It was that awkward moment when everyone is avoiding eye contact, fearing they might end up with the job nobody wants.
At the end of a Saturday morning training session, our son’s football coaches had dropped a bombshell; they would be stepping down at the end of the season. The ‘Two Steves’ had given wonderful service. Their own sons had moved on from the club several years earlier, but they had stayed on, helping scores more youngsters to learn the beautiful game.
They had coached our son’s squad for five years but next season the boys would be moving up to the under-12s league, where matches were played on Sunday afternoons, and that clashed with the Steves’ weekly round of golf. It was time for them to make their exit.
After accepting many heartfelt thank-yous, ‘Scottish Steve’ addressed the elephant on the training ground. ‘So who’s going to take over?’
All of a sudden, every parent was staring intently at their shoes. Dark clouds gathered, and a pall of anxious silence descended. The same thought was in every parent’s head: ‘Please, PLEASE don’t ask me.’
Then the Other Steve inserted the emotional dagger. ‘Well, unless one of you takes it on, the team will have to fold.’ That’s when I blurted out: ‘I’ll do it.’
Instantly, the sun burst through the clouds, the birds were in full song and the parents who’d dodged the bullet sprang back to life. They thanked me for volunteering and, after muttering an unconvincing ‘if there’s anything I can do…’ they made a swift and hugely relieved getaway.
‘I’ll do it.’ I didn’t know it at the time, but those three little words would mean I’d be giving up five years of Friday evenings (training) and Sunday afternoons (games, freezing my buns off, writing the match report). And then there was the monthly league meeting. And organising the presentation evening. And answering emails from parents demanding to know why their kid hadn’t been picked / had been subbed / hadn’t won an award / wasn’t in the England squad. It soaked up far too much of my time and tested my patience to the limit. And I loved it. Well, apart from the refereeing.
The Steves’ retirement meant we also needed a new club secretary, and my wife Jo stepped up to the plate. Her first move was to book me on a coaching course. Good idea. Except it turned out to be a refereeing course. This had as much appeal to me as sticking rusty pins in my eyes, but she’d paid the fee and I’d booked the week off, ‘so you might as well do it’.
Around six weeks later, with my Level 7 certificate in the bag, I was in the referees’ changing room preparing to officiate in my first game, an under-16s clash between Brickfield Rangers (no, I haven’t made that up) and Ruthin Town, in the Wrexham and District Junior League. Brickfield is one of the biggest clubs in North Wales and is the alma mater of former Premier League and Wales star Robbie Savage.
In grassroots football, changing rooms are a rarity, which is just as well because they’re almost always dank, draughty and depressing. Brickfield’s ticked all of those boxes, although they were by no means the worst I’d experienced. That honour fell to the facilities at our home ground at Norton, Sheffield, where I played junior football.
Our changing room was a cow shed. A real cow shed. A real cow shed that was still in use. By real cows. During the week, it was home to a bunch of Friesian heifers and, on a Sunday afternoon, to a bunch of effin' freezin' footballers.
There was no door, no electric light, and the only water was in the cows’ drinking trough. Worse still, there was no barrier to separate the football pitch from the shed and the open fields, so the cows were able to roam freely across the playing area, to graze and to do all the other things cows do. We learned very quickly that sliding tackles were best avoided.
Back at Brickfield, kick-off time was approaching, and my nerves were starting to jangle. Two other refs were chatting as they put on their kit.
Ref 1: ‘He’s back, then.’
Ref 2: ‘What??’
Ref 1: ‘Yeah, he’s finished his ban.’
Ref 2 (ashen faced): ‘Christ.’
Ref 1: ‘You’ll be alright. But if he loses it, give me a shout. I’m on the next pitch.’
Me: ‘Er, who are you talking about?’
Ref 1 explained that a striker playing in Ref 2’s match was returning to action after a lengthy ban - and a court appearance - for beating up a referee during a game. This did nothing to calm me down. But surely nothing could go wrong with my under-16s?
The first few minutes reminded me of learning to drive; I knew the theory were but there was no co-ordination between my brain, hands and feet. After 20 minutes, I started to feel a little more confident. Then I spotted one of the Brickfield centre-backs sitting on the ground, slumped forward and gasping for breath. I stopped the game and ran over to him, with just one thought in my mind. ‘Please. Don’t. Die.’
Thankfully, the trainer ran on and quickly brought things under control. She explained calmly: ‘Oh, it’s always happening, he’s asthmatic.’ She soon had the lad back on his feet and ready to play on. As I got ready to restart the game I realised that – rookie error - I’d forgotten to stop my watch, so I had no idea how much time to add for the stoppage. I took a punt on seven minutes.
By the end of the game, I had a spectacular array of blisters, courtesy of my ancient football boots, and an enormous sense of relief. Final score: Brickfield Rangers 5, Ruthin Town 2, Grim Reaper 0.
THROUGHOUT many years of playing football, I managed to avoid serious injury but after just a handful of games as a referee, I found myself sitting in a wheelchair in the A&E department of the Wrexham Maelor Hospital.
