Grassroots Football….A Decade in the Eye of the Storm.

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It’s a glorious North-West England midweek summer’s evening and several pre-season friendlies are already underway.

The weathered looking municipal complex has little in the way of facilities, but it’s a hive of activity, it’s noisy and from afar it’s uniquely enticing. The pitches look scorched, uneven and threadbare but rest assured they’ll be terminally water-logged and virtually unplayable by December. They always are. Austerity measures have decimated local authority budgets and the knock-on effect is that funding for pitch maintenance is scarce, but woeful facilities, dire playing surfaces and a dismal lack of financial support is standard for grassroots football, it always has been, but to a lesser degree than it is today.

As I approach the game nearest to the park’s entrance I hear pantomime jeers of discontent. That’s also standard for grassroots football. It’s the young referee who is bearing the brunt of the crowd’s exasperation and he finds himself on the receiving end of a sustained volley of distasteful over-the-top appeals, but grassroots touchlines are ritually demur, particularly in youth football. I’d missed the incident but it didn’t matter because it set the tone for the remainder of the match. It’s an under 14s pre-season game between two local rivals who’d had contrasting seasons. One had been promoted (the team in red) and one had been relegated (the team in blue). They will now share the same division for the 2017-18 season.

There is an evenly matched support of around 25-30 family and friends gathered on each touchline. They’re in the zone and only 15 minutes into the game, a handful of the blue’s support is already obsessing about performance. Should’ve, could’ve, would’ve. Errghh, why aren’t they listening? And that referee, give me strength? They’re experienced dissenters. All kinds of parental angst and dysfunction is played out on the touchline, and you only need to pop over to the local park to experience the vituperative tone for yourself. You’ll be sure to find them drowning in an undercurrent of agitation, and be under no illusion, parental obsession like this, can and does hinder children’s enjoyment of sport.

The blues touchline set the bar early doors. It’s a pack mentality. They switch from shouting encouragement to providing instruction at will and much of what they preach is conflicting. Do this, do that, do the other…your ball, his ball, leave it…tackle him, jockey him… your man, his man. They’re passing on more orders than (General) Montgomery but fail to comprehend the confusion they’re creating. Their incessant dogging, admittedly much of which is pantomime, is interspersed with flailing gesticulation and needless callous remarks. The atmosphere is becoming increasingly stressful and inhospitable, but it’s standard behaviour in a grassroots scene where winning will always be about overcoming contempt, in the search for approval from parents and coaches who have lost sight of what the grassroots ethos advocates.

The blue team’s manager, a stern imposing middle-aged man with an acutely loud voice and a tendency to repeatedly mutter scornful criticism of his players under his breath, is clearly agitated by the red team’s domination. He’s loud and very animated. He’s become the focus of my attention. His full-back has just been beaten by the opposing team’s winger with a delightful piece of skill and they’ve conceded the opener from the resulting cross. “Not good enough Jack,” he fumes at the young full back! It’s an implacable rage. And just in case Jack wasn’t listening, he repeats the message again. Everyone can hear him but he doesn’t care. The youngster is embarrassed. He’s also clearly upset but the manager calls the shots and he’s having his say. The rational and intelligent response to addressing development or underperformance would be to address the team’s or player’s failings in training, not bawl them out from the touch line, but this coach appears incapable of constructive dialogue, a common coaching failing at this level.

"Many, many parents do a brilliant job, but some need to ask themselves, 'why I am running this team?' It should be about letting the kids develop skills and enjoy themselves, it is not PlayStation for dads." Les Howie, the FA's head of grass-roots coaching.

Parents love a good footballing cliché and the blues restarted the game to a sustained volley of them…straight into them blues, pressure them, be first to the ball, let’s put a shift in, let’s win it, put him under, get amongst them, push up, let them know you’re there. They’re well-rehearsed and spewed out with purposeful authority, but to no avail, because within 10 minutes of the restart there’s a ‘Houston we have a problem moment.’ The blues linesman, a parent volunteer, is flagging vigorously for off-side but the referee ignores him (it’s not in the linesman’s remit to flag for off-side at this level), leaving the unmarked red’s number 9 to score his second goal of the game. Cue scenes. Cue ref bashing. Cue industrial language. Cue name calling. Cue verbal intimidation. And bear in mind that this was not a game of any significance and nobody’s future would be determined by the outcome.

The manager is apoplectic. He’s foaming at the mouth and he’s marching menacingly towards the referee, but stops short of invading his personal space. His face is red and he’s gesticulating wildly. “You cannot get decisions like that wrong,” he fumed. The referee, a schoolboy himself, is clearly uncomfortable but he’s been here before. It comes with the territory. His experience tells him to ignore the comments and carry on regardless. By the time the referee gets to the half way line the appeals have petered out and the caveman in the tracksuit returns to the touchline. We go again.

This wasn’t a particularly ill-tempered affair. But it didn’t need to be. It’s grassroots football, where large swathes of coaches and pockets of parents are hardwired with a mean-spirited pugnaciousness that tends to bring out the worst in them. It’s a toxic combination and it’s damaging the fabric of the grassroots game, but they’re so fixated with the score-line, that they’re oblivious to their conduct and the effect it has on others.

Every year there are thousands of cases of misconduct committed by adults at youth football games. The most recent figure I have to hand confirmed 3,731 incidents of misconduct involving adults over a 15-month period, but many referees claim the figures are significantly higher as much of the abuse goes unreported. A recent independent study into the issue has also shown that 60 per cent of referees suffer substantial verbal abuse in at least one in two games, while more than 19 per cent say they have been subjected to physical impropriety.

In 2008, the year I started coaching, the FA launched its RESPECT campaign, the behavioural code for football, in a blaze of publicity. It’s a programme that provides a series of tools to help foster a healthy environment that is conducive to stamping out the ills responsible for tarnishing the game’s image. It was introduced at both professional and grassroots levels but primarily set up at grassroots level to banish improper behaviour and help deal with aggressive touchline parents, abusive coaches, and to stem the loss of referees. It’s estimated that each year up to 7,000 officials exit the game because of the aggression, both physical and verbal, levelled against them by managers, parents and players. The increase in impropriety has led Keith Hackett, the former referees’ chief and staunch supporter of the Respect campaign in 2008, to declare that the Football Association does “not have a clue” about the scale of the grass-roots problem.

Ray Winstone supported the FA’s RESPECT campaign by starring in this video to highlight touchline abuse. Respect is a rolling FA programme, not a one-off initiative.

Like Winstone, I believe this should be compulsory viewing for every parent planning on supporting their child in grassroots football. The promotion of Respect is core to the success of the programme and it is the collective responsibility of all those involved in grassroots football to implement it and adhere to it to help fashion a safe environment in which the game can take place in order to ensure the enjoyment of its participants. It would also create a more appealing environment in which to attract a greater number of coaches into the grassroots system.

