about hypothermia.

And isn’t the weather synonymous with England’s kick and run style that we’ve not managed to shake for generations? Rather than blame the players and coaches, maybe we should recognise that all that inelegant effort is a survival technique on damp, wind-blasted recreation grounds in the depths of winter. Let them play in warm, still conditions and players may put their feet on the ball, lift their heads and ease the ball around the park. When the weather gets warm, it’s better the ball does the running, not the players’ feet.

There would be no cancellations. Seasons would be finished on time. Pitches could recover, rather than be wrecked, during the winter months, ready to grow lush and green for the summer season.

It’s a win-win proposition, isn’t it? When can we start?

Never, I hope, never.

There are few things I would go to the wall over, but football’s migration to the summer would be one. I am amazed, given how football’s hegemonic reign in England has progressed, that it hasn’t already annexed the summer. It’s hardly absent from the season of long days and heat hazes: international tournaments dominate alternate Junes and the professional league season starts in time for the August holidays. These encroachments need to be resisted rather than surrendering more of our summer days.

Football thrives because it’s a simple game, that’s fast, exciting, adaptable and unpredictable. But it’s a sport without humility. It devours time and space. And it is just one sport amongst many pastimes. The summer is a time when other activities can gain a little traction. Tennis, cricket and athletics struggle to maintain a profile and attract participants. They each offer pleasure for players and followers that differs from bulldozer football. But if football isn’t fenced off, with fields left free for these sports, it will trample them, absorbing their players and airtime.

The public seems to have an inexhaustible appetite for football, so perhaps this should be indulged and let other sports battle for what’s left over. There is evidence, though, that this would harm our youngsters. Over-specialisation in a single sport has been shown to create injuries and burn-out. Better footballers (better sports players) come from children playing a variety of sports, which develop different aspects of their physical and mental capabilities.

Football is a sport for all seasons, but would be less interesting were it to be played in all seasons. In community, grassroots football, the winter weather does takes a heavy toll of its pitches, interrupting the season and leaving youngster idle. There is an alternative solution to shifting the game to the summer. There’s a campaign by the Save Grassroots Football movement to ensure more of the wealth of the Premier League is devoted to grassroots playing facilities. The movement has an e-petition that anyone involved or interested in football in the UK should sign – it asks for 7.5% of the broadcasting revenue earned by the FA to be used to fund grassroots football.

My sons have missed some matches, but have still played football weekly this winter. That’s because they have the good fortune to practice on a 3G surface or indoors. The Save Grassroots Football campaign would secure that advantage for many, many more local and junior football teams.

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