‘Please allow me to introduce myself.’
No, I’m not Beelzebub, as Mick Jagger sang in ‘Sympathy for the Devil’. Far from it. I’d hope.
Although maybe some connected to the various organizations I’ve worked with may beg to differ. Disgruntled players, disappointed supporters, frustrated officials.
You can call me an ‘Unknown coach’. I am, like thousands around the country, a sports coach. A volunteer sports coach. A volunteer football coach, to be precise. I am a member of the UCA. The Unknown Coach Army.
An unofficial troop, incidentally.
After doing this for thirty eight years I have decided this season is to be my final season. For ages I have threatened this.
But I stopped short of making an outright promise. Just so no-one could accuse me of going back on my word.
However in 2017 I made that promise. And I intend to keep my word. The UCA will be one coach light with effect from the season 2018-19. Here is an appreciation of all sports coaches. UCA members one and all. With a few tales from my own career.
We walk among society much like everyone else. But maybe with a pre-occupied mind. Well, definitely with a pre-occupied mind, actually. When out for a family meal on a Saturday night, for example. I’d place my order. Then for a second I’d ponder on whether to have a back four or three for the game the next day. This would have probably have been dependant on whether our best defender was likely to show up.
‘What’s up?’ my wife would interrupt. She spotted my mind was elsewhere.
‘Nothing..nothing. Just deciding what to have to drink,’ I’d lie.
We do not look necessarily athletic. Some do, with a footballer’s trendy haircut and a hipster beard. Others have no hair style in particular and a beer belly. Or no hair at all. However what unites all across the county is a love of the game. And more importantly, a love of helping those who play it. Men, women, girls and boys. All who have played the beautiful game in Leicester (my stomping ground) will have experienced the passion for football shown by this army of unknown coaches. If only fleetingly. And the same would apply nationwide.
It all started in February 1980. A loud knock on my parents UPVC front door interrupted my viewing of Top of the Pops one Thursday evening. My lazy brother gave no indication of answering so up I got.
It was a bloke called Steve. The secretary of the local football team. I played for them on Sundays for the under-16s age group. Leicester Junior football league. A keenly contested and enthusiastic league. Even though the actual quality of football was questionable.
‘We’re in trouble mate. The managers of the under-11s have both quit.’
‘Not surprised ..they ain’t won all season have they?’
‘No. They get hammered every week.’
‘Okay.’ I had no idea why he was telling me this.
‘Thing is we were wondering if some of you older players could help run the team until the end of the season. Mickey’s Dad says he will help. But he doesn’t know anything about the game. But he’ll keep them in line, you see.’
‘He’s a copper ain’t he?’
‘Yeah. They’ll tow the line with him around. But if you lads don’t help, the team will probably fold and the lads will have ‘nowt to do on Sundays ‘cept watch boring telly or summat.’
That put a new perspective on it.
‘Who else you asked?’
‘You’re the first. Planning ask Shane and Wattsy too.’
I thought for a minute. He wasn’t making it sound particularly attractive. Looking back, I’m pretty sure when Leicester City asked Claudio Ranieri to take over in the summer of 2015 the conversation didn’t go anything like this one did.
‘If Shane and Wattsy do it I’ll do it then.’
‘Great. Stick around after your game this Sunday. They play in the afternoons so they’ll follow you on. I’ll set you straight then.’
So, depending on how you look at it, that was the best or worst conversation of my life.
When I came home after a bad game, or even training session, it was the worst conversation, definitely. I’d be moody. And a pain. Ask my wife. Being married to a member of the Unknown Coach Army was never an easy ride. Again, ask my wife. I wonder how many marriages involving a member of the UCA have actually survived.
However when I came home after a late winner in a close game it is very different. It then has to be regarded as the best conversation I ever had. For sure. It’s the same when a young player started to blossom or scored his/her first ever goal. That feeling, to me, has always been priceless. It made every single heartache in grass roots football worthwhile. Every single disappointment. Every tear. Every freezing cold winter’s morning getting out of bed at stupid o’clock. All UCA members will know this feeling.
That conversation with Steve set me on the road.
Of course when it came to that Sunday in February 1980, Shane and Wattsy didn’t show. So it was me and Mickey’s Dad, the Copper. That’s another thing about volunteer coaching. You get used to being let down. Makes the job of the UCA even more difficult.
