Tag Archives: junior football


refNo.1 son stood with head respectfully bowed. But I could tell he was looking at his watch, counting down the seconds before he would have to blow his whistle. His very first task as a trainee referee was to supervise two minutes silence on Remembrance Sunday. A weedy peep, betraying his anxiety, barely audible on a wind-buffeted playing field, signaled the end of the silence and that play could get under way.

The role of the time-keeper is essential to sports. From timing races to determine winners on land and water, to careful marshaling of the playing duration of rugby, hockey, netball and football matches, to clocks that limit breaks in tennis, constrain routines in gymnastics and force attacking play in basketball. Even cricket’s colonisation of whole days is prey to the clock, with lunch, tea and drinks breaks to be timed and enforced.

How well suited would my older son be to the task of time-keeper? All the evidence from home-life is that he would not be playing to a known strength.

The morning of one of his football matches typically involves him having to be woken up. He may even have to be woken a second time. “We need to leave in 45 minutes”, Mother in the Middle or I will specify. A little later, as he takes a leisurely breakfast, irritation ill-concealed, “Can you get dressed now. We’re going in 20 minutes.”

This prompts a move to the shower. The argument that he should wash after, not before, a game was made, won and ignored long ago.

“Five minute warning!” we yell, which may disturb him from his social networking activity.

When we’re kicking our heels at the front door, already swaddled in jumpers and coats, glancing at our time pieces, there will be a flurry of activity. “Where’s my socks? Which kit are we playing in? Who’s had my shin-pads?” Frantic searches, allegations, cross words enliven the house. Whatever’s lost will be found stuffed in a school bag or buried beneath clothes heading to or returning from the washing machine.

“Are we going to be late?” no.1 son will ask urgently, accusingly as he stumbles out of the front door, feet not properly in boots, coat dragging on the ground. Some days I resist the impulse to set out how any degree of organisation or time-awareness could have negated the need for this rushed, bothered exit; and some days I don’t. This, with age appropriate adjustments, has been going on for years. And my contribution truly sits among that list of futile things parents do (and should stop doing, but somehow don’t).

Once, when no.1 son was only nine or ten, I decided not to nag. Having told him the time we would be leaving the house, I left it up to him to get himself ready promptly. Half an hour after we should have left home, he was sat watching TV. We arrived barely before the match started. My stand had achieved nothing but inconvenience his coach and teammates.

Therefore, alongside the referees, umpires, scorers and judges, as time-keepers critical to junior sport, we should recognise the parents. Not equipped with high-tech chronometers, or backed by rule books, it’s mums and dads persuading, chivvying and marching their offspring out of the door that ensure junior sports fixtures start promptly. 

Watching the first half of no.1 son’s first match as referee, I started to become anxious. His nerves before the game were overt as he questioned me about various aspects of under 12 football: the duration, substitutions, off-side, identity of linesmen. With all that uncertainty in his mind, I began to worry that he might have forgotten to time the half. I tried to work out how long the game had been going. An even bigger puzzle was how I was going to gain his attention when, by my estimate, the first half would be over. I paced circuits around the pitch, trying to work out if he seemed aware of the passage of time.

Then suddenly and with impeccable timing, two loud blasts on the whistle, as no.1 son brought the first half of the first game of his refereeing career to an end.




Filed under old head, parenting, sport gives us..

What has the FA Coaching Course ever done for us?

trainingAct 1

Scene 1

I turned away from no.2 son’s football practice and headed towards the lean, grey-haired man who was erecting goalposts and nets for the afternoon’s senior matches. Our paths had crossed on Saturday mornings before.

He held the key to the gate into the running track. That’s where the posts are kept between matches and he had let, or at least not stopped, my touchline pal and me onto the track to do laps while our boys practised.

An older man, diligently performing a community function.

“Can I help?” I asked, wanting to thank him and gain his confidence so that future excursions to the running track could be assured.

“No. It’s alright,” he replied.

I stood beside the goal and tried to be sociable. “Which team is it playing here this afternoon?”

The grey-haired man told me. “Oh,” I said redundantly, “not United”, the club my boys play for and whose practice sessions were going on around us.

“No,” he confirmed, “not this rubbish,” and he swept his arm out to indicate the dozens of kids running around on mini pitches. “This isn’t football. None of these kids are going to be footballers. This is just nonsense that comes from the FA.”

“Right. Well, good luck this afternoon,” I wished him, cutting short his rant and heading back to watch no.2 son, apparently, not playing football.

Scene 2

No.1 son and I arrived at our local park for a kick-about. A school friend, also with his Dad, recognised no.1 son and we combined for an impromptu Dads v Lads match.