Named and shamed: Teenage referee attacked by thug dad during under-8s football match – Birmingham Mail 14/07/2014

The FA’s Codes of Conduct are the centerpiece of the RESPECT campaign and the Codes are a mandatory requirement for all FA Charter Standard Clubs in grassroots football. Each club is required to produce their own code of conduct handbook as a guide for coaches, players and parents, and clubs are encouraged to use the FA’s codes as a template to formulate or revise their own. The handbook prohibits profanity, promotes good behaviour and clearly sets out expectations. The inclusion of Codes into the registration process of players ensures that all parties can be made aware of their responsibilities at the point of joining the club. By counter signing a player’s registration form, the parents and guardians of players are also agreeing to abide by the Codes. But unless there are meaningful consequences for breaking the Codes that are rigorously imposed, and the current state of affairs suggests this is not the case, the RESPECT campaign can and should be rendered not fit for purpose in its current format.

Earlier this year, 18-year-old Manchester referee Ryan Hampson called for a nationwide referee’s strike after ruthlessly exposing the scale of dissent, violence and disrespect directed towards grassroots referees. Officiating since the age of 14, Ryan has been subjected to extraordinary levels of abuse. He’s been head-butted, punched and spat on several times. But the threat to strike, which was supported by up to 2,000 of his colleagues and was pencilled in for the first weekend in March 2017, was called off after the Manchester FA agreed to implement new initiatives to try and combat the intolerable culture of abuse that is blighting the game to unprecedented levels.

Photo Credit: Paul Cooper

Referees live in fear as grassroots game spirals out of control – The Telegraph 27/03/2017

Any allegation of assault will now result in a referee development officer and a welfare officer being made available to provide support. All assaults against referees under the jurisdiction of the Manchester FA will be reported to the police. Referees will be supported and updated throughout the whole of the disciplinary process, together with ongoing support and communication after the process is finalised. The Manchester FA also issued a communique to all clubs pre-warning them of a new zero tolerant approach to referee abuse.

“Assaults on match officials, be they few and far between, are still too many,” said the Manchester FA. “The consequences of assaulting match officials, if proven, will result in a ban from all football for between five to 10 years. This will be in addition to any action that the police consider taking as a criminal prosecution.”

And The Football Association, after months of deliberation, has responded by recently announcing a series of commendable rule changes for the forthcoming 2017-18 season, ensuring an unprecedented minimum 5-year ban for anyone found guilty of assaulting a referee. This will apply to players at all grassroots and youth level. In addition to the mandatory ban, there will be at least an 84-day suspension and £100 fine for any physical contact made with a match official and verbal threats will now be sanctioned with a minimum ban of 56 days, or six matches, together with a fine of £50.

The FA also announced the piloting of sin-bins next season in 32 grassroots leagues. The trial ruling will see payers will spend 10 minutes out of the game if they are shown a yellow card for dissent, with various men's, women's, youth, Saturday and Sunday league set to participate.

“The mandatory bans are a massive step forward and I am sure they will be welcomed by referees across the country,” said Hampson in a recent interview with The Telegraph. “The situation for many referees had got desperate. The abuse was out of hand and, while not everyone agreed that striking was the right way forward, I am so happy that real change has followed the campaign. These new sanctions will give reassurance to referees to know that they are being backed up and that we were not punch-bags.”

Parents convicted of attack on teenage referee at junior football match – Manchester Evening News 02/05/2015

The trials and tribulations of young Ryan Hampson, and he is by no means alone, is further condemnation of a RESPECT campaign that was produced and publicised with the best of intentions, enjoyed some early successes, but has now clearly lost its way. The game’s image is being tarnished on a weekly basis at every level and I believe it’s widely acknowledged that the FA need to look closer to home if they’re serious about stamping out unacceptable behaviour either side of the touchline, because there is a definite correlation between behaviour in the professional game and behaviour at grassroots level.

The FA have failed to crack down on numerous undesirable nuisance factors that have become firmly entrenched within the professional game and It’s the mimicry factor that sees youngsters replicate the poor examples set by professionals and sees coaches adopt the unacceptable touchline antics of the games high profile managers. The same logic applies to bad examples set by coaches and parents on grassroots touch lines. Psychologists refer to it as modelling; an unspecific manner where individuals ascertain how to behave by observing another individual. In this case, kids will exhibit behaviour based on the actions of the adults on the touchline who are meant to be role models and standard bearers for good behaviour.

It’s not unusual to find that a team’s conduct usually reflects that of the behaviour displayed by coaches and parents. ‘When in Rome do as the Romans do.’ It’s been getting progressively worse every season. But if the FA can eliminate dissent from the professional game, or at least minimise it, it should eventually filter down to the grassroots game and help to change the dynamics of touchline conduct that the general consensus believes it is partly responsible for.

Teenage referee allegedly assaulted by parent at junior football game – Liverpool Echo 01/06/2016

Nothing can prepare youngsters for the shit storm that awaits them when coming into refereeing for the first time. The abuse is impossible to replicate because it’s real life and comes in many forms, so as part of on-going development, Bedfordshire Football Association launched their Referee Scholarship Programme initiative in 2015. Designed to help young referees come to terms with the aggressive environment they are about to commit to, this two-year practical based programme primarily focuses on the areas of development relevant to proficiency, with the aim of nurturing kids into stronger, better referees. In an era where young referees are leaving the game faster than they can be replaced, Bedfordshire FA can proudly boast a 100% retention rate of their newly qualified referees.

“Can We Have a Referee”….A light-hearted viral film released by the FA as part of the respect programme. The short film features Fabio Capello, Howard Webb and several ex-pros and highlights the importance of referees in football because without them we have no game.

All referees have two characteristics that remain constant. Firstly, they referee games with the best of intentions. Secondly, they will make mistakes. They’re only human and in many cases, they are only school children or college kids. As in the professional game, some weeks will see you benefit from decisions, others you won’t. Referees… good, bad or indifferent… should be allowed to referee on autopilot, because persistently dogging them, as with players, will affect their concentration, cast self-doubt and will ultimately lead to a downturn in performance. Yet the snarling stream of profanity routinely attributed to the ‘fully qualified’ official’s honesty knows no bounds, as parents, spectators, players and coaches continue to obtrusively question the integrity of these young referees trying their level best to officiate a game of grassroots football, between two sets of youngsters, in the most hostile of environments. Every adverse decision, regardless of how clear cut, is dissented by the unsporting touchline Nazis who progressively erode the spirit of the game with every reckless intrusion. It’s extreme touchline participation from transgressors not even remotely au fait with the rules of the game and the only thing separating these serial antagonists from the referee is a length of bespoke cordon boldly emblazoned with the word RESPECT.