But what a day it was. I told the lads before the game to enjoy it. To play like they did at the park when they weren’t being yelled at by parents and grumpy managers. As they were basically being thrashed every week, any improvement on the previous week’s 11-1 defeat would be great. So to keep the goals conceded down we devised a plan to get nine players between the ball and our goal every time the opponents had possession of the ball. Which would be a lot.
Of course, this all went out the window come game time. Unexpectedly.
To my, the supporters and certainly to our players utter bewilderment, half time came and we were 2-0 up. Up. Ahead.
To clarify, were were winning.
I was unsure how to deal with this shock turn of events. I expected us to be about five nil down. I sent them out to do the same again. When the substitutes came on they just swapped with players who looked more knackered than the rest. See, I already showed strong tactical acumen.
Our opponents bombarded us. Obviously they drew level fairly quickly. Imagine how they felt being beaten by us, the division’s whipping boys? However we held out for a 2-2 draw. Somehow.
When the full time whistle blew, it was like we’d won the FA Cup. Parents were crying with joy. School friends, who had been lying face down on the wet grass (well, mud) punching the ground in frustration when the equalizer went in, lifted their mates up on their shoulders. Hailed them as heroes. Even our opponents were dignified in their disappointment. Well more than dignified in fact. They seemed to share in our joy. They were a mid table team, so their season didn’t depend on this result. Top lads. And managers. And supporters. I really do hope life has treated all of them well.
The reaction of our opponents was my first glimpse of the camaraderie of grass roots football in Leicestershire. That had passed me by until then. The day I became a coach.
Inevitably the players were elated. Stunned. Drained. Overcome. The sense of pride in having avoided defeat for the first time was frankly, unbelievable.
On that Sunday in February 1980, one lad in particular is worth a mention. His name was Ash. Hopefully he’s doing well for himself. A very quiet lad. Quite nervous, who Mickey’s Dad (my co–manager, remember) told me hated the noise coming from the sidelines at organized games. The groans of frustration. The moaning. He just wanted to play with his schoolmates.
Ash happened to be in the right place at the right time when the ball fell loose close to our opponent’s goal just before half time. He side footed it first time into the net. Cue wild celebrations.
His Dad came up to him at half time. Shaking with pride and excitement. He had only just arrived and had missed his son’s goal.
‘Have you scored?’ he beamed.
‘Yeah. I got the second,’ Ash beamed back.
A golden moment. You get loads of those. The UCA cross the county would be able to pass on literally thousands of tales of players like Ash. His, or her moment of glory. It would be the same for coaches in other sports. A perfect Gymnastics routine. A try in Rugby. Whatever. After the event the unknown coach would discuss it with the parent of the child concerned. You could see that parent almost shake with emotion. And pride.
This is what really counts. The human side. I often think of Ash, as I do many of the players I have coached. And of course I think of that moment. He had another too that day. A late goal line clearance to keep the score at 2-2. Never say die. The phrase ‘Foxes never quit’ was has its roots on the playing fields of grass roots football across the county. Leicester City Football Club just adopted it.
Ash must have felt like a giant as he walked home that afternoon. I bet he replayed his goal in his head over and over as he hit the pillow that night. I know I did.
I bet his Dad would have too. Had he seen it.
I was on my way.
From that heady day forward I enlisted in the part time ranks of the UCA. I committed to thirty eight years of midweek training sessions and weekend games. A commitment that began with that under-11s team. Only stopping for a month or so each summer.
Training sessions and games were sometimes sparsely attended. Getting a team of eleven players on the field for a football game on a saturated weekend in January was not always easy. Even in a catchment area of five thousand people. Eleven from five thousand. It shouldn’t have been hard should it?
A handy excuse for a defeat though.
‘We only had half a team.’
‘Sounds like it pal.’
‘We had no chance. Frustrating.’
‘Why do you keep doing it pal?’
‘Dunno. I love it. And I don’t wanna let the lads down,’ I’d reply. Explaining myself.
Thing is, volunteering clearly isn’t for everyone. I didn’t volunteer initially I guess. Not really. I was asked. I was too young, naive and polite to decline. Steve perhaps knew what he was doing in asking an eager sixteen year old who was unlikely to say no.
I don’t blame people for not volunteering. It’s a second job, really. The UCA have to set up literally thousands of pitches prior to games. Often clearing away dog mess and filling in holes on the pitch. To avoid player injury, see. It ‘ain’t glamorous being in the UCA.
The goals have to be put up, and nets attached. Goals could not be left up during the latter part of the twentieth century for fear of vandalism, apparently. So me and a mate would drag metal posts a couple of hundred yards to the pitch. It would take us over an hour to assemble the pitch. I’d be knackered by the time the players arrived for the warm up.
