This article is a submission for the Soccerlens ‘Share Your Football Experiences’ Contest; to participate, please read the details here.
[Editor’s note: This article exceeds the 2000 word limit, but we chose to publish it anyway. It will be judged accordingly for its excess length]
SUNDAY MAY 7TH 2007
Alveston Football Club
Stratford — Upon — Avon
Mid — Warwickshire Boys League Under 17’s League Cup Final
The day in question started for me waking up in a friend’s car outside a hotel in Clent Hills. I had been to a wedding reception but unfortunately hadn’t got a room booked so although I had an extremely sensible night in terms of any excess of food and drink, unfortunately those with me were in no state to drive me home the previous night so although I knew the big day was looming I had no option but to start the day cold, uncomfortable and in need of a wash!
I had been manager of my side since July 2001. While doing my F.A. level 1 coaching course I was required to do some hands on coaching. As my dad was a keen supporter of our local amateur side he had a word for me and I was able to assist in a Saturday morning coaching school which had been recently set up for local youngsters aged between 6 and 14. During these sessions the footballs clubs under 11’s and 12’s also trained on a separate pitch. These two teams were made up of one or two local kids but the majority seemed to come from the larger neighbouring towns that were situated a couple of miles either side of our village. The managers were also from these towns.
After a couple of weeks it became apparent that amongst the kids that were attending the “soccer school” there seemed to be a decent number of 11 and 12 year olds that were all local lads and had grown up together who although keen seemed to have no opportunity to join the clubs established team at the relevant age group. After speaking to a few of these players and their parents we decided on the possibility of starting our own team exclusively for local kids from our village as any kids from the near by towns had numerous teams to choose from.
The team was very raw. Only three out of seventeen had ever played for either the school or a club team and with me being only 24 years old and although I had played at a relatively decent standard of amateur Saturday football I had no coaching experience so every one of us was on a steep learning curve. We once had a “friendly” in training with our equivalent age group from the football club who after they had gone about 15 goals up we swapped goalkeepers to spare my poor keepers blushes (although no fault of his own) and to give the other keeper a decent practice. We lost 22 — 0 in the end so if nothing else it proved it wasn’t our goalkeepers doing! The following spring we had our first proper friendly just up the road at a middle school’s pitch against a well established team from one of the nearby towns. Again we looked lost against players that were used to competitive football and again the score line hit 20! September 2002 we started our first ever league campaign. We had joined the Mid — Warwickshire boys league at under 13 level. The squad had been trimmed down to sixteen players to allow for league rules and our adventure began.
We started life in a league with an 8 — 0 defeat in Stratford but only a week later and in only our fourth ever match (including friendlies) we recorded our first ever win with a 1 — 0 home victory — superb! Unfortunately although the effort was tremendous the season never pushed on and we predictably finished one place off the bottom. The following season was worse, two players left us and we didn’t manage to win until the very last game of the season and ended up firmly rooted to the bottom — it felt like and was a huge step backwards. Season three we looked better and our highlight was beating a team from the league above 3 — 2 with an outstanding performance in the cup. In the following round we came up against another division one side Fenny Compton who beat us very comfortably — as they had done every time we played them in previous seasons when they had been in our league. We ended that season just under half way so this time not only with our league position but performance and results we had definitely took a step forward. Season number four we pushed on again. The better sides would always beat us but that sometimes just felt like they had a psychological hold over us and we expected to lose. It was clear now though that we had progressed and the so – called lesser sides were regularly beaten by us and we now picked up regular league points to put ourselves over half way up the table by the finish.
We finished season number four in two minds. One the one hand we had clearly developed and were no longer a “whipping boy” so to speak but we still felt that we were quite a way off from where we wanted to be. Some of the better players were becoming impatient while some of the players were starting to find other interests and were making it clear their enthusiasm wasn’t what it was. We started reconsidering our policy on local players. We live in a relatively large village but during our four seasons we must have had every local player of that age signed up at some point so we were running out of options.