Parents who attacked teenage ref at children's football match handed suspended jail sentences – Manchester Evening News 02/06/2015

Referees are a crucial component of any sporting code but they’ve become a scapegoat for our frustrations. From disallowed goals to the two-footed tackle, referees can determine the mood of the touchline with their decision making and interpretation of events. Very few matches, particularly when the age groups incorporate the off-side rule (with no linesmen), pass without repetitive criticism from coaches, parents and players who have only a basic understanding of the rules. Invariably, much of what they spout is embarrassingly wide of the mark. And whenever a referee fails to show up for a match and the coach is looking for volunteers, you can guarantee the silence will be deafening. Critics might want to think carefully in future before deciding to cast unnecessary aspersions upon a referee’s integrity.

So how well do you know the laws of the game? Take the test but don’t guess if you don’t know the answer in full.

*Answers can be found at the end of the article.

1. A player inside the penalty area strikes the referee. What decision should the referee take?

2. A goalie is bouncing the ball on the ground. An attacker kicks the ball when the goalie is not touching it. The ball enters the goal. What decision should the referee take?

3. An indirect free kick is awarded to the attacking team outside the opponents’ penalty area. The referee fails to raise his arm to indicate that the kick is indirect and the ball is kicked directly into the goal. What decision should the referee take?

4. While the ball is in play a player leaves the field of play and violently strikes an official of the opposing team. What decision should the referee take?

5. If players ask him, is the referee required to inform the players how many minutes have passed or how many are remaining?

6. After the first half is complete, both teams agree to start the second half without a break. Should the referee agree to their request?

7. A player in an off-side position receives the ball directly from a goal kick from his own keeper and scores a goal. What decision should the referee take?

8. What hand signal does a referee use to award a direct free Kick?

9. What hand signal does a referee use to award an in-direct free Kick?

10. When is a team awarded… a) a direct free kick b) an indirect free kick?

Referee a kids’ football match? You couldn’t pay me enough – The Guardian 24/02/2016

Back at the game, I wasn’t privy to the manager’s half-time team talk but judging by his public display of irrational anger and repetitive arm flapping, I’d hazard a guess that the manager had reached a level of fury that was close to initiating spontaneous human combustion. His team’s only crime was to be 2-0 down at half-time in a friendly U14s game between two local teams. Not because they hadn’t tried. On the contrary, they’d toiled on a hot summer’s evening. But to no avail. It wasn’t the referees fault either. He was very competent and had performed well in an unnecessary hostile environment. They were just second best to a team who in contrast, had belief in themselves and played with support and encouragement from their touchline.

The second half was much like the first. The reds were dominant, the blues continued to toil whilst under pressure from the manager, his assistant and a handful of parents who between them provided nothing in terms of guidance, only ever clichés and aggressive criticism. And furthermore, the referee continued to be harassed and the reds added another two goals to their tally.

In their hour of need the blues needed support not criticism. They needed encouragement not harassment. They needed guidance not ambiguity. They needed reassurance not disheartening. They needed positivity not dismay. They needed belief in them not distrust. Young players need supporters more than detractors. They play football for enjoyment. They needed to be gee’d up at every opportunity and reminded that they’re fantastic and capable, because children will respond much better when they’re not bawled at. Self-confidence is the most powerful tool in the box. Children thrive on it. With the right support, ordinary kids can achieve extraordinary things. They need to be allowed to enjoy playing football. It is not a crime to lose.

Unsporting parents are killing children’s love for competitive games – The Telegraph 23/04/2014

At 4-0 with just under 10 minutes to play I’d seen and heard enough. The master of critique’s attempt to extract a performance from his players using fear as his tool for motivation had spectacularly backfired. He’d unwittingly become the red team’s 12th man, blissfully unaware of the ramifications of his Neanderthal like behaviour. The blues had played the whole game under a backdrop of unnecessary touchline abuse, encouraged by a coaching display reminiscent of Brian Glover’s performance in Kes, where he played the part of Mr Sugden, the overbearing PE teacher who delighted in the humiliation of his young charges. Welcome to 21st century grassroots coaching where fear and criticism appear to be the drivers for motivation!

KES – The Match

I’d like to say I was surprised by the 60 minutes of cringe worthy barracking and harassment of both players and the referee, but in reality, it’s a scenario that would resonate with the vast majority of grassroots disciples who devote their weekends to their kids. It’s a weekly occurrence that’s particularly prevalent and more excessive in the youth leagues when they step up to the 11-a-side format. Few, if any, leagues are immune from it.

Grassroots football in England: abuse, death threats and withering numbers – The Guardian 17/01/2014

Grassroots football has almost certainly reached its nadir. Unprecedented levels of violence, abuse and misconduct now appear to be the standard format for touchline behaviour in many leagues up and down the country. Having never been robustly dealt with, coaches, parents and players have unwittingly adopted a laissez-faire approach to it all. It has become emblematic of a grassroots culture that has allowed itself, for a multitude of reasons, to be consumed with varying degrees of anti-social behaviour, aggression, profanity and violent acts.

Sadly, some parents who are new to the grassroots scene and who come to partake with the best of intentions, will be suckered in and inadvertently indoctrinated into this seemingly ineradicable odious culture of abuse and sadly, they’ll adopt the same habitual behavioural deficiencies and emotional callousness….and so the cycle continues!

Children screaming as fists fly at kids' football match with parents chasing, kicking and punching each other – Mirror 20/03/2017

Never has a football manager’s veiled remark been taken so out of context than the great Bill Shankly’s exaggerated claim that football is much more important than a matter of life and death. Of course it’s not; not even to the most reticent of supporters. They’re just words used to shape a mindset. Shanks excelled at that and football fans the world over get it. September will see tens of thousands of kids across the country kicking off their new season and another episode of coaches behaving badly will unfold. Sadly, it’s not just the new football season that will be kicking-off. By putting in a touchline performance of such unnecessary intensity that it will echo Shankly’s celebrated quote, those pushy parents and caustic coaches will once again unwittingly undermine and embarrass the real stars of the grassroots game, their children!

Nineteenth century French polymath Charles-Marie Gustave Le Bon developed a view that when a cohort of people come together to form a crowd, it enables individuals to lose their personality and inhibitions, which in turn sees them behave in a manner that is out of character. Being part of a crowd provides an anonymity that can instigate the dark side of self-control that can see an individual become primal, irrational and emotional. "An individual in a crowd is a grain of sand amid other grains of sand, which the wind stirs up at will." We can also attribute Le Bon’s observation to the smaller gatherings that stand on the touchlines of the many grassroots football pitches up and down the country.

The ever-increasing saturation in football coverage has equipped supporters with a superabundance of drab meaningless footballing clichés that has transformed pockets of watching parents into ‘soi-disant expertes’ of the game. As a coach, you spend hours planning training sessions, developing your players and preparing for the weekend.