I’d been reffing a feisty U-16s game between two local rivals. Tempers were overheating, on the pitch and on the sidelines. I’d been compelled to issue my first-ever yellow card, to the fervent approval of one half of the crowd and howls of spittle-flecked fury from the other half.
With five minutes remaining, the score was 2-1 to the visitors when the home team broke out of defence and bore down on goal. I was running at full tilt to keep up with play when my right foot went into a divot-hole and the whole of my bodyweight crunched down on the outside of my ankle. It was pure, instant agony.
The two halves of the crowd, which had been at daggers drawn throughout the match, were now united in mirth as I hopped around on one leg, in obvious pain. I looked to my son, Joe, who I’d co-opted as a linesman, for a little comfort. He’d dropped his flag and was bent double with laughter.
I looked down and noticed my foot was at a right angle to where it should be, with the studs of my right boot pointing towards my left calf. I’d dislocated my ankle. Without thinking, I pushed my foot back into place. With exceptional bravery, I restarted the game but soon realised I couldn’t put any weight on my right foot. I blew the final whistle a couple of minutes early.
Over the next few hours my ankle ballooned and, after an uncomfortable night, I decided to drive myself to hospital. The ankle was badly sprained and an x-ray showed that a small piece of bone had been chipped off the end of my fibula. The doctor said I’d probably done that when I pushed my foot back into place.
An hour later, I was in the wheelchair, with a plaster cast from foot to knee, and trying to work out how to get myself and my car home. All in all, it wasn’t the greatest weekend.
A few months later, and fully fit again, I was back at Brickfield for another under-16s fixture. This one was no less dramatic than the first. As two players contested a high ball, there was a sickening crunch and both of them crashed to the ground, looking seriously dazed. I ran over and asked if they were OK. The visiting team’s striker said yes and smiled, revealing that one of his front teeth had snapped off, leaving just a short stump.
The home team full-back was extremely groggy. He was bleeding from the top of his head, with the striker’s missing tooth embedded in his scalp. When I pointed this out, he was about to pull it out but the trainer told him to leave it where it was, to limit the blood flow. The ‘extraction’ would be left to the professionals in A&E.
In his book The Rules of the Game, Pierluigi Collina - probably the world’s greatest-ever referee - wrote that the best refs know ‘how to change your own scale of values to adapt to events’. I’m sure he’s right, but I have to say my main aims when officiating in the junior leagues in Wrexham and Chester were to get out of it alive, and with my £20 match fee in my pocket - neither of which could be taken for granted.
After two stress-soaked seasons, I decided to call time on my refereeing career and stick to coaching. But a few months later I pulled on my kit one last time when one of my club’s coaches was let down by his allocated ref.
Before the match, I told the visiting managers I couldn’t promise to get every decision right but I’d call everything honestly, as I saw it. They couldn’t thank me enough for stepping into the breach and assured me they’d accept all my decisions.
They were as good as their word - for about ten minutes. Then I awarded a goal-kick to the home team when they thought their team should have had a corner, and the smiley, grateful duo morphed into snarling jackals. From then on, they screamed at every decision, whipping themselves and their supporters into a frenzy.
By half time, I’d had enough. I walked over to the jackals and told them that as they obviously knew better than me, they could referee the second half. I was going home for a nice cup of tea and the Sunday papers. They were stunned, which pleased me.
As I flounced off to my car, one of their supporters – an elderly gent, presumably a player’s grandad - realised the jackals didn’t have a whistle and asked if they could borrow mine. At that moment, Michelle Obama’s famous phrase came to mind: ‘When they go low, we go high’. Then I told him to get stuffed.
MY FIVE YEARS as a coach produced some memorable moments, as well as a few I’d rather forget.
In our first taste of cup action, my under-12s were drawn against a team we had already beaten twice in the league. We fancied ourselves to win but at half time we were a goal down and not playing well. I gave them an inspiring team talk, in the style of Arsène Wenger. Or possibly the schoolteacher in Kes.
It seemed to do the trick. From the restart, we perked up and soon scored a deserved equaliser. The chances came thick and fast but we couldn’t score a second. Then, with a couple of minutes left, a long clearance put the opposition’s striker clean through, with only our goalkeeper to beat.
I called to the keeper to come out and as he advanced, his baseball cap fell off. The striker mis-hit his shot, and the ball bobbled towards the goal in super-slow motion. It hit the post and trickled back out to within a few feet of our keeper. All he had to do was turn round and pick it up. But instead, he bent down and picked up his cap. As he was placing it back on his head, the striker skipped past him and smashed the ball into the unguarded net to win the cup tie. Ah well, there’s always next year.
When it comes to personal organisation, most teenage boys achieve the Olympic qualifying standard for uselessness. For five years, hardly a week went by without at least one of the squad forgetting his shirt / shorts / socks / boots / shinpads / subs money / the kick-off time / which ground we were playing at. I have to confess that as a young player, I was that soldier.