I held a training session / trial during our pre — season and had asked all the players if they knew of anyone from school (they all went to high school out of the village) who might be interested in joining. We had three places available so hoped enough extra players would turn up to fill those places. The day of the trial came and all our usual players turned up as usual but there were four new faces?? One had that “footballers hair” and carried the kind of cocky swagger not in any way arrogant but full of confidence which we had faced plenty of times but sorely lacked from our team. He was passed a ball and looked quite useful with his control.
Then another two came along. We had always lacked a proper imposing centre half, someone who could head a ball over the halfway line if needed but was also a presence and a leader at the back. We also craved a goalscorer and although in the previous season one lad scored fourteen that had come from midfield and we didn’t seem to have anyone else likely.
So I approach these two players, I introduce myself and ask their names and what teams and positions they had played previously. The one lad who was an imposing stocky lad compared to everyone else spoke the words I had dreamt of. “I play centre-half”, while his mate informed me “I’m a centre forward”. Too good to be true I thought. Then another lad arrives, it was obvious he had a quiet demeanour but he looked the part and within 30 seconds of seeing him have any sort of contact with a football I knew he again was special.
So here I am with places for three new players but with four very capable players whose attitudes seemed faultless and whose abilities were undeniable. The “centre — back” and “forward” were outstanding, I was looking for both positions to be filled and I had found them. The final decision I had made was backed up when the one lad (footballer’s hair) told me he had already been for a trial at a higher standard and had been honest enough to admit that if that team was interested then he would choose them. I thanked him and gave him my number incase the circumstances change in the future, and asked the very quick and talented “quiet one” if he would like to join us. So I had my three new players — big centre half, a sharp centre forward and the “quiet” midfielder. Season number five was upon us and boy was we ready!
My whole attitude with the players was now success. It was obvious the players we had added were quality and the fact we had managed to keep hold of all of our key players we had a serious squad. Pre — season training went like a dream. Full attendance for every session so by kick off day we were organised and hungry. The pre season was topped off by us beating an under 20’s side 5 — 3. The season went well, runners up in the league, Quarter finalists in the Birmingham County Cup and after an excellent 3 — 0 victory in the Semi — final of the league cup away to the league winners set us on course for our first ever chance of success. During the course of the season the rules on teams squad numbers were changed from a 16 limit upto a 20 player limit so although one of the original players left we managed to sign a further two players mid season. Both had a big impact with one of the players being a former academy player of a championship side.
We had scored the third goal in the semi — final with about two minutes to go and it wasn’t until one parent turned around to me and said “we’re nearly there” did it start to sink in and I started to finally relax at the thought we were seconds from not only the teams but my first final. Only a week before our semi — final opponents had beaten us 5 — 2 at the same ground in the league but that result had given us the motivation and determination to turn things around within a week. The final whistle was blown and we were there!!
I woke up on the morning of Sunday May 7th 2007 rather squashed, cold and with a feeling I could do with a long hot shower and a decent few hours’ sleep in a proper bed. One problem with that though was I had a big game not only to attend but to manage and hopefully assist in my team succeeding. It was a case of getting home sorting myself out and preparing for the big day. I felt tired but I could feel the excitement growing.
Now, it took all you readers out there quite a long journey to reach this point into the story, but I feel it was necessary for me to tell. So that the final could be appreciated, because the background of where we came from was relevant. Kids’ football isn’t all about winning, but anyone who has been involved at this level (especially with a team that is expected too and does struggle) will relate how good it feels when a corner is turned or a bit of success is in the offering.