Picture the scene, hypothetical in this example. You commit your midweek training session to shielding the ball and possession football. It’s game day and you ask them to put midweek’s training session into practice with a strong reassurance that making mistakes is part of the process and it’s fine to make them, irrelevant of cost, because mistakes are a necessary part of learning. It’s how we counter those mistakes as a coach that will be fundamental in determining what type of players we shape.

Ten minutes into the match and the moment of truth is upon us. The full-back confidently puts himself between the ball and his opponent just like he’d been coached to do two days earlier. This is development and it justifies the hard yards. The Time. The effort. The patience. And then you hear those two words. Two words that should be banned from every touchline in the country. “GET RID!” It’s demanding, it’s loud, it’s crystal clear and it lingers. Get Fu**ing rid! Are you kidding me? A real life wtf moment and one of many during a game. An ill-informed parent, whose only remit is to support and encourage, has unwittingly destroyed a whole training session with one conflicting instruction made up of two words, six letters and the letters are made up of two vowels and four consonants. They wouldn’t even get you into double figures playing Scrabble.

Only a coach can describe the frustration brought about by over enthusiastic parents coaching from the touchline; much of which is reactive, ill-conceived and more worryingly the polar opposite of what the players have been coached to do. As a coach, you want your players to transfer training session specifics to the game. Some instructions will be loose, others will be rigid. So, when parents, and it’s usually only the same three or four experts, are repeatedly undermining your game plan by screaming out conflicting commands, it succeeds only in confusing the players which can and usually does result in underperformance. It’s this kind of behaviour that strengthens my belief that parents should be prohibited from communicating with players during a game and be resigned to a physical presence at least 50 metres away from the pitch. Unfortunately, the FA have no desire to enforce such an extreme measure, park pitches cannot facilitate it and it would serve only to punish the majority who behave.

Pushy parents warned violence at children's football matches could result in DEATH – Mirror 24/02/2016

This is not a problem confined to the UK alone. On the contrary, it’s a worldwide matter that seems to be getting worse. I have friends in Germany, Serbia, Poland Belgium and Holland who all confirm that similar issues are plaguing grassroots football in their countries. In December 2012, 41-year-old referee Richard Nieuwenhuizen was killed after being attacked by several teenagers whilst he was officiating at his son's football match in the Netherlands. And as recently as July, football journalist Marcus Christenson wrote a piece for The Guardian bemoaning parental behaviour in Swedish grassroots football. He claimed as many as one in three children thought about quitting the game because of “over engaging parents.” Of 1,016 adults surveyed about the problem, 83 per cent said they had seen parents who were pushing their children too much or criticised young referees and officials loudly. Expressen journalist Patrick Ekwall wrote “What is wrong with people?” “That is the first question I ask myself when I find out the results of a new survey about footballing parents. What is wrong with adults who shout and yell at their eight-year-old or at a 14-year-old referee in a seven-a-side game? They are insane, that is what’s wrong.” I concur!

AIK Stockholm vice-captain, Stefan Ishizaki, also spoke out, "In a child's sporting environment, joy always has to be the most important thing because, if it is, then they can carry it with them for the rest of their lives. The matches, the tournaments or training sessions where you get to spend time with your friends and do something you love.”

"Football is passion. It is joy, sadness and all the emotions in between. Football is the most beautiful thing there is - and that is the way it should stay. So, let us all together make sure that our children get to experience this joy and all these feelings. It is about their memories and their experiences. Not ours." Again, I concur!

Grassroots football should be about fun, passion, pride, energy, excitement and camaraderie but more importantly it should be about the kids, their development and their well-being. Yet still there is resistance change and a reluctance to recalibrate the moral compass. There is no place in the grassroots environment for pressure, anger, aggression and touchline bullies.

As police are called to touchline row at U13 game, do adults set a bad example at football matches? – Evening News24 27/11/2013

For sure, there is a pressing need to recreate the environment attained from street football of the 60s, 70s and 80s, where children made their own rules, educated themselves and played the game free from adult intervention and more importantly, free from pressure. Kids get told what to do every day at school. They come home and by the end of the evening they’re all instructioned out! Street football was a release from the pressures of a restrictive environment where adults controlled every aspect of their lives. But with street football almost extinct, the fun has been replaced by pressure and control, leaving kids with no escape from the adult world that now dominates their existence seven days a week.

Harking back to my coaching days, it seems freakishly unnatural how all-consuming and cutthroat it could be on many of the grassroots touchlines in the North-West of England, where players were often hectored by their pushy parents and berated by over-zealous coaches with fixed mind-sets, barking out banal mindless directives, bereft of support and encouragement. It was a culture where bad practice was rife. You would regularly see adverse refereeing decisions aggressively questioned and you’d bear witness to children’s mistakes being seized upon with disdain and harassment. Fast forward ten years and very little has changed.

Being a coach is about making the right choices. It’s an incredibly foolish belief that being negative with and belittling players is somehow character building and likely to induce a raised level of performance. Embarrassing children in front of their peers is demeaning and acutely counter-productive. Playing football should be fun but it’s no fun for kids when they’re persistently on the receiving end of superfluous verbal assaults.

If you repeatedly tell players how bad they are, it’s only a matter of time before they buy into that belief themselves, because low self-esteem is a very fragile mindset. When a player is publicly chastised for simply making a mistake or not performing very well, it can unquestionably erode confidence, stifle motivation, heighten anxiety and ultimately have a negative impact on performance. I can assure any coach or parent, that although some kids are prone to sulking or can be less active than we’d like them to be, no child ever purposely turns up to play football with the intention of ever disappointing anyone. They will have good games. They will have bad games. They will have indifferent games. And some players will be more consistent than others. That’s just how it is. But rest assured, no amount of coercing, finger pointing, gesticulating or verbal abuse will prevent it. Youngsters just want to play. Coaches and parents should let them play, and encourage them to learn from their own mistakes.

Children, and contrary to popular belief, they are just children until they reach the age of majority, need to play if they’re to attain a sufficient level of proficiency. But in many cases the coach’s fear of defeat exceeds the desire to develop. Every match day is like Groundhog-Day to the usual suspects whose game time is finite. Five minutes here, ten minutes there. It’s a repetitive theme and it saddens me. It saps confidence and succeeds only in driving kids away from football. If you took your child to the local swimming baths and paid £5 to get in, you’d expect your child to get wet. You can apply the same logic to the thousands of kids who pay their monthly subscriptions, train every week and are desperately in love with the game, but yet are forced to spend much of their weekend spectating from the touchline because the coach is obsessive about the score line. Unless there is a cessation in the belief that winning at all costs is the blueprint for successful player development, grassroots football will forever be playing catch up with our forward thinking European counterparts.

