Friday, 24 April 2009

You'll Win Nothing With Kids

I’ve recently finished the excellent book by Jim White, “You’ll Win Nothing With Kids” a must-read for any parent who has a son or daughter playing junior football. I was given the book as a present and by total coincidence started to read it just as my own son signed up for Chertsey Town Under 9s. The timing could not have been any more apt.

The book is an enthralling, touching and a quite hilarious read about White managing a junior team, with a huge chunk of serious observation about the state of junior football in this country. It examines the relationships between fathers and sons, the role parents play (positively and negatively) in the game, the pressure of being a manager, the politics involved in running a junior club and how much it can completely take over your life.

And to some extent, I can see everything that White writes about happening to me, my son’s team and the parents of the boys. It is almost as if White stepped into my street and into my world, that he has been amongst us and he has written about us.

The ‘us’ that I refer to is a junior team affiliated to the main Chertsey Town football club. Chertsey Town Juniors have effectively been run quite separately from the main club over recent years, but since Spencer Day’s arrival as owner and manager at Chertsey Town, over a year ago, this is all slowly changing. Day is striving to bring the two together, to make the club as one, all the way down from the first team through all the youth ranks to the Under 7s.

My son signed up around Christmas time. Before the start of this season there was one Under 9s team, playing in the Surrey Primary League Premier Division. In a move that caused quite a deal of unrest, a group of parents (of the ‘better’ players) broke away from the rest to set up an Under 9s ‘Blues’ team using the excuse that the squad was too large for a single team and two teams could enter the League. Taking with them the coaches and the manager, the Under 9s Blues started the season in the Premier League. The remaining kids and parents cast aside were left with a race against time to organise themselves and enter a team in the League. This team became the Under 9s ‘Whites’ and entered into Division 6 of the League. Parents of the Whites rallied to take on roles of Coach, Manager, Secretary and all the other duties involved in running a team.

In the first few months of the season, the Whites struggled. Regularly playing without a full team, results went against them. But the one thing that kept them going was the desire of the boys to simply go out and play football. As the season progressed, more kids registered, including my son. After Christmas, the numbers increased further, the boys responded well to training and a real team spirit developed. Now, in April, with only a couple of games remaining, the Whites are playing some of the best football of the season. They have won their previous 3 away League matches 8-1, 3-0 and 7-1. And the boys are loving it.

But there is upheaval in the air. With Spencer Day’s plans to bring all elements of the club together, there are rumours that, come the end of this season, the boys from the Blues and the Whites teams will have a few training sessions together. The intention is that the ‘better’ boys will be selected for next season’s Blues team and the rest will play for the Whites. This will inevitably mean that some of the boys of my son’s team, some of his friends, will move ‘up’ to the Blues whilst some from the Blues will drop ‘down’.

This has caused a great deal of consternation amongst the parents of the Whites team. They have worked hard this season to build a team from scratch, see the boys grow and learn together and become what is now a very strong team. Emotions are running quite high and realistic questions are being asked. Why break the team up? Who decides which are the ‘better’ players? Are the Blues really the stronger team now? Why can’t the ‘better’ players join the Whites from the Blues?

This kind of selection process is a staple part of the football diet; this is simply how football operates. Picking the best, the fittest, the fastest, and the most skillful. It is something I have never given much thought to before. But to see that process operate in junior football, especially with kids who are only aged 8 and 9, I’m not convinced it is totally necessary.

There is so much pleasure to be gained watching your own son play football. I have being doing so primarily as a parent this season, but as with Jim White in his book, I feel myself slowly being dragged into the ‘committee’ side of things. I have taken training; I have taken control of the team when the manager is absent. I sense my involvement with the team may increase next season as the current manager is due to step down. There have, however, been some disturbing things that I have witnessed at this level. The grief that referees get from coaches and parents; the amount of shouting and screaming from the parents themselves, most noticeably at their own children; parents (and I include myself here) quite clearly living their own football dreams through their children. This can, on matchdays, at times make for quite a stressful hour or so when we should all be having fun. On Saturday and Sunday mornings our parks and open spaces are filled with junior football games, but with the touchlines packed with noisy, annoyed, red-faced parents. Is this the most conducive way to inspire our footballers of the future? It is more likely to put kids off.

In “You’ll Win Nothing With Kids” White quotes Brian McClair, who used to play for Manchester United and manage the Manchester United youth team. He said “Football is the greatest teacher” and I can fully understand what he means. For children at this age, it’s not all about coaches hollering out instructions from the sidelines. It’s not about baying parents, berating their own. It’s not about kids looking confused as they are bombarded with contradictory instructions: “Push Up!”, “Stay Back!”, “Out Wide!”, “Tuck In!” At this age, they need to understand the basics and be organised with a little structure, but beyond that kids learn by doing what they do best; going out into the park with their mates and kicking the ball around.

So at Chertsey Town Under 9s, in amongst all the politics, the talk of the team being ripped apart, the questions about the future, the concerns of the parents, it is very easy to forget the most important thing. The kids want only one thing.

To play football.

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