If you have ever been remotely connected to junior football, in any shape or fashion, you will probably know the scene well.
A damp, miserable day in January, with the cold morning air piercing the lungs. The overnight rain means the pitch resembles something more suited to Glastonbury. For the kids, it’s no Theatre of Dreams. More the stuff of nightmares.
But, everyone’s been up since early to get here, so let’s get the game on. The kids thrash about in the puddles. Everyone, mostly the players, spends their time praying for the final whistle so they can get warm and dry.
And then we wonder why England struggle to produce technically gifted players.
These, of course, are the lucky ones.
Callum Concannon, who plays in the Under-9 age group, lives and breathes football. But his side, after ‘electing’ not to take up the warm, dry and beneficial option of Futsal throughout the winter months, have not played since November 23. So by the time this column flashes before your eyes, young Callum will have gone almost two whole months without a game of football. Training, too, has been hit and miss, thanks to the weather.
How’s that for footballing development of our young players?
In England, of course, we are always at the mercy of the weather, whatever the sport. Last season’s cricket season was one of the worst in recent seasons in terms of weather.
And football has long been the nation’s ‘winter sport’.
But the junior game is vastly different. So here’s my suggestion: is it beyond the realms of possibility for junior football to be switched to the summer? The excellent Sheffield and District Junior Sunday League, the largest of its kind in Europe, has around 12,000 boys and girls registered to play football each week, and 990 teams.
Last Sunday, 110 of those teams contested 55 games which beat the weather. The rest were left kicking their heels. It goes without saying that such a change would not spell the end of the problems engulfing our national game. But could any child honestly say they’d rather play in January than July, shivering rather than sweltering? The game is about them and if it betters them, it is surely worth considering.
Privately, officials at the Junior Sunday League are not against the idea of switching to the summer but admit that the idea would need “serious thought” to find solutions to a number of problems in the way - including lucrative summer tournaments and galas, which some clubs rely on for much-needed funds, family holidays and the impact on summer sports, such as cricket and tennis.
But the solutions are surely there. One suggestion is to kick off the season in March until May, have June off for club tournaments, and return in July until September.
Or to avoid clashes with holidays and cricket, play March-May and September until October. Playing only Sundays, that gives scope for a 24-game season, plus Summer tournaments and time off for holidays and cricket. In decent conditions, with hardly a puddle in sight. Bring it on.
True, England still lags behind in terms of the number of coaches who have the UEFA ‘B’ Pro Licence qualification. According to UEFA figures, 1,759 hold the licence; compared to 28,400 in Germany, the world champions.
But the problem goes much deeper. It is the Sunday morning managers who hold the key to many a child’s footballing development in their hands, and few are going to be motivated enough to go to the time and expense of passing their coaching courses.
Some are roped into the coaching job because their child plays for the side; some genuinely want to give something back and help the community. Some just want to win at all costs. But all give up their time, often for little thanks. And all, for me, deserve whatever help they can get.
They say everyone remembers their first coach. Mine, Alan, was a kind bloke, a bus driver by day and our boss by the evening. The Hall family didn’t have a car when I was a kid, so we used to hop on his bus and he’d drop us off at training, before parking it up and joining us with his bag of perennially-flat footballs and broken excuses for cones. We’d spend half an hour warming up and the rest of the session freezing, battling to keep a ball moving in half a foot of mud. In winter, we’d move indoors to an even colder sports hall where, at least, the ball rolled. We were making do.
Once, we somehow appropriated a Futsal ball - smaller, and heavier in weight. Futsal is the game that inspired the likes of Ronaldo, Messi and Xavi to become the best in the world, remember. We spent the session trying to smash the thing into bits, by lumping it as hard as we could.
Alan, for all his dedication and willing, was not a revolutionary. He wasn’t about to tell a bunch of 11-year-old kids that, actually, we should do yet another passing drill and try to nail our two-touch skills. But if van Gogh had been given a tub of emulsion and a shed and fence paintbrush, he wouldn’t have painted Sunflowers. He - Alan, not Vincent - rightly believed that football should be fun. Win or lose. But there is a middle ground.
The local junior leagues have done a lot of good work, and should be rightly proud. The switch to 9v9 football at lower ages is a positive step, as is their promotion of Futsal. But this is a game that promotes technical skill, and keeps kids warm, dry and interested. So could it be made compulsory over the winter months?
Switching to summer football will not be enough to transform the culture of English football, and Futsal alone will not produce an English generation of Iniesta and Xavi identikits. But they are good starting points.
Especially if they improve the enjoyment of football-mad kids like Callum Concannon.