Coaching has evolved considerably since the popularisation of grassroots football in the 1990s, but because coaches are invariably comprised of parental volunteers with contrasting backgrounds and have no previous coaching experience, a voluble quota of the new intake still continue to draw from their own childhood experiences and use them as best practice. Amongst other things, philosophising an antiquated boot camp mentality to fitness where kids don’t see a ball for most of the training session has long since been replaced with a focus on technical ability, tactical awareness and patterns of play; but because dad hasn’t been on the scene since Dickie Davies and Elton Welsby were anchor men, and his only insight into the game is his pub football career from yesteryear and a lifetime of watching football as a fan, he’s blissfully unaware of the groundbreaking changes that have been made to the coaching manual over the past three decades.

They enter into the fray with the very best of intentions but unwittingly end up creating an off-putting environment for the children they’re trying to develop by preaching an archaic coaching philosophy, that’s highly likely to be harmful to the development of young footballers, making it difficult for them to make sufficient progress. It is imperative that training is enjoyable and structured, because such a naïve and outdated coaching philosophy can also lead to dissension within the ranks that will inevitably result in the erosion of team spirit, harbour resentment and can in many cases, be responsible for the disbanding of the team.

Coaching children is a whole new ball game when compared with coaching adults….Child: a young human being below the age of puberty or below the legal age of majority (18)….A nine-year-old child is not half an adult. Nor are they mini versions of adults, yet so many kids across the age ranges U7-U18 continue to be coached in an adult manner, particularly by new grassroots coaches equipped with only the bare minimum coaching qualification. The failure to differentiate between the requirements for coaching children and coaching adults is grassroots football’s Achilles heel and it’s stifling the development of both coaches and players. Understanding the difference should be the primary objective for any coach looking to forge a pastime or even a career in the sport, because bad practice is rife in many aspects of grassroots coaching. Common failings can include inappropriate communication, shouty man syndrome, poor touchline etiquette, training sessions devoid of theme or structure, lack of ball contact, results driven mindset, favouritism, absence of fun, excessive training pitch sizes for small sided game play and coaches joining in training games; which unless it is to coach a passage of play, is not conducive to development. Coaches are there to coach, not play.

Grassroots football coaching is an ever-evolving role and a grassroots coaching style is not a one-size-fits-all for players. Apart from adopting some basic fundamental core values (communication, discipline, respect), that will provide a solid platform to instill a sound coaching philosophy, it’s a never-ending cycle of trial and error. The art of coaching children is to adapt instruction to ability and competency. Each player is different and every player has a different learning style so it’s essential that coaches have the flexibility to adjust teaching methods that are age and competency related. Children have shorter attention spans and are often easily disengaged, so training sessions should always be fun, engaging, age specific and of appropriate duration. But in order to address coaching issues we must first address coaching skillsets. New and inexperienced grassroots coaches desperately need educating if we are to arrest the decline in coaching standards.

With education being paramount to the development of coaches, it would be a prudent move for grassroots football if newly qualified coaches were encouraged to use school teachers as role models. The same behavior expected of a teacher in the classroom should be the model for all coaches during training sessions and on match days.

Although different in particulars, they both champion rudimentary core values. Like teachers with schoolchildren, coaches have a duty of care to promote the physical, mental, moral, social, and emotional well-being of their players, which can be easily accommodated through the medium of football, where valuable life lessons can be learned. Whilst I accept that the sports environment is not the same as the classroom, the basic fundamentals of the classroom environment remain constant. Education is indeed the passport to success, both in footballing terms and in life itself.

Ideally it would be great if clubs were in a position to employ fully qualified coaches to mentor their coaches throughout all the age groups. But the financial burden would not be sustainable to the vast majority of grassroots clubs. Which to be frank, is criminal given the amount of money swashing about in the EPL. But that’s a kernel of debate for another day. A viable alternative could be an on-line mentoring programme, a proactive concept the FA could develop as an extension to the level 1 coaching badge. But as it stands, coaches are left with little alternative other than to educate themselves, which of course without direction, becomes a minefield littered with bad practice and so the downward trend will continue until it’s addressed with due thought and consideration.

American comedian W.C. Fields once famously advised, “Never work with children or animals.” I’ve never worked with animals so I’m unable to pass comment, but I have worked with children and can tell you, without hesitation, that he was wrong. Definitely wrong, even if it was only a trope. Working with children is an incredibly rewarding and privileged role, particularly in a coaching environment. As a coach, you are entrusted with the welfare of a parent’s most treasured possession…. their children. Kids are precious and being a coach provides a unique opportunity, especially in their formative years, to become a trusted mentor and to help develop the football and life skills of young people.

With the introduction of the roll on roll off substitutions initiative in 2012, the FA have provided coaches with a tool that can be used efficiently to eliminate the stigmatisation of being a substitute and maximise game time for every individual, because a reduction in game time is one of the biggest barriers to development. If kids don’t play, they won’t improve; maximised effective game time = optimum development. It’s a very simple equation.

The FA also introduced several small sided non-competitive game formats. Youngsters will play in 5v5, 7v7 and 9v9 small sided games prior to the commencement of 11-a-side football. Competitive football only begins in the second year of the 9v9 format at U12, so this new process will ensure a smoother transition to 11-a-side football at the U13 age group. In addition, they have resourcefully implemented a rule that requires players to retreat into their own half when facing a goal-kick. The key objective of these initiatives is to ensure more game time, more touches of the ball and to provide kids with a solid foundation to play football out from the back.

Incredibly, despite these initiatives, children are still falling foul of the coach’s fixation with fielding the strongest team and isolating the fringe players, who, no matter how hard they work, will never be afforded the same opportunities as other kids. It is clearly beyond the wit of many grassroots coaches to recognise the need for prioritising the development of players, over the self-gratifying win-at-all costs doctrinairism that’s souring the experience for many of today’s youngsters. This in itself sets out a strong case for an increase in the age group for playing non-competitive football. It’s a much-needed stratagem, debatable of course, that if embraced in the right manner, would further reduce unnecessary pressure on players and give them a better chance of fulfilling their potential. Grassroots coaches may then have a realistic chance of achieving tangible success with the development of their players and temporarily bring to a halt the obsession with trophy chasing. Old Chinese proverb sayThe Phoenix can only fly when its feathers are grown!

The year is 2017. The FA’s Respect programme sets out clear mandate for grassroots coaches, and the importance of development has been preached to saturation point, yet defiantly, we still have coaches who make winning their primary objective. We still have coaches who favour selecting the ‘best team,’ to negate the chance of defeat. We still have coaches who insist on identikit substitutions for fear of weakening the team. We still have coaches who limit game time to weaker players for fear of losing the game. We still have coaches who pressurise kids with the ‘must win games’ and ‘fighting for places’ mantra. We still have coaches who instruct the kids to lump the ball forward to the big strong kid isolated in the opposition’s penalty box. It’s a short-sighted cultural faux pas. A facile thought process that has been passed down from one generation of coaches to another and been allowed to manifest itself into the DNA of grassroots football. It’s deep rooted and it’s this type of mentality that is responsible for stifling long-term player development.

