Played up and down the country, local amateur football has a big role in lots of people’s lives. For something that’s meant to be a bit of fun it can become a remarkably serious hobby that I think reflects the love of football in England. Players at this level are largely unpaid, in fact most pay for the privilege of representing their local side. So why do we do it? Here for any estranged girlfriends or fellow local football die hard’s is a users guide.
I play for Newton Flotman football club. I have done so for about the last eight years. I also spent a bit of time as a kid playing in their youth sides. So in total I’ve spent over a decade of my life attached to this local football club. In that time you get to know the people involved, you form friendships and you get that reassuring feeling of belonging to something, as well as playing lots and lots of football.
Ask anyone that’s been involved in local football for a while to tell you a story about something that has happened to them and they’ll talk you to death. People get really into it. Rivalries emerge that otherwise would never have even been dreamt of. You meet all sorts of different people, from different backgrounds and parts of the county.
When you’re younger local football is a place where you can recreate the magic of football in your own terms. Play out your dreams on a small field and try and replicate what you see the professionals do on television. For anyone that remembers Euro 96′ there were two goals which had a massive impact on my youth football.
Karel Poborsky’s ridiculous scooped lob finish against Portugal was a goal I saw people attempt to replicate during the following season numerous times. The phrase “he tried to Poborsky him” could often be heard on a Sunday morning. Paul Gascoigne’s goal against Scotland had a similar impact but was a goal of such class that it was probably beyond the likes of the Newton Flotman youth side to try to copy, but that didn’t stop us trying.
You need a good youth set-up if you want to be a good local club, as has been said millions of times before, kids are the future, so get them into your club early and keep them for as long as you can. If you put the time in when they are young they will always have a deep affinity for the club.
This translates into the adult game, although perhaps often we’d like not to admit it, we’re all big kids at heart. So often the week is filled with the boring and the mundane. The weekend offers a chance to escape onto the pitch, leave your problems behind and kick lumps out of each other for 90 minutes representing the team you’ve played for since you were a child. If you’re really committed you can even choose to get up early with a hang over and do it again on Sunday morning.
The only reason I know my way around Norfolk where I’ve lived for the last 18 years of my life is because I’ve trudged round most it to play football. Making the long haul trips to places like Heacham and Dersingham, Corton and Caister, Cromer and Sherringham and just about everywhere else in between. The point is that local football is a great way to get to know the place you’ve been living all these years but never really got round to exploring.
There is something special about a convoy of football cars, one of the most formative experiences as a young player starting out in the adult side was getting into a car with a man who was in no way fit to drive. He had definitely been drinking the night before and saw no reason to stop the next day so carried on with his drinking in the car on the way to the game, whilst driving. He would then go onto the pitch and win every header as a formidable centre half, it always made me wonder how good he could have been had he ever seen fit to drop the booze.
Ask anyone playing local football about their manager and you’ll likely be given one of two replies:
Either… Yeah he’s great, great manager, loves the club, knows his football.
Or… I can’t stand the cunt. He doesn’t know what the fuck he’s doing and he couldn’t organise a piss-up in a brewery.
Likely as not they will fall into one of those categories, it’s rare that you find a manager who doesn’t provoke a strong opinion one way or the other and that’s what’s good about local football, everyone has got an opinion and because you’re all effectively on the same rung of the ladder nobody is afraid to state theirs. It’s not like talking about the professional game where you might offer up a thought about a particular player only to have a TV pundit totally contradict you moments later causing your mates to mock you (even though you might have been right).
Newton Flotman is a club with a terrible recent history of keeping hold of managers, so I’ve played under a fair few. Roger, Alan, Laurence, Sid, Danny, Baz, Gary, Ian, Andy, Owen, Drakey, Clive, Bunny, Baker. That’s between the first team and the reserves over the years I’ve been at the club and I’ve probably forgotten someone. In that list there are certainly good managers and bad managers, but they all have one thing in common, they all cared about the job.
I’ve yet to encounter a manager in local football who didn’t care about the job. It makes sense, nobody is forcing you to turn up, so if you didn’t care why bother? However, caring isn’t really enough. It’s not an easy job managing a football team at a local level, in fact it’s a largely thankless task. The managers I’ve most respected are the ones I’ve felt have been the most honest with me. Everyone has good intentions, everyone has their own ideas and opinions about the game and there are bound to be disagreements, arguments and fall outs, it’s going to happen, but I respect honesty.
