Pitch Imperfect

20th May 2016

To play at this Saturday’s FA Cup Final at Wembley is many a young footballer’s dream. Heather Harris explores the sport at grassroots level – and finds it no less competitive…

it’s an illustrious collection of names: José Mourinho, Sir Alex Ferguson, Brian Clough – and Justin Byrne, from Chalfont St Peter’s Under 10s village team.

A 42-year-old company director by day, volunteer manager by night, Byrne joined this controversial footballing elite a couple of years ago – and sadly, not for their shared level of success. It was more about a mutual tendency to competitiveness.

Byrne insisted in an email to parents of his young players, ‘I am only interested in winning. I don’t care about equal play time or any other communist view of sport’. Justifying his position, he argued, ‘Everything they are likely to do in life will be competitive so my view is get them used to it… we have about 25 registered players… the majority of the squad WILL NOT GET TO PLAY in competitive matches.’

Unfortunately, four days later (and we all know four days is a long time in football) he suffered the same fate as many a Premiership manager – and was fired. As a lucrative new career on Sky Sports failed to materialise, he did consider taking legal action against the club – after all his team were consistently winning…

But that’s not surely not what grassroots football in England is all about, is it?

As the Chalfont St Peter Club spokesman explained at the time, ‘This is a friendly village football club that just wants to get as many children playing football as possible, and make sure they have fun doing it… Everyone enjoys winning, but not at the expense of leaving kids disappointed, upset and disillusioned with sport.’

It’s an admirable ethos, with which many an England fan desperately consoles themselves as yet again our national team plummets out of the Euros before the paint has dried on the supporters’ St George-crossed cheeks. Or is on the plane home from the World Cup before their optimistic fans have even fully unpacked.

The old argument about grassroots football (is it really just the taking part that counts?) has been raging longer than our national trophy drought – fifty years and counting.

One football mum, whose three sons all play at the local club, tells me, “My two older boys are very good at football and my youngest, James, was keen to play too. The trouble is… he lacks their talent, but because he goes along to training every week the manager makes sure that he does get to play some of the matches.” She’s aware, though, that some other parents are resentful. “I know they pull faces when their son is substituted for James but surely when they’re under 11 what matters is getting them outside away from their computer screens!”

The point is echoed by Guy Allen, Chairman of Chorleywood Common Youth Football Club (CCYFC), which now has 620 players across 42 teams ranging in age from four to 18. This is up from 380 players in 2008.

“And this year we introduced two girls’ teams” he tells …me when we meet at their home ground while one of the club’s FA Junior Football Leaders’ Courses is taking place. Here youngsters ranging from 12 to 16 years are learning more about volunteering and career opportunities in football.

“The issue of whether you rotate youngsters to include the weaker players in the team has always been a hot topic. Here we have a policy that we are a club for all abilities”
This means that generally managers are expected to regularly change the team and if a player is selected they will go on the pitch for at least half a game. “As parents, we all know there’s nothing worse than standing on the side-line and seeing your son or daughter on the bench for the entire game,” he says.

But surely – I tentatively query, for fear of being branded with the Byrne brush – what if this substitution could cost you the game?

Mr Allen has a well-rehearsed answer. “Smart managers plan the season in advance so they know when their toughest games are, and have their top players rotated for those dates.”
Considering it is a totally voluntary position and clearly takes up more time than turning up on the day with a standard team sheet, I am amazed that there are parents still keen to pull up their socks, dust off their boots and head for the dug-out (or, in most cases, a muddy sideline).

My husband (former manager of under 9s Rickmansworth Cub Pack team) is the first to admit why. “In our heads, us armchair supporters all know better than the professionals so it’s great to have the excuse to prove it!”

After 10 years wearing the managerial bib, Jeremy Pepper, the current coach at FC Belstone in Radlett, is moving ‘up north’ where the village team, which his 16-year-old twins will be joining, already has a manager. “I will really miss it!” he says. “I was reluctant at the start, but I was arrogant enough to think I knew a bit about football, and as we played seven-a-side, my twins were a large percentage of the team, so I agreed.”

FC Belstone is categorised by the Football Association as an ‘elite’ club (just one of the many details listed in the FA guidebook which is fatter than Rooney’s wage packet), which means that they are allowed to have trials for team selection at each age category, avoiding the ‘sport for all’ dilemma. “This isn’t to say I haven’t still had parents on the phone if their child isn’t successful in the trials, “Jeremy tells me, though, adding that his philosophy is always to be honest and open with the parents and the boys. “I always encourage the parents to listen to my team talks before and after the games so they understand why I make certain decisions.”

He is also clear about the behaviour he expects both on and off the pitch from players and parents. Over-investment in the result can be problematic. At Chorleywood the pitches back on to one another and Guy feels that this stops parents ‘more extreme behaviour’.

“We don’t have a big problem, but it’s true that the hardest part of a manager’s job is to manage expectations. Learning to win well and lose well is important.”

Geri Dewick agrees. She is assistant manager for the under 13s at Berkhamsted Raiders Football Club, the second biggest in the UK with 800 players across 80 teams. “What I am most impressed by,” she says, ‘is the attitude of the boys when they lose 16-0 on a freezing cold Sunday morning. This is what Youth Football should be all about.”

Geri joined this male-dominated world after growing up on the Arsenal terraces with her Dad, then marrying a ‘Gooner’ and having two football mad boys. “My son’s Under 10s team asked for a stand in when their manager was away so I volunteered and found I loved it…”

Four years later she is still there but admits to finding it harder as the boys get older, “The game certainly becomes more aggressive, not helped by the language and behaviour the boys see on the TV from the professionals.”

Jeremy agrees that the Respect Campaign (main aim: to work towards unity and respect across gender, race, religion and ability), to which all grassroots teams are asked to adhere, is “a joke”, adding that it is “ignored at the top level.”

And that’s the irony – at the highest level the public is becoming disillusioned with the whole image of football, fuelled by the ridiculous amounts of money involved. At grassroots level the sport is thriving, with thousands of boys – and now girls – turning up at least twice a week to run off the stresses and pressures of their school life. As one 18-year-old told me (anonymously, as he didn’t want to appear uncool), “I’ve been playing for my village team since I was five and it’s still the highlight of my week!”

Much of it is a thankless task, however. In 2013 FA Chairman Greg Dyke called for a £250m investment in grassroots football, to include new training facilities and an improvement in English coaching standards. Three years later and still thousands of youth matches were called off last winter, due to waterlogged pitches – a problem not experienced on the continent where youngsters play on 3G artificial grass.

Not surprisingly Mr Dyke is now hanging up his chairman’s boots in frustration, as he – like the rest of us – waits in trepidation for Euro 2016.
But perhaps the time has come for us all to stop dreaming of silverware and to go back to our roots, where it’s nice to win but hey – it’s more about the taking part… isn’t it?

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