No.1 son was eight and had three years of junior club football behind him. Contriving defeats when we played each other was becoming easier, but still required concentration to ensure a close finish. His school friend wasn’t a member of a club and was less adroit. His Dad, a well-built, near six-footer, played close to full throttle. He challenged his own son for the ball, barging him over and then blasted the ball past no.1 son’s left ear, claiming a goal and leaving the keeper to trot fifty yards across the park to collect the ball.

On our way home, no.1 son and I speculated that his friend may have reason for being less keen to take up playing football.

Scene 3

Standing on the touch line at the pro-club development centre, I chatted to MarineDad, parent to one of no.2 son’s club team mates who had also been ‘spotted’. We discussed football and it was taking all my social skills to maintain a conversation where I disagreed with 90% of the opinions being expressed to me.

“They teach them these ball skills. Don’t know why they bother. I say to my lad in the garden, ‘take the ball past me’. He tries these fancy moves and all I have to do is stick my foot out to get the ball off him.”

Act 3

Scene 1

No.1 son is going on football tour. To Holland, aged just 12. It’s a team effort from the responsible adults at the club. A team lead by the Dad I first met in the park four years earlier, barging over his son and blasting the ball past my son. He has galvinised the parents and, importantly, the boys into fund-raising. He has consulted parents, reassured anxieties, even anticipated concerns: quietly explaining to me how he plans to ensure that no.1 son, as the sole vegetarian, is well-nourished and won’t subsist on a diet of chips.

The tour, like any adventure for 12 year old boys away from home, is not without incident. But he is instrumental in putting those incidents into perspective, and making the trip a sporting, social and developmental success. He cares about the boys he coaches.

The following year, he is hospitalised. He continues to text us, from his sick-bed, letting us know what’s happening that week for the team. He discharges himself to attend matches, to see how the boys are doing. The only difference is that he is, mercifully, a little quieter.

The team has groups of mates and some lads outside of those groups. He notices and challenges his players to recognise the value those boys bring to the team. He’s an extrovert, doing something difficult, looking out for the introverts.

The boys are now 15 and he knows that they have reached an age when many will be drawn away from playing the game. He is trying to run a team that will continue to be important to as many of these lads as possible.

Scene 2

No.2 son is thriving in his club’s first team. They are amongst the best in the district, playing a fast, passing-brand of football.

To begin with, they lost a lot of games. They kept changing goalkeeper, whereas all the successful teams had one boy in goal every game. The instruction they got from the side-line during matches was briefer, less angry and macho than that received by most of their opponents.

MarineDad is the co-coach and chief organiser. He noticed early on that the boys shook off the defeats faster than the Dads – including himself. He persevered with the style of play and by the end of the first season began to see whole matches, not just flashes, of smooth, cultured football. The keepers, three per game, are still volunteers.

When a game against a particular opponent, for a second time turns ugly, he takes measured sensible action, reassuring parents that he won’t allow a repetition. His one good knee buckles, so he runs training on crutches and even referees a match in a knee brace. When the coach for another of the club’s teams cannot attend training, he helps them out.


What happened to Act 2?

A lot must have happened in the lives of these two dad-coaches between Acts 1 and 3, so much that it would be misleading to ascribe the changes I have seen to a single factor. However, I do know that both attended the FA Coaching Course and I do know that both talked differently about junior football after it. They are both good men, whose potential as coaches has been released by some timely educational input.

What about the lean, grey-haired man?

He still assembles the goals for Saturday afternoon’s senior fixtures by himself. I’ve not seen anyone help him, or try chatting to him. I think I have a solution for him. There’s a course he could attend..




Filed under coach says.., individual development


IMG_0910No.1 son’s team capped off a season in which they won every league match with a cup run. The final was played on a bright, blustery spring afternoon – cherry blossom swirling across the pitch to give a brief wintery feel. The venue was a local non-league club ground, several steps up from the public park environs the teams normally play in, with their undulating fields, haphazard grass-cutting and careless dog owners.

The match fulfilled one of the cup final archetypes that all football fans will recognise. The stronger team (‘our’ one) dominated possession, created chance after chance, but couldn’t score against dogged, determined opponents with a hero-in-the-making in goal. Mid-way through the second half, the archetype shifted. In a rare break out of their own half, the other side’s lone striker ran past ‘our’ central defenders and struck the ball firmly past the keeper.