Then you welcome your opponents. Various paperwork filled in, and handed to the relevant personnel.
The aftermath. Which can be anything from sheer joy, to angry exchanges with parents.
‘How come you only played two up front?’ parent A asked.
‘I thought it best to give more game time to a couple of midfielders this week.’
‘How do you expect to win without scoring?’parent B demanded.
I felt they were ganging up on me.
‘We did score?’
‘Not enough. We’re slipping down the league you know.’ Parent A was not happy.
‘It isn’t just about winning you know.’
‘We might be taking our son to another club if things don’t improve.’ Parent B again.
A familiar conversation to UCA members across the country. No matter how much time you give up, how well the team plays, it’s often never enough for some.
The Unknown Coach then puts away the nets, corner flags and goals. And locks the gate. Gets home. For what is left of the weekend. A few mere hours before work on Monday morning. How well these mere hours of ‘relaxation’ go will have been largely dependant on the events of the preceding hours spent at the ground.
Again, ask the wife.
There is a unity that comes with grass roots football. This grabbed me early on. The participants do it because they want to. There is a feeling of togetherness across Leicestershire on a Sunday morning, especially. The same across the nation, I should think. I bet almost seventy percent of those travelling between 9.30am and 10am on a Sunday morning are heading to a grass roots football game. There are other footballing travel times of course over the weekend of course. But most would fall on a Sunday morning. Gets us out of going to church, any way.
The looks of hope and excitement, maybe nervousness, on the faces of the players and supporters (usually a parent) whilst making those journeys would be identical from Melton Mowbray to Market Harborough. From Inverness to Plymouth.
And those expressions would change to smiles of elation or frowns of dejection between 12 noon to 1pm. During the journey home. Dependant on the game.
Every season has been more or less the same. At the end of the day, it’s only football. Not life and death.
‘Football is not a matter of life and death. It’s much more important than that,’ Bill Shankly one remarked though…
Emotional pain can also be caused by allegiance issues. UCA members switch clubs at times. A time for sleepless nights for sure. How do I tell them I’m leaving for another club?
I myself switched clubs in during the 1990s. I felt under appreciated at one club. Another wanted me. We all want to feel valued, and UCA members deserve to feel it more than most. In my opinion. That was my justification at the time, anyway.
Painful. Leaving one group of lads behind. A heart breaker. However, nothing lasts forever. Even volunteer coaches in volunteer coaching situations. We are human.
Some seasons are particularly good. The team is challenging for the league title. Sometimes you win it. Sometimes you come up short. Throughout you’re doing the maths in your head. ‘If we win and they lose, we’ll be five points clear.’ Or behind. A familiar calculation to many UCA members.
Sometimes you make a cup final. Particularly exciting.
The club I switched to had stronger infrastructure and a need for a second coach to assist the manager at under 18 level. A self styled ‘special one’ who ‘shot from the hip’.
‘I say what I see and shoot from the hip. I’m like Brian Clough’. He’d repeat endlessly.
Minus the inspirational and unique qualities of Cloughie, I may add. And tactical nous. But enthusiastic. Very enthusiastic. Like all in the UCA. Extremely enthusiastic volunteers. One and all.
In my first season at my new club we indeed reached a big cup final.
Exciting, but problematical for the coach. Choosing which players play in the cup final. Which eleven start the game. Which are to be named as substitutes. Which are to be left out completely. But you still encourage them to come along to support their mates on the big day. No manual is available to help UCA members cope with the look on a disappointed player’s face when you tell him/her they are not in the squad for the big game.
Coming to support the team in the cup final when not playing is easier when the game is local. However this particular final took place near Wales. We were based in Leicester.
The team had done well. We were playing in the Midland Youth League. Which meant a lot of travelling to away games. The West Midlands stretches virtually to Wales, apparently. Of course the final had to be at some far flung outpost. And our opponents were from Coventry. So both teams had to travel miles.
I had to tell my wife too.
‘That final we’re in…it’s in Shrewsbury.’
‘WHAT!! Just for a game of football. You’re going to Wales?!!’
‘No. Near Wales.’
‘It’s not as if it’s life and death.’
‘It’s much more important than that. Ask Bill Shankley,’ I mumbled, making sure she couldn’t hear.
Anyway, the big day came.