I always put the emphasis on learning. Sometimes I had the suspicion that youth coaches were more concerned with winning. They cared about their own reputation…When a player with talent couldn’t defend, I put him in defence so he could learn, but that could cost a point. But I didn’t care, I was busy developing the player - Johan Cruyff

Typically, coaches struggle with excess player numbers, often finding it difficult, even with the roll on roll off substitution initiative, to accommodate more than three substitutes in a game, particularly in the youth age groups. The fear of withdrawing any of the coach’s “special ones,” once again, exceeds the desire to develop and is another contributory failing responsible for suppressing development.

Football is a squad game. It is impossible to operate without one, and so squads need to be nurtured, utilised and impartially managed. It’s a concept that few managers have the foresight to grasp because of their noxious fixation with winning-at-all-costs; a short-term destructive philosophy that goes against the English FA's 2012 guidance to youth coaches, that is designed to "challenge the win-at-all-costs mentality that is stifling development and enjoyment for young people". Only a coach who subscribes to such a rigid modus operandi can explain as to why they have opted to undertake such a narrow-minded approach that clearly impairs long-term player development. Grassroots football should always be about the children, their development and their well-being. It is not an exercise in ego inflation.

Coaches’ egos stunting player development – 24/05/2017

The quality of coaching is key to development. Children need suitably structured training sessions and adequate game time if coaches are to realise player potential. The FA provides help, guidance and learning to all newly qualified grassroots coaches and together with current directives, initiatives and Codes of Conduct, it’s a clear mandate designed to help steer coaches towards establishing a coaching profile where development and fun are the core principles. The emphasis on winning matches should always be secondary to development in grassroots football, otherwise not only are we failing talented players, we are also inhibiting the prospects of the game’s slower developers.

Good coaching, coupled with player commitment is the perfect combination. And that means kids putting in the extra hours outside of training, which is not negotiable if players are to maximise their development. Inspiration can come from the coach but motivation, the drive and the will to succeed, must come from within. The results can be quite significant, with slow developing kids quite often maturing into better, more rounded players than the kids who showed early promise. But a coach’s desire to develop and teach youngsters to play must overcome their fear of losing matches. Some kids might never attain the required standard but coaches have a duty of care to provide children with the best opportunity and not just use them to make up the numbers. By the same token, kids need to put in the hard yards if they are to be the best they can be, which is all a coach can ask of them.

“Success in grassroots football isn’t about how many trophies you win. It’s about the difference you make to people’s lives.”- Nick Levett, FA National Development Manager for Youth Football

A good coach will focus on making players comfortable on the ball and in order to accommodate this the coach will need to depressurise the playing field. Depressurising the playing field will mean allowing for mistakes. Allowing for mistakes will mean removing the burden of expectation. Removing the burden of expectation will render the result as insignificant in the grand scheme of things. It’s a development process and the first steps towards the long-term goal of preparing for the day when the result will become the primary focus, and that day is probably just about the biggest moot point in grassroots football. It’s a burning issue that many coaches are at cross purposes with.

In my view, there is much to consider. Let’s start with the expectations of players and parents. Some players have visions of becoming the next Steven Gerrard. A view shared by their parents. Other kids just want to enjoy playing and make new friends. Again, a view shared by their parents. We must also take into consideration the competency of the players and the level at which they are competing.

The expectations of coaches, which has to be said have proved to be vast and wide-ranging, is another contentious moot point for grassroots football enthusiasts. For example, for a team competing at the higher end of the premiership division in a blue chip U14s league, the coach’s focus may well be not just on winning matches but also on competing for the title and, so the result will in all likelihood be his number one priority. To achieve this goal, the coach’s approach is likely to be uncompromising, with the sole focus on one objective in order to fulfil his expectations. This could result in a predictable line up, rigid game plan, inflexible player positioning and substitutes being used very sparingly, resulting in limited game time for some players. All aspects of this approach are geared towards the score line but not particularly conducive to player development.

"In England, you teach your kids how to win, in Spain and Portugal they teach their kids how to play." - Jose Mourinho

Whereas the coach of a mid-table U14s team in a lower division of the same league, may choose a more pragmatic approach and focus attention on player development, quite possibly at the expense of the result, which in the short-term may be viewed as insignificant. Not that the coach will ever purposely send out or set up the team to lose, on the contrary, that’s not what competitive football is about. It’s just that in this scenario the coach’s primary focus is on player development, which may require the coach to make decisions that could be detrimental to attaining a winning result, but for the greater good and necessary to fulfil his long-term expectations. Decision making may include frequent substitutions (effective game time), flexible player positioning and varied patterns of play, all of which are conducive to player development.

So, it is imperative that expectations are managed realistically. It’s in everybody’s interests to remove the burden of expectation away from children, because it is unquestionably one of the biggest barriers to kids enjoying football, and one of the major reasons why so many kids are lost to the game before they have even started playing properly.

"It is not important to tell the kids to win - you must instead teach them the skills that will help them to become winners.” – Carlos Alberto

The FA level 1 in Coaching Football (43 hours total qualification time / 33 hours guided learning) is the first stepping stone on the coaching pathway that all new coaches will undertake before commencing a roller coaster of a journey through the age groups from U7 to open age in grassroots football. It provides a very basic but important preparation for the labour of love they are about to commit to that will consume much of their existence. Circumstances will dictate if they live the dream which can be the making of them or play out their worst nightmare which may or may not be the breaking of them. Those that come out the other side will in all likelihood adopt one of the five coaching profiles that in my view are likely to account for the majority of today’s grassroots coaches.

The All-Inclusive coach – Fun time Frankie, let’s play… Football’s Pied Piper, provides football for all in a pressure free environment. A genuinely benevolent person with a very positive personality, who in all likelihood will probably never have played the game to a great level of competency, but will have a natural ability to connect with children of all ages. This type of coach will see sport as a social gathering and their coaching values will focus on inclusion and fun. An all-inclusive coach is likely to be responsible, humorous, tolerant, unbiased, kind, dependable, won’t take themselves too seriously and will undoubtedly be a great role model for children. They will also unknowingly embrace and work to the government’s 2003 “every child matters” policy. Because to this type of coach, every child does matter, regardless of ability or background.