The match reverted to type, with no.1 son’s team piling on pressure and with ten minutes left, equalised from a corner kick. More chances were saved or missed before full-time. The game re-started with 20 minutes of extra time. Despite the rolling substitutions, the size of the pitch had tired both teams so that a sustained attack was beyond them. Penalty shoot-out.

“This will end in tears,” was the conclusion my touchline pal and I reached as the players gathered in the centre circle for the penalty prelims.

No.1 son’s team were to maintain their perfect season, winning the shoot-out 5-4. The image at the top of the post shows him driving his penalty into the top left hand corner of the goal.

The other side’s second penalty taker steered his shot wide, lifted his hands to his head and walked slowly back to the centre circle without showing his face. There he sat, staring at the grass, amongst his teammates, who were presumably offering their support. His miss, as he must have feared, as all of the boys dreaded for themselves, was the difference.

I question the value of a penalty shoot-out in a junior match, where the result has no further consequences. Earlier rounds in a knockout tournament do need a winner for the competition to progress; I’ll return to that subject shortly.

Having joint cup winners is to me an entirely legitimate result for the teams that cannot be separated over full and extra time. The trophy can be shared; the individual statuettes would just need ‘finalist’ inscribed on them all, instead of one-half; both teams can celebrate. I see nothing to be gained from spoiling one or two young lads’ days, as almost always happens in a shoot-out.

I imagine proponents of a definitive result arguing that youngsters should not be sheltered from the harsh truth of life and its repeated sifting into winners and losers. I think kids know that well enough. Everything they do is imbued with competition: school, gaming, appearance, getting noticed by girls. Why not, in these rare instances when the score remains tied, show magnanimity and recognition that the contest, not the result, is all important?

“They don’t take it that seriously,” may be another rebuttal of my idea. Many, I agree, probably don’t, and can stride on after a penalty shoot-out miss, walk tall in the playground on the following Monday and savour the opportunity for another chance to take a penalty. Others, though, do not. The coaches, I observed, selecting their five penalty takers, are not overwhelmed with volunteers. It’s a stress that many boys (indeed, professional footballers) prefer to avoid.

Several weeks after the final, I took my younger son to play a cricket match. There were puddles on the pitch and storm clouds overhead. The game would normally have been called off before bedtime the night before, but this was a cup-tie and a definitive result was needed. The method used, a bowl-off, is cricket’s equivalent of the penalty shoot-out. Bowlers deliver a single ball at an undefended set of stumps. Whichever team hits the stumps most often wins the tie-breaker.

The situation was tense, the boys were anxious during the match. One team was delighted and the other disappointed at the end. There was a key difference to the penalty shoot-out that made it less likely that a single player would feel the burden of responsibility for defeat. Instead of each team fielding five players (as in a penalty shoot-out), all eleven in each cricket team had to bowl. The greater number of competitors and efforts means that the margin between teams is a lot less likely to be a single point. The individual is a smaller part of the team score and gains protection. With all players participating, it is more of a team event.

This should be the model for penalty shoot-outs in junior football. Involve the whole team. Do less to isolate individuals. Try not to spoil one young lad’s day.

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Filed under winning and losing, young shoulders

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.


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.



Filed under whatever the weather

Wouldn’t miss it for the world

cup final 14

Any plans for the weekend?

It’s the theme of so many Friday conversations at work. I always have an answer and, not invariably, it tends towards the same thing: taking the kids to play sport; watching the kids playing sport; getting cold and wet while the kids play sport; entertaining a kid or two while another plays sport.

Junior sport can be as unremitting as a treadmill, but as rewarding as any hobby. Commitment is one of the lessons it teaches – to parents and children – so there’s an acceptance that if you are in town, you should be there, on the touchline. At the level my children compete, there’s no obligation to show up every week, no ranking or progress at stake if the odd game is missed for a birthday party. But regular participation and attendance are their own imperative. It becomes a habit. It’s the default status.

Weekends away do happen, but they are planned. We don’t take off on Friday evening for the coast when we see a sunny forecast for the weekend. Day trips aren’t much easier, with no.2 son playing Saturday morning and his brother the same time on Sunday. What work and school do to structure the week, so junior sports manage for weekends.

I like to think we have kept a sense of perspective. We don’t plan holidays around fixtures and we have never declined an invitation from a dear friend or family on account of a crunch match. We wouldn’t need to – they’ve learned not to ask.

But there can be weekends when there is a family event that we wouldn’t miss for the world and a match of unusual importance. The first of these was three years ago. My sister-in-law had an exhibition of her paintings in a gallery in Stokesley, North Yorkshire. Family and friends travelled from the north-west and from Fife for the Friday night opening. The cottages were booked months in advance and a weekend together planned. A cup run (a two round sprint, in fact) threw something else into the mix for that weekend: a cup final for no.1 son at 9.30 on Sunday morning.