On behalf of the Leicestershire UCA , I am pleased to say we prevailed by one goal to nil. The players, supporters, ‘Cloughie’ and I were up for it. We were not to be denied, despite a heavy bombardment from opponents late on. We scored the only goal early in the first half see. So it made for an endless second one.
Foxes never quit. The term ‘Foxes’ applies to anyone across the county. There is a tenacity, a determination. It shone through on this particular cup final day.
And it continued afterwards. Supporters (mainly family) were ecstatic. Many of them had been counting down the days to the final. It mattered. Not just to us participants. It was a day that saw all their commitment rewarded. The endless car journeys, the sacrifice of hardly ever getting a Sunday morning lie in. The frustrations. The sulky lads and lasses when it hadn’t gone well. All of this was forgotten.
The UCA should always salute the masses of its supporters. The parents, the mates, the relatives. Sometimes Grandparents come along. When a Grandparent speaks to a member of the UCA, it is special. The game of football is being passed between generations. Via their Grandchildren. Our players. We all have a passion for it. We really do unite.
And never did it show more than when that trophy was presented to our pint sized captain. Always the smallest player on the field. But he always embodied the spirit of grass roots football. Determined, tough, talented. Not necessarily a professional footballer of the future. But always a star in my mind.
He lifted it above his head. Even with his arms fully extended, the trophy was only as high as the other players foreheads. And it was a big trophy.
One team. One set of supporters. But the same passion as at any professional cup final. One reciprocated across the county and beyond at the end of every single season.
One country. One county. One city. One passion.
Another marketing slogan forged on the nation’s sporting fields I reckon.
My final season as a member of the UCA saw me involved in another cup final. For the same club me and ‘Cloughie’ lead to the Midland Youth League cup final in the 1990s. However we lost on this occasion. Turns out we needed him, after all.
That’s when I knew it was time to quit. Joking.
I enjoyed this cup final more than any other game as a UCA member in recent memory. Maybe because I knew it would be my last big game. I was determined to enjoy it and not get too stressed out on the touchline. It has happened before, see. It was an exciting match, played in super spirit. A large passionate crowd attended the game. We lost on penalties ultimately.
Our players were gutted at the end, as they say. Sick as parrots, as even more say. One parent requested a picture be taken of the players after the end of the game. The expressions on the faces of the players gave me the answer. The request was declined. We did a photograph a few weeks later after our final league game. I didn’t want the lads to have to face the cameras, and just concentrated on picking them up from their disappointment. Not an easy task, incidentally.
No professional footballer could have been more crestfallen than my players that day. But lads being lads, they picked themselves up over the next few days. By the time we trained again on the following Wednesday the banter and smiles had all returned. Players are lads after all. Full of it.
An experience again shared by many UCA members I’m sure. It’s a difficult job on occasions. However the camaraderie and banter of a good group compensate every time.
Speaking of difficult jobs, I had to pass on my decision to quit to the players and families. I had told the club officials a few weeks prior, and had them to swear to secrecy until I had told the players. This was certainly THE most difficult task I’ve had to do as a UCA member. I’d rehearsed it a thousand times in my head throughout the preceding weeks.
My reasons, some of which I passed on to the players and families, were varied. A mixture of family strains, personal health and tiredness and a changing lifestyle had dictated to me that I couldn’t remain the UCA member I had been for years. All were sympathetic to my situation and understood my reasoning. To a man. To a woman. To a player.
I was hugely disappointed. However to do the role well you have to give it the maximum commitment possible. All deserve this, from the players and supporters to the club’s organizational committee. The latter are real unsung heroes. The work a club secretary undertakes is huge.
And like all volunteers, they don’t get paid a penny for doing it. It’s done for the love of making the beautiful game available to all.
You will notice that very few specifics, for example the names of the clubs I worked for, have been given. This is an appreciation of all unknown coaches. The stories and experiences told here are similar to those of thousands of UCA members. Past and present. It seems inappropriate to identify and recount one individual’s story. The appreciation is of thousands of others. Call it a shared memoir.
The best years of my life. Thank you Leicestershire grass roots football.
And long live the UCA.
Bio: Paul Matts is the author short stories such as ‘Donny Jackal’, ‘One More Season’ and ‘Revenge can be sweet’. His debut novel ‘Toy Guitars’ is to be published in 2019. He promoted live Punk rock shows under the name 101 Productions and has been the guitarist and songwriter for the Incurables. He has also been a grass roots football coach for all his adult life. He lives in Leicester, England with his wife and children. He has recently started work on his second novel. See www.paulmatts.com for more information. And to subscribe to his mailing list and blog.