The Development coach – Education, education, education; the locksmith who holds the key to unlocking potential… Will have a good understanding of the game with a primary focus to develop a player not only as a footballer but as a person. Sees life skills just as important as footballing skills and will see winning games as a potential reward that stems from progressive development. A development coach will have a zest for knowledge and possess a desire to improve their own skillset in order to evolve with the game. They’ll will be endowed with a unique ability to maintain equanimity, remaining composed even in the most challenging of environments. His coaching environment will revolve around four basic fundamentals; respect, communication, discipline and team spirit; all in equal measures. They’ll provide high levels of encouragement, support and autonomy, but with a strict set of player/parental criteria and consequences for deviating from that criteria. Focus will be on the development of technical, physical, tactical and social skills. They will encourage a pressure free environment where players are coached to feel comfortable on the ball and they’ll be reassured that making mistakes is part of the process. This type of coach will have a sense of fair play, will work to a long-term plan and won’t deviate from footballing principles. They’ll be self-motivated, motivational, uncomplicated, passionate, principled, self-critical, unbiased, open to change and will always respect the children’s physical, physiological and psychological characteristics.

The PlayStation coach – The ego has landed… Will tend to be an excitable newly qualified level one coach, who sees his first coaching role as the first step towards Camp Nou. The archetypal cliché guru with a fixed mindset, who can either be obsessively dedicated to the cause or a chancer who wings it at every opportunity. Playstation coaches generally fail to understand the true mission of coaching and find it difficult to convey their footballing knowledge to juveniles. They struggle with the concept of age specific need and development, and harbour a natural tendency to unintentionally bring an adult mentality into a juvenile environment. Likely to be loud, unpredictably aggressive and will tend to coach using fear and criticism as drivers for motivation. Possessing only a basic coaching acumen, they can often be interpersonally challenged, sore losers, easily wound up, hyper critical, profane, not big on structure or communication, instigate unrealistic expectations and will almost certainly define their success by results. In short, whether they be a nice guy, and contrary to belief despite their obvious coaching failings, many are, or villain…football definitely brings out the worst in them. They’re accidental grassroots terrorists with skewed core values and no obvious appreciation for discipline, Codes of Conduct or fair play. Saturday and Sunday mornings will always be about the result.

The Aspirational coach – A gatherer of cups in April. Medal, medal, medal, as Mutley would mutter… Aspirational coaches measure their success on points accumulated and cups gathered, and can adopt an abrasive, unforgiving coaching style, and use their win/loss record to justify it. Typically, an ex-player, who can boast years of experience playing at a good standard throughout all the age groups into adulthood, and almost nailed on to have at least a level 2 FA coaching badge. Will tend to coach at a grassroots club associated with high achievement and a history of attracting the area’s best players. But he will also capable of building his own team within any club and attracting his own players. Only those with above average capabilities need apply. Whatever the case, he will be a long-time student of the game and tactically & technically savvy, this type of coach will undoubtedly extract an extra ten percent from naturally gifted players under his tutelage, but is highly likely to undertake a completely ruthless approach to team selection and game time allocation. Poaching players will not be off-limits, mediocrity will not be tolerated, playing within the spirit of the game is rarely taken into consideration and he will see the FA Codes of Conduct as superfluous to requirements. Player recruitment will be cutthroat and he’ll have no problem discarding kids for better players. Absolutely no room for sentiment or loyalty. They’re winners, it’s their only focus and they will seek to gain an advantage by any means necessary.

The Hybrid coach – The Good, the Bad and the Ugly… The chameleon of the grassroots coaching profession. Will incorporate a combination of character traits from each of the other four coaching profiles to form a hybrid coaching profile. Consistency not a strong point and likely to go from one extreme to another.

Imposing a diligent coaching philosophy is paramount to success. A diligent coach will provide a safe learning environment free from obsessive competitiveness, criticism and ostracisation, and thus enabling a positive social and football experience. A diligent coach will build self-confidence and belief, and inculcate commendable core values into his players. A diligent coach will formulate and deliver constructive stimulating training sessions. A diligent coach will treat players fairly. A diligent coach will take responsibility for his team’s failures and give this team and players full credit for their achievement. A diligent coach will perfect the art of delivering constructive criticism without causing resentment. A diligent coach will use development as the barometer for success, not the score-line or trophies won.

Coaching is the easy part. The satisfaction gained from coaching and developing children is immeasurable. But it’s dealing with the minority of problem parents, not gender specific (aggressive, argumentative, abusive, violent, profane, unruly, unsporting) and obstreperous kids (belligerent, disruptive, disrespectful, petulant, defiant, disobedient), who have no concept of respect that kills the dream and drives good, honest people away from the game. When you lose good people to the stress of it all, it inevitably leaves an opening for undesirables and so the cycle of parents, players and coach’s behaving badly is allowed to continue and maintain a stranglehold on the game.

Dad and teenager arrested after under-15s football match descends into mass brawl with 'several injured' – Daily Mirror 11/07/2016

The majority of grassroots coaches are steadfastly committed people. Volunteers from all walks of life, who give up their precious time free of charge and sacrifice their weekends and more, to ensure grassroots football remains constant. Most parents are supportive and willing helpers, and attend games with the very best intentions. Most players are eager students, appreciative of the time, effort and expense afforded to them by others. But a sizeable minority of spoilers have infiltrated the ranks and have steadily polluted an innocent grassroots culture without meaningful reproach. Standards of behaviour have now declined to such a degree, that it’s threatening the future of the game in some parts of the UK. The FA can only promote the Respect campaign, the responsibility ultimately lies with the clubs to implement its Codes and the participants to support and adhere to them.

Violence at children's football games "out of control" says Leicester ref – Leicester Mercury 27 February 2016

After an appalling period of sustained disorder, including a weekend in which three games were abandoned, a linesman was allegedly headbutted, two parents fought, a young referee was abused, a referee was threatened with being stabbed and players were encouraged to smash up a changing room, the Surrey Youth League, in agreement with the FA, piloted their new pitch marshalling programme at the start of the 2016-17. It’s an innovative process designed to stamp out unruly conduct and improve touchline behaviour in their grassroots football youth league. The pilot embraces all aspects of the Respect Programme, utilising best practice, education and potential sanctioning as defined in the FA Respect Codes of Conducts for Players, Spectators, Managers and Officials. It’s a scheme that involved clubs appointing pitch marshalls’ for all matches in the U11-U15 age groups and referees being required to report any RESPECT breaches on line after the game has finished. These respect breaches will result in a notice being served on the offending club and clubs will then have to report back within 10 days of the Notice of Respect Breach being issued, as to what action was taken.

The volunteer role as a Surrey Youth League Pitch Marshall is formed in five areas or phases on the day: -

Firstly to meet and greet the opposition and in particular the opposition Pitch Marshall.

To meet and greet the referee and ensure they are aware of the Surrey Youth League Pilot and your role as a Pitch Marshall.

During the game, you may be called upon by the referee to discuss a disrespect issue that he has and maybe take action with your own supporters or manager.

For games where Linesmen are present ensure that people are requested to move so that they do not stand behind the opposition linesman, this may mean moving your team’s parents at half time, if anyone refuses, play the game and report to the league.