The family travelled to Stokesley in separate cars, enabling no.1 son and I to head west at 6am for a three hour journey to the ground situated 15 minutes from home. Defective packing for the weekend meant we had to add a trip home to pick up football boots on our way there. The game was won and a very full weekend completed by 11am on Sunday morning.

Over a year ago, my Dad announced plans for celebrating his and my Mum’s diamond wedding anniversary. Bookings were made in their Cotswold village of a restaurant and B&Bs for the guests. Arrangements were so advanced that I had even got around to sorting an anniversary present or two, when last Tuesday, with five days notice, no.1 son’s coach sent a text informing us that the Cup Final was on Sunday morning. Apologies were given to my parents and accepted for us missing the third leg of the anniversary weekend. Once again we rose early on a Sunday for a long drive to a local ground.

On the Friday and Saturday I had been quietly admiring no.1 son as he told his grandparents and others how much he was looking forward to the final. In his position, I would have been debilitated by nerves three or four days ahead. Eventually, on the Sunday morning drive, things caught up with him. Perhaps anxiety, certainly two days of a rich diet and late nights, left him grumpy and upset in the back of the car, complaining of pains and unreadiness to play.

We arrived in good time at the non-league ground hosting the final. No.1 son must have shaken off his worries, as he was in the starting team. He was lively and more combative than usual in the first half, at the end of which his team were a little unlucky to trail 1-0. He played the whole of the second-half, and began to make use of the space that opened up on the large pitch as players tired. One run, beginning with a sharp one-two in his own half, saw him carry the ball to the edge of the opposition’s penalty area and lay off a pass which won the corner from which his team equalised. Extra-time – ten minutes each way – followed.

In the first period of extra-time, no.1 son ran on to a loose ball at the edge of the penalty area and struck it well and away to the keeper’s right. It deflected off a defender and onto the post. It was as close as his team came to a winning goal. The opponents scored twice in the second period to win 3-1.

The previous night, my parents had sat happily in the restaurant, accompanied by their children, grandchildren and a great granddaughter, listening to their Best Man speak about their friendship of 65 years.  The next day I watched my older son, playing well, but more importantly, smile and revel in the atmosphere and challenge of a big match on a grown-up football ground. Two things, in one weekend, that I wouldn’t miss for the world.


Filed under sport gives us.., young shoulders

Unsporty mum of three sporty kids


A guest blog: my wife, who writes about the profound pleasures, challenges, frustrations and worries of being mother in a sporty family

My life as a mother to three sporty children is very different from the world I grew up in. I was the middle of three girls, in a family where there was little or no sport, beyond the semi-occasional bad tempered Sunday afternoon walk and where organised sport of any variety was loudly and violently opposed by my father. Sports Days were ridiculed, failure to achieve at sport was lauded and sport on television was sworn at, with the single exception of the barely tolerated Wimbledon fortnight as a sop to my mother. People who liked sport, or attempted to engage in discussions about it, were branded ‘stupid’ and ‘brainless’.

I now believe that my father’s vehemence on the subject was a direct result of feeling excluded from what he saw as a club to which he was not eligible. I felt/feel this too, but as a girl from a family of girls, going to a girls only school, I think I had an easier ride. The place was full of sports avoiders, citing various recently acquired ‘women’s troubles’ to excuse themselves from games.

The sense of being able to belong to a club – not just a literal sports’ club pursuing an individual sport, but a type of sporting fraternity – is one of the main reasons that I feel sport is hugely beneficial to my children, particularly my sons and even more particularly, my elder son. He is a clever, articulate boy of 12 who has always achieved very highly at school (like his grandfather), has always found exams and tests almost laughably easy (like his grandfather), who spouts obscure facts and, magpie like, acquires bits of general knowledge constantly (like his grandfather), who could quite easily be branded a ‘nerd’ or ‘geek’ and who is nevertheless enjoying his time at school because he is accepted by his peers and has a lot of friends (unlike his grandfather). Without sport in his life, I am not sure that he would be having as enjoyable a time. Sport gives him an instant passport to friendship. Not sure what to say to that boy who he thinks is way cooler than him? Kick a ball to him, try out skills with him and you won’t even have to talk, not yet. Get a goal past him and you can walk back from lunchtime break a little bit taller – especially useful if you are the shortest boy around, which he usually is.

