BRITAIN is a nation of football experts. Watch any game at, say, White Hart Lane, Upton Park or Stamford Bridge and there will be 35,000 football managers in the crowd. It has always been the same, but in recent times, the talent pool has got bigger due to computer games such as FIFA and Football Manager, all of which convince the addict that they can manage a real football team. People have actually applied for jobs on the basis that they have been extremely successful at playing FIFA. This is where reality and fantasy become very blurred at the edges. “But I won the Champions League five years in a row,” claimed one candidate, who was not, despite his credentials, Alfredo Di Stefano.
Most football fans don’t understand tactics – some can’t even get their heads around the offside law (actually, quite a lot don’t get the offside law). One quick way to gain some insights into the tactical world is to read Jonathan Wilson’s superb Inverting the Pyramid, another is to whip out the Subbuteo board and start pushing little men around the green baize – and no, we’re not talking about Spain’s lack of physical presence.
Many of us have assumed that if you put on a tracksuit, slip a whistle around your neck and start doing a few physical jerks (wrong again, we’re not talking about Wimbledon’s crazy gang), that you can start to coach a football team. It’s hardly surprising, really, given that you may have grown up seeing images of Walter Winterbottom, Ron Greenwood and Alf Ramsey, all resembling vicars or small-town bank managers in tracksuits, conducting training sessions. Give the boy a tracksuit and I will show you the man!
I’ve had my moment of coaching and it was a disaster. I came to the conclusion that progressive tactics were just not suitable for under-11 year-olds. I came away disillusioned, muttering that, “It works at Ajax…”. I was going to unleash a fresh dynamic in youth football – a heady mixture of total football, Arthur Rowe’s “Push and Run” and a little hint of Italian catenaccio.
The team I was “assisting” had just come off a bad season. Bottom of the table, played 12, lost 12. Goals for 6, goals against 110. There was plenty of upside. The players’ parents had unceremoniously sacked the manager after several of the youngsters were left in tears after a 23-0 defeat in the final game.
I appointed a BBC (Bibs, Balls and Cones) man to assist me. He was from Liverpool, so I assumed he knew a bit about winning (he wouldn’t have got the job a decade later). I was looking for the spirit of the “boot room” from Toxteth Terry, as I called him. Our first pre-season team talk proved the point. Tez, my pet name for him, took the lead: “Look lads, some people say football is a matter of life and death, but it’s more important than that.” The reaction in the dressing room was bizarre. “Does that mean we will die playing football,” asked one kid. “Son, you will die for the shirt,” replied Tez, clutching the badge and kissing it.
Another kid started crying and ran out of the dressing room. Seconds later, his father burst into the room asking what was going on. “We should tone it down, Tez,” I said. “They’re not ready for this.” Tez was bemused. “I just asked one of them if they knew who Bill Shankly was and they had no idea. Where have these kids been?”.
Our first training session highlighted the problems. During the game, the players would all follow each other, drifting from one side of the pitch to the other. It reminded me of watching sheep on Rutland Water. Passing was non-existent, the ball just got kicked long, everyone followed it and then stood and watched when possession was lost. The opposition picked it up, ran downfield and then in a nine-on-one with the goalkeeper (the smallest lad on the pitch), they would score.
“I know what we have to do, Tez,” I said. “What’s that, gaffer?”.
“We need to teach these kids to pass the ball.”
Such perception led me to send Tez after 12 Cs (Cones). He came back with a dozen that had been “procured” from a motorway maintenance truck. Our next training session would shape the future of the Hambridge Way Dynamos and also of my entire coaching career. “This next hour will change our lives, lads.”
Tez laid the cones out in a 4-4-2 formation across one half of the pitch. The lads lined-up likewise on the other half. I stood on the halfway line in my green tracksuit, whistle round my neck on a bootstring, and stopwatch in my hand. I later found out that the lads’ nickname for me was, “The green blob”.
I explained that they had to pass the ball to each other and travel up pitch, passing between the cones. Every time the ball hit a cone, the game would restart from the halfway line. It was 15 minutes each way. “Well lads, you are not going to lose this one,” shouted Tez. “Ah, the legendary wit of the Kop,” I thought.
The game kicked off. For the next five minutes, the sound of leather on plastic (cones) filled the air of the school playing field. The players could not get much beyond the centre circle. At half-time it was 0-0, the Cones were playing a blinder. The lads were dispirited. “Look, you’re not losing,” I said. “It could be worse….they are well organized and they keep their shape, you have to combat that.” When I looked at the pitch, Tez was changing ends, laying the cones out in a 4-3-3 formation. “The cones are getting ambitious, they’ve soaked up the pressure and we’ll have to watch them on the break,” shouted Tez, who had stuck a Liverpool scarf on the Cones’ centre half. “It’s Ron bloody Yeats, gaffer.”
Yeats continued to perform well in the heart of the newly named FC Cones, which could well have been a Bulgarian second division side. But in the last minute, our tall centre forward, Callum, received the ball behind Yeats and shot home to win the game. The lads went berserk jumping all over the scorer and then kicking Yeats in frustration. “Aye, he was a dirty bastard, was Yeats,” grinned Tez.
I was elated – there’s a little of Brian Glover from the film Kes in all of us – and caught up in the moment. As we walked off the pitch, Tez put his arm round my shoulder. “Great win, boss,” he said. “It was a relief,” I responded. “But what are we going to do when the opposition are not plastic and static?.”
We didn’t have time to consider that. In the car park, two parents were watching the game.
“That was pathetic,” said a disgruntled father.
“They showed a lot of character,” I responded.
“That was crackers, making those youngsters play against cones.”
“It taught them something.”
“Yes, to avoid mad managers…you’re like Malcolm Allison, he was bonkers, too.”
“I’ve never spent £ 250,000 on a teenager.”
“You won’t get the chance to spend 25 pence, you’re sacked.”
“Not even a Chairman’s vote of confidence?…come on Tez, these people are not going to appreciate progressive football.”
And that ended my coaching career. But with a 100% record. Played one, won one. And a clean sheet. Championship teams are not built in a day…unless you play computer games, of course.
** Some of this is true…some of it isn’t