The test of a good local football manager is:
- Can they be honest with their players? Especially the ones who aren’t going to play, can they tell them the truth to their face.
- When there is a disagreement, do they handle themselves with dignity.
- Can they organise, communicate and bring in players.
Lies can kill a club. Rumours start, players bitch about things behind people’s backs, it can all get very nasty, I’ve seen it happen. It’s even worse these days as the lies and rumours spread onto the internet and social networks, with facebook and twitter becoming a battleground where people pursue personal vendettas for the most petty things. It can become intoxicating and it can ruin a club. So the manager has to lead the way, be honest with the players, if everyone knows where they stand they may not like it but at least they’ll be no confusion.
People will fall out with each other. It’s football after all, it’s competitive, everyone has a different opinion on who should be playing, where they should be playing, how the team should be playing, so it’s inevitable that there will be times when you (as the manager) have to sort this out. This is when dignity is required, you have to be above the petty squabbles, you have to stand by the strength of your convictions but you can’t be vindictive. After all, it’s a hobby, nobody’s livelihood is at stake, so you need to be able to take a step back, remain calm and lead by example.
“At the end of the day” local football is a numbers game. You need to bring in players for your team. Once you’ve got them there you need to communicate with them so they know what you want them to do, how you want them to play, tell them what the plan is and how it helps the team. Finally you need to organise, making sure you have a full squad every week isn’t anywhere near as easy as you might think, especially when players are brilliant at not replying to a text message until the night before a game. Simple things, like say, remembering to bring footballs to an away game, water bottles, team-sheets, the kit. Getting the pitch marked out, the grass cut, the goals and nets put up, cleaning the dressing rooms. When you’ve done all this, it’s easy to see why you can get upset when people don’t treat the job with some respect.
There are two basic philosophies for local football. Win or enjoy it. Obviously the ideal situation is to do both. A local football club needs to know what it’s aims are. It needs to have an identity. Often this comes from the people in charge at the club, the chairman, the committee and the first team manager. They all need to agree on the aims for the club or it simply won’t work. In my mind you can either be a club who just wants to enjoy their football or you can be a club that wants to win and puts that first. Everything else stems from this basic principle.
If you’re a club that’s about winning, then you’ll want to bring in good players, that makes sense. But what if they don’t show up to training? What if they behave badly, don’t help out around the club and are generally unpleasant? It’s easy to create a blame culture where they except no responsibility on or off the pitch. “Well, as long as they do it on the pitch, then we’ll turn a blind eye to the rest, because we want success” I have no problem with this, as long as everyone knows that’s how it’s going to work, because often it can be extremely unfair. However, when you know you can either accept it, or leave. Obviously there are some lines you can’t cross and managers will always have a breaking point but for the most part I think that’s how local football works.
If you’re a club that’s about enjoying the football, then it’s not always about bringing in new players, it’s often about working with what you’ve got. Rules can be put into place to ensure fairness, you can create a happy atmosphere among the players, you can give younger players a chance and although you might not be top of the league and pushing for promotion you can still enjoy it.
Problems occur when you have a mix of ideas, or where there is a lack of honesty. For example when a manager breaks the rules for certain players but not for others, then tries to lie about it. It’s often about ambition, if you have a “winning” manager stuck at an “enjoy it” club it’s going to go wrong. You can’t expect to change the culture of a club unless the people at the club want to change.
Club’s need people to help them. You can always find players, there will always be people willing to turn up and play football. But how many people can you find to come along and run the line for you? How many people can you find to run a BBQ, clean the dressing rooms, mark the pitch out, do all the little things that help a local club run? Not many. Do you have a Physio? What about committee members? Or people organising fund raising events, finding sponsors, it all needs to be done. Then there’s the paperwork, filling out team-sheets, sending in results, writing match reports, confirming fixtures and sorting out fines.