To hold a quick debrief with the Referee and opposition Pitch Marshall after the game to ensure anything that needs reporting is agreed and understood between all of you.

If the Referee decides that a Respect breach has occurred, the accused will be prohibited from providing a defence and will only be able to attend future matches once they have satisfied the Club and the Club have satisfied the League that there will be no further issue. It is also worth noting that Respect Breaches, dependent upon the seriousness, may be subject to investigation by the County FA or in the worst-case scenario, become a matter for the police.

Parents' abuse at Surrey football matches 'could kill' – BBC News 24/02/2016

Since the inception of the English Premier League almost three decades ago, we have seen a gradual adultification process embed itself firmly into grassroots football. Profanity, jeering, aspersion, pugnacity, hostility, dishonour, and violence are just some of the afflictions that have been imported into grassroots culture from the adult game. Behaviour that we see as the default norm in adult football (amateur, semi-professional and full-time professional) is unambiguously forbidden in junior and youth league football (U7-U18). The Pitch marshalling programme developed and implemented by the Surrey Youth League is a welcome zero-tolerance approach designed to help eliminate all this unpleasantness from grassroots football in their catchment area. Their aim is to kick-start a cultural revolution that will help to provide a safe environment in which the children can be children again, free from the fear of any distress and they should be commended for it. The fight back has begun for the Surrey Youth League. They’re taking back control. The success of this project is key to breaking the stranglehold the spoilers currently have on the game and will hopefully serve to galvanise people not to tolerate abuse. But as is always the case with the grassroots scene, schemes like this are always dependent upon volunteers.

Grassroots football has to buck the trend and find an antidote to the problems that have plunged the game into turmoil, if it is to climb its way out of the abyss that it currently finds itself in. As German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche once prophesised, "When you stare into the abyss, the abyss stares back at you.” Enough is enough. Since 2012, over 100,000 coaches have walked away from the game. It’s time to arrest this steep decline before we reach the point of no return.

The FA are not looking to remove competitiveness with its directives, nor are they looking to sanitise the game. It’s about the pressing need to strike a balance and restore some order and normality back into the sport. Non-competitive would imply that all fixtures were friendlies and that the result didn’t matter, but football is competitive by its very nature, as are the participants, particularly children. Football will always be about winning and losing to kids and every game and its outcome matters to them, but it can sometimes matter more to the adults and therein lies the crux of many grassroots ills.

Grassroots football should be about fun, passion, pride, energy, excitement and camaraderie but more importantly it should be about the kids, their development and their well-being. Yet still there is resistance change and a reluctance to recalibrate the moral compass. There is no place in the grassroots environment for pressure, anger, aggression and touchline bullies.

If Nathan French, the FA’s newly appointed National Respect Project Officer, can revitalise the RESPECT campaign with a real purpose and then augment it by incorporating other initiatives like he has by agreeing to trial the Surrey Youth League’s pitch marshalling programme, it could act as the catalyst for a long overdue cultural revolution that the game is crying out for. It would provide coaches with a great foundation to impart the Codes upon parents and children from the earliest age group and help minimise disruptive and unruly behaviour, the bane of every coach’s life.

And going forward the FA and County FA’s could commit themselves to an annual proactive drive to ensure all participants are fully acquainted with the Codes, enabling the campaign to become an open-ended work in progress project that could incorporate “good practice” proposals from grassroots leagues all over the UK. Because education is key, and until we rid the game of the spoilers, they will continue to steal the headlines from those who do good work. The volunteer stalwarts who beaver away behind the scenes, without whom we’d have no clubs or leagues. The thousands of volunteer coaches who devote their existence to other people’s children and the many parent helpers who volunteer their time and efforts in many different ways. All these good people are instrumental to the success of grassroots football and grassroots participants, in whatever form, we owe it to them, to behave in a manner that befits the exemplary work they do.

Cheshunt parent 'pulls knife' as fight erupts during children's football match – Hertfordshire Mercury 08/03/2017

The headlines dotted about in this piece are not sensationalist hysteria. It’s real life and happening all over the country on a regular basis. The good ship “Grassroots” is sailing perilously close to the rocks and all hands are required on deck in order to steer her to safety. My experience was relatively good in comparison to others, because violence was, and still is, a very rare occurrence in my local junior and youth leagues (Warrington Junior Football League). That said, I did once witness a nine-year-old child leave the pitch in temper to pull one of the spikes up that we used to rope the pitch off with and then run back on and throw it like a spear at the referee. And only as recently as April my son had to abandon a non-competitive U9s match because parents were fighting.

But that aside, it was the unnecessary touch line abuse towards players and referees that used to really frustrate me the most. Very few games were immune from it. And coaches coaching badly used to make me cringe on a weekly basis. I actually witnessed one coach read the riot act to one of his U13 players for daring to pass with his weaker foot. “What the F*ck are you passing with your left foot for? You’re right footed ffs,” was the angry shout. No words.

I do also recall coaching an U12s game during the 2015-16 season and my cochleae were subjected to the most sustained assault of verbal diarrhoea that I have ever encountered. The visiting coach took up residence on our touchline and worked crab-like between the two corner flags in fast-forward mode for the whole 60 minutes. He was barking out aggressive meaningless instructions at break neck speed, like some zany racehorse commentator high on amphetamine. It was excruciatingly painful to observe and come the half-time whistle I opted to coach our players from the opposite touchline to try and avoid the onset of tinnitus. His poor players were punch drunk by the final whistle. They didn’t know whether they were coming or going. It was without question the worst youth coaching display I ever had the misfortune of having to endure.

But over the years, grassroots football has afforded me the privilege of meeting some fantastic people. Most parents couldn’t do enough for me and supported me even in the most difficult of circumstances; the cohort of kids that I coached, of whom I am immensely proud of, were a credit to Haydock Juniors Football Club. I will remember each and every one of them with great fondness; fellow coaches who have inspired me, mentored me, supported me and taught me so much, together with the wealth of ordinary people, club officials, referees and administrators from all walks of life who continue to bring so much to grassroots football, I salute you all. Keep on keeping on.

*Answers to refereeing questions: 1. The player is sent off for violent conduct and play is restarted with a direct free kick or penalty kick to the opposing team taken from where the offence occurred. 2. Award an indirect free kick against the attacker. 3. He has the free kick retaken because of his mistake. 4. The referee sends of the offending player and awards a free kick. 5. No. 6. Yes, provided that no player requests a break, which they are entitled to do. 7. The referee awards the goal. 8. The referee points in the direction of the free kick. 9. The referee raises his arm until the ball is kicked and touched by another player, meaning the team cannot score until the referee takes his arm down. 10. a) Generally, fouls that involve player-on-player offenses are direct, along with handling the ball b) procedural offenses like offside are indirect.

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