My younger son (just turned 8) also fits in with his classmates because he is good at sport. It is so integral to his sense of self that he divides the boys in his class into ‘football boys’ and ‘others’. He always has someone to play with, even if he never has a meaningful conversation with them, just because they like the same thing, he is good at it and that is enough. He is more naturally sporty than his older brother and I am aware that this could cause tensions in the future. He is so fast and strong that he can now beat his older brother in a running race and he can match him at football. I fear that sibling rivalry could rear its head, but so far, this has been by-passed, due in no small measure to his older brother’s somewhat surprising magnanimity and self awareness. ‘He is a much better footballer than me, it’s right’ he commented, when his little brother was scouted for a more prestigious club, an honour which has never been conferred upon him. Perhaps it is because there is still enough of an age gap – and a sister in-between them.

The sister, my daughter (10) is also very sporty. Gymnastics in her case, although she is also good at climbing and running. When I think about why sport is good for her, my reasons are not the same as those for the boys. She fits in at school by walking around the playground with a small group of girls, talking, laughing, writing stories. She doesn’t need to impress by being faster or stronger. What I see that sport gives her is a pleasure in the power of her body. She is tiny and skinny, but strong and flexible and has such an ease about herself. It is my profound hope that she can retain this sense of self through her teens and adult life. I do not want her to be tormented by her body and look at herself with self loathing, as I do and have done for as long as I can remember. I want her to inhabit her 10 year old self, to look at her body and know that it is strong and capable and healthy, even if she loses her current ability to jump down into the splits or throw herself backwards on a beam. I hope I can encourage her to continue with sport once her body starts changing, once her peers cover their burgeoning curves and introduce the idea that there should be shame about the adult female body.

I love that sport has given my children fitness, strength and confidence and yet I do feel ambivalence about it also. Enabling their sporting lives leaves me feeling depleted and inadequate. I am the driver, who does not get enough exercise herself – it is so difficult to find the time with four football sessions, three cricket sessions and two gymnastics sessions a week (not counting any grammar school fixtures and not taking into account music lessons, play-dates, homework etc which all have to be fitted in after school, after my work). I am the kit-washer, drowning in a never ceasing tidal wave of sweaty, muddy polyester and constantly accused of having lost various vital items. I am the cook, catering to different tastes, obsessions and timetables; needing to fuel them with sufficient calories to keep them going and fighting a losing battle not to join in on that, if not with the sport itself. I am the wife of a cricket loving husband, playing second fiddle to his tweeting and blogging obsessions. I remain a facilitator, not a participant and, though I never wished to fall into a stereotypical position, that is exactly what I have done. The mum who beavers about behind the scenes, but doesn’t always make it to cheer from the sidelines. The one who is a bit rubbish at anything physical herself; not part of the club.

I feel a lot of ambivalence about being on the sidelines. I spend a lot of my time in the home trying to talk to my children about being sensitive to others, not being aggressive, not trying to be competitive and definitely not talking about it if they do better than one of their friends at something. Sport turns all that on its head; their coaches talk to them about beating the opposition, about getting the gold medal in gymnastics and it goes against much of what I try to instil in them in other areas of their life. I find the testosterone fuelled matches very difficult to tolerate, particularly the bullying shouts of some touchline dads: ‘pull yourself together’, ‘that was rubbish’ etc.

This spills over, for the boys at least, into a commercialised world that, again, goes against what I try to say to them about other areas of their lives. They are bombarded by the latest boots, at extortionate cost, the latest Manchester City kit (at more than £40 for a small boy’s shirt alone), the acceptance of an ideal of sporting excellence that is at odds with my own sense of what is morally right. And yet, this is part of the male club they wish to inhabit. This is part of their expectation of what being a sporting man involves and I do not want to be the spoilsport who tries to stop them accessing their world and fitting in.

So when I think about my views on the value of sport for my children, I find myself, as a mother, trying to move on from my childhood inheritance. I value – greatly – my children’s physical health and love of sport. I love their perfect bodies. I love their shining eyes, their wind reddened cheeks and their exhausted innocence, sleeping at the end of the day. At the same time, I mourn my own ageing body and fear the influences of their teenage years knocking at my door. We must all fight against the gender based stereotypes that potentially await us and seek to trap us: I have the challenge of finding my own way with some sort of sport/exercise; I must make sure my daughter is equipped to address the expectations that puberty and teendom will give her; I must allow the boys to grow into men, whilst ensuring I try to maintain my own influence on how they do that. Sport is part of their identity; I don’t expect that to change.


Filed under Guest blogs, parenting, sport gives us.., young shoulders

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.


Filed under kit and caboodle, sport gives us.., whatever the weather