People like this are so valuable to a club but are so often undervalued. There are people at club’s I’ve played against who have been doing those kinds of things for years, ensuring the stability and future of the club, long since the latest star striker has packed his bags and left. Yet they are rarely in my experience, treated with anything like the same respect. The best sign I think you can find of a healthy local club is the number of people they’ve got who are willing to help them out.
I’ve never liked training much. I’m not the fittest of players at the best of times and sadly this fault has often been exposed at training. During pre-seaon I could usually be found bending over a railing chucking my guts up after a gruelling run. My problem with training is that it’s often incredibly poor. I don’t blame anyone for this, coming up with a good session is hard, especially when you might not have many footballs or equipment or the best surface to play on. Or perhaps you’re simply not sure how many people are going to turn up, it’s hard to find the motivation to plan a good training session if only 3 people show up. When the club is doing well, training is always well attended and when the club struggles the training ground is next to empty. It’s another good measure of the state of a local football club.
I’m personally of the opinion that training should be fun. I never saw the sense in doing lots of fitness work, yes I used to struggle with it, but the training never helped me, it was only when I went away and worked hard on my own that I started to see a real improvement in my fitness. What you can do is make sure people have a laugh and while they are laughing, trick them into learning something about the game.
So I’ve only just got to the part that it’s really all about and that’s the playing. When you invest so much time into something you want to do well at it. That’s why your mood can be affected for the rest of the weekend, nay the rest of the week depending on a good or bad result or performance.
There are so many things to contend with, you have to get to the ground, never easy especially if it’s in the asshole end of nowhere. Then there’s the dressing room, it could be small, it could be cramped, it could be a shed. Then there’s the kit, it could be tiny it could be massive. Getting socks that have shrunk in a hot wash over your shin pads is an art in itself. Toilets are not always to be found and sometimes where you change is a fair trek away from the pitch.
So what about the pitch? If you’re lucky it’s mostly grass, without too many stones, mole hills or rabbit holes. The chances of it being flat are slim, even if it doesn’t have a horrible slope to it, you can be sure it’s most likely a minefield of bobbles. The Flotman pitch has a reputation for being either rock hard and full of awkward bounces or an absolute lake where water seemingly refuses to drain away, it has the ability to switch from one to the other in the space of a week.
Then you have the referee. If you’re lucky and have a referee at all, as they a prone not to show up. There’s only one thing worse than having one of the other team pretend to be the ref for an afternoon and that’s you having to do it yourself. I had a go once, never again. The ref will often dictate what kind of game it’s going to be. Setting the tone for what he allows in terms of physicality and fouls, it makes every game that bit more unpredictable. Then there is always the fact that the other team’s lineo is a cheat and is giving everything offside.
When you throw all these things into the mix you eventually get a game of football. There is a lot that goes into getting to the point on a Saturday where you actually get to play. Usually the playing part is over all too quickly, there will be talking points, incidents, good moments, bad moments but at the end of the game if you can walk off the pitch with a smile on your face then it’s usually all been worth it. It might sound like a cheese laden cliché but it really is all about the love of the game.
After any game comes the banter. Banter has got a bad rap lately, as it’s far too often become a means for people to simply be unpleasant to each other, but that’s not what I mean at all. When I say banter, I mean jokes, a wind up, sharing a laugh. Hopefully you can end the game with a handshake and go and have a pint and some food having enjoyed a good game of football.
Of course it doesn’t always turn out like that, I’ve had people threaten me after games (sometimes members of my own team) and I’ve probably on the odd occasion not dealt with a hard-to-take defeat with the maturity that I should have and in the heat of the moment said or done some things I’m not particularly proud of. Having said this, I try not to hold a grudge. I know lots of players who enjoy the banter in the dressing room as much as they do playing the game. They revel in being able to mock their mates and so often it’s those shared experiences that live longest in the memory rather than a goal or a game.
So why do we do it?
Local football is about characters, it’s about stories, it’s about the time you had to go in goal because the keeper got injured or you were short of players so the manager had to put a kit on and pretend he could still run. It’s about the glory, the comeback, the stunning goal you once scored. It’s about the nights out, the friendships and the jokes you’ve shared. It’s about everything that happens in your life as a result of being involved in local football. It’s football, it’s the game we all love, but it’s with your mates and you get to play, so regardless of what level you are playing at, what could possibly be better than that?