As a coach, I learned (a) it’s impossible to over-communicate and (b) always keep a couple of spare kits in your car boot. But even the most organised coach or parent can’t cover every eventuality…
When my son was 13 or so, his school team had a fixture at Bury School, 50-odd miles and a good hour-and-a-quarter’s drive away. The school had hired a coach to take the players, with parents following in their cars.
Bury School always put on a post-match snack and a drink for visitors, and one of my son’s teammates had availed himself of the tea on offer. Seven cups of it, to be precise. Inevitably, the coach driver had to make an unscheduled stop. He pulled into a lay-by, with the fleet of parents’ cars line astern behind him, so the young man could relieve himself.
When the bus arrived back at school, our tea addict hopped into his dad’s car for the short journey home, when he realised he’d left his kit bag in Bury. They spent the afternoon driving all the way back to east Lancashire to retrieve it. Oh, how his father laughed.
One of our most memorable games – although not for all the right reasons - was in our under-14 season, when we played an away fixture against a team from a tough council estate.
In terms of footballing ability, we were well matched, and games between us were always competitive. But the two sets of players were from very different backgrounds. Most of our boys were from comfortable, suburban families, while many of the kids from the estate had challenging home lives.
The game almost didn’t go ahead because the grass had been cut that morning – obviously for the first time in quite a while. Piles of clippings had been left on the pitch, which would make passing the ball difficult. But as everyone had turned up and was ready to play, their coach and I agreed we’d give it a go.
Their best player was a talented striker with a volcanic temper that was permanently on the brink of eruption. Well into the second half, we were winning the game comfortably when our goalkeeper slid out to gather a through ball. The striker arrived feet first and spectacularly late, raking his studs across the top of the goalie’s head. It was a cold-blooded assault.
First on the scene was the goalie’s mum, who ran on to tend to her son, demanding the striker be sent off. The referee called him over but he gave a contemptuous sneer and walked towards the centre circle. The ref called him over again, but again he was ignored.
The lad’s coach tried to defuse the situation by telling him he was being substituted. This was a generous move, as they didn’t have any subs. His response was to fold his arms, with a look that said: ‘Oh yeah?’ He wasn’t going anywhere.
The coach then pressed the nuclear button. ‘Right, I’ll go and get your mum.’ As the coach walked off, the lad seemed to twitch slightly but he stood his ground.
A couple of minutes later, a short, red-faced bundle of fury roared in from behind the garages. She gave her son a monumental mouthful and told him to get off the pitch right now.
She turned away, confident he would do as he’d been told. Sure enough, he began to trudge off but after a few steps he bent down and scooped up a large handful of wet grass clippings. He hurled it, and it hit her flush on the back of the neck, with a resounding splat.
She spun round, grabbed him by the arm, frogmarched him round the back of the garages and administered, in the words of a certain Norwegian football commentator, ‘a hell of a beating’.
Both sets of players, the spectators, the coaches and the referee were stunned. The game was restarted but no-one’s heart was in it, and the final whistle came as a relief. As it sank in, an incident that in real time had seemed quite funny, was actually very sad.
SURVEYS by the FA show that many children give up football around the age of fourteen. By far the main reason is angry coaches and parents (and that almost always means dads), who treat every game as a war.
This footballing aggression can run in the family. In an under-15s match, a member of my son’s team – a strong defender with a psychopathic streak - was sent off for a brutal, premeditated foul. The opposition supporters were furious, and one of them shouted: ‘Yeah, he’s just like his old man.’
As it happened, ‘his old man’ was watching the match from the opposite touchline. When he heard the comment, he sprinted across the pitch - showing an impressive turn of foot for a portly fifty-something - intent on administering summary justice. Fortunately, a group of parents formed a protective ring around his intended target, keeping Angry Dad at bay until his temper had cooled.
WITH my coaching and refereeing days a distant memory, I decided, at the age of 68, to reboot my playing career. Every Monday afternoon, around 20 of us gather for an hour of over-60s walking football. It’s great fun, and extremely civilised.
We go out of our way to applaud good play, newcomers are welcomed warmly and everyone makes a point of remembering your name.
The rules of the game are simple: if you run, a free kick will be awarded against you. This is rather academic for some members of the group, myself included. The best I can manage is an inelegant scuttle, in the style of an arthritic crab.
The main exception here is Vitaly. He’s Ukrainian, I reckon he's nearer 50 than 60, he has virtually no English and he sprints around like a whirlwind, firing in shots from all angles and leaving the rest of us to eat his dust. Every now and again, someone will gesture to him to slow down but our hand signals obviously don't clear the language barrier.
The other week, during the half-time break, I noticed him fishing around in his plastic carrier bag. He produced a small pot of grapes and, with an encouraging nod, he offered them to everyone in the group. He's going to fit in just fine. But we may have to tie his legs together.
IF YOU ENJOYED THIS PIECE, YOU MIGHT LIKE MY BOOK 'YOU CAN'T LIBEL THE DEAD' WHICH TELLS THE BEST TALES FROM MY 45 YEARS IN JOURNALISM.