I’m constantly looking for ways to fill a hole left by my disdain for modern football. At the end of 2015 I came up with a New Year’s Resolution to visit at least one new football ground per month. In the end I managed just eight, ultimately failing in my quest, and I put that partly down to a message I received out of the blue in June 2016.
The message dropped in my inbox like a hand grenade. For the next 24 hours my heart pounded as I pondered the question. “I’ll have to ask the Mrs” I said, to buy myself a bit of time. It was hardly a life or death question, but I knew my decision would have repercussions on our relationship, knowing how committed I am once I agree to do something. My girlfriend urged me to go for it, supportive as ever, and I replied saying “yes, I’ll do it”. I was now a Sunday League manager and would take the reins ahead of the 2016/17 season.
The team I was taking over had performed badly in the previous season, finishing second bottom in the lowest division of the local league. They had merged with another struggling team, and I had some of my own contacts from years of playing to throw into the mix. All of a sudden, we were starting pre-season training with more than 30 prospective players on the books, most of whom were unfamiliar to each other.
I was extremely nervous ahead of the first training session. I’d never done this before and was worried I wouldn’t be able to stand in front of a group of lads and dish out instructions and pearls of wisdom. My fears were soon waylaid and the lads keenly got involved with the first training session, prompting me to naively predict that we’d walk the league.
We lost the first four of our five pre-season friendlies, scoring just one goal and shipping 13. I wasn’t overly concerned, given that the team was so disjointed and getting to know each other, although there were a few worrying signs. Some of the players were extremely unfit, and unable to perform basics. It was clear a lot of work was still to be done.
Pre-season proved to be a revolving door of wannabees and time wasters. Lads who talk the talk but have neither the ability nor the desire to walk the walk. A couple of the better players took one look at the squad and decided to move on to pastures new, which was a little disappointing.
Thankfully we won our last pre-season game at a canter, thrashing the opposition 4-0. In my mind I thought that all of the hard work had finally clicked, although it merely proved to have papered over the cracks against a bunch of lads who, frankly, had been on the piss on Saturday night and were in no fit state to play football. Still, we started the season with 28 players on the books and I was confident that over the course of the season we’d have enough to be successful.
The first competitive game of the season was a real baptism of fire as we went down 8-0 to one of the league favourites. In what would become a pattern of the season, more than half of the players were unavailable, meaning I was unable to select my first choice squad. One of the players, proving that he didn’t have the stomach for it, limped off after ten minutes never to be seen again.
We picked up the odd win but the early parts of the season mainly continued in this vein, as we continually displayed the same disappointing traits that cost us goal after goal. A month into the season I started to get the text messages from players who believed they should be in the team. One of them, the vice-captain, had impressed me with his attitude early on but struggled as the games kicked in. There is no place to hide on the football pitch, and bullshit changing room and WhatsApp chat cannot save you once you cross the white line.
After starting several games as a substitute he came off the bench in one particular game, scoring and looking highly motivated. I decided that he would get his chance in the next game, wearing the captain’s armband, as I wanted to reward him. Yet he didn’t show up, and all efforts to contact him afterwards were in vain. I bumped into him in town and he tried to spin a yarn about his phone being broken. I humoured him as to not make the situation more awkward than it already was but could smell the bullshit from a mile off. He contacted me months later saying he wanted back in the fold but I politely told him that there was no chance.
The lead up to Christmas wasn’t all doom-and-gloom. We won a couple of cup matches against fancied teams from higher divisions, and won all of our league matches in December, which to the lads’ delight cost me a round of drinks in the bar. Going in to the festive period we were fourth in the league with an outside chance of promotion, and spirits were high.
Pride comes before a fall as they say, and I was extremely disappointed with the form and attitude shown in the New Year. I felt that people were living off December and expecting things to come easily. They didn’t, and we lost a string of winnable games, crashing out of a couple of cups in the process.
Player numbers has been one of the hardest things that I’ve had to contend with, and availability for games and training has differed wildly. Some of the excuses were ridiculous, and given that I’ve been around grassroots football for 15-odd years the players perhaps should’ve given me a bit more credit. One of the lads must moonlight as a children’s entertainer because he seemed to be at a party every Sunday, and a spate of injuries in the squad miraculously cleared up once the worst of the winter weather was over.
At the end of the season I received the news that three players were leaving to join a rival team which was a little disappointing given that I was hoping this season would be a springboard for the next campaign. However, it’s better to go forward with a smaller, yet more committed and tight-knit squad as opposed to a bloated one full of hangers-on, and several good players have already pledged their allegiance going forward.
I was desperate for the season to end, needing a break from the organisation, time and energy required of a manager even at that level. I enjoyed the summer break but now we’re back in pre-season training and it all starts again. I feel reinvigorated after completing the FA Level One coaching badge and now I’m excited for the new campaign and ready to face what grassroots football has to throw at me.
First published in STAND #22. The landmark 25th issue is out now!