So there I was: a cup final! The furthest I had ever got playing was to appear as a substitute in a semi — final. The team I had managed for six years had never looked like reaching such highs yet here we were. I arrived at Alveston football club around 11 o’ clock in the morning with the players not due until 12:30 for a 2 o’clock kick off. I walked around the pitch for what seemed a hundred times and sat in the dressing room alone thinking of what I would say. We had a number of big games that season but I knew this had to be the clearest and most uplifting speech I had ever given. I had another issue too. We had 17 players in the squad but only 16 were allowed to take part. A couple of players had been in and out with injuries and other commitments and although this sounds bad I really hoped my decision would be made for me by someone not being available, no such luck! Everybody arrived fully kitted and fully fit. There had been times in the season when we were down to 12 players and I would have given anything for a full squad now typically I had too many.
During the warm up one lad was really struggling, he hadn’t played a major part during the season for different reasons but he was a player who had been with us since day one back in 2001. After seeing him struggle doing stretches for about 10 minutes I realised he would have too miss out which believe me was an awful thing to have to tell a 16 year old who I had known since he was 11 and had been on our journey from the very beginning. He took it relatively well but at that moment I don’t think I was top of his Christmas card list. Due to the occasion, myself and the players obviously had quite a few friends and relatives along to share this. I had been telling everyone for weeks how well we had been playing so I didn’t help with the expectation stakes.
Our opponents that day were a team called Fenny Compton who we had crossed swords with every season in either league or cup encounters. Every season we would bravely try and achieve something against a side which were obviously just better than us, unfortunately we never did and one more than one occasion had come totally unstuck and heavily beaten. This season though the tide had slowly turned. We had drawn 2 — 2 at home in the league then won a tight and thrilling game 3 — 2 away. Those I had told how good my team had been playing must have thought I was either a liar or just gone mad because for the first twenty minutes we were awful. This was Fenny’s third consecutive final in this cup and although I had managed to bring in three good players at the start of the season and another two during the season none of them had ever won or even appeared in a cup final so coupled with the rest of us we had zero experience for such a game. For twenty minutes we looked shaky and nervous as our opponents played as relaxed as they would in training. One of our sides main plus points is its dogged determination and as time went on and no openings appeared for our opponents although our football wasn’t thrilling the attitude of the players in closing down and denying space slowly started to even the game up.
Half time came 0 — 0. Fenny have an extremely big lad for his age who always shone against us. He usually played centre back or centre forward, today they were playing him central midfield and he won everything. Goal kicks in the air or passing in the middle he would pop up and win possession way too easily. I changed things bringing on someone who in the air would atleast be able to compete with this lad. We settled down for the second half and as hoped a lot less of the ball was lost down the middle, as the game went on we got more confident and started playing a more calm passing game which had been one of our main strengths during the season. The half came and went with still no goals scored and extra time was upon us.
We looked fitter than them and I felt confident. Cup rules meant we would only be playing 10 minutes each way so there was a very good chance one goal could win it. Three of my friends who had travelled over from north Birmingham had to get home as their toddlers were getting tired and restless not realising that it would only be an extra 20 minutes. So they left me as extra time kicked off wishing us luck. With about a minute to go before the extra time interval our main player that day who had battled continuously during the match in the midfield put a hopeful high ball into the area, it seemed to stay in the air for minutes before looping under the cross bar and over the hands of the keeper…into the net!! WOW, excuse that phrase but how else do I describe it, the place dropped into silence for a split second before it seemed to explode and a huddle of eleven players piled onto each other on the half way line. The whistle went, half time, ten minutes to go.
As the players gathered around me I stood on the half way line and looked at each player individually as I explained we were 10 minutes away from our ultimate aim…a trophy. This moment had never seemed possible or likely especially against a team like this who had beaten us so convincingly so many times. I made my final two substitutions which I hadn’t used as since half time after 45 minutes everybody had played out of their skin and no one had tired sufficiently enough for me to change them. I took both forwards off as they had played excellently but was showing signs of tiredness. I put one player in the centre of midfield to support the lad who was already there (the goalscorer) and put the other one up as loan striker. The sub who came on as forward had a one v one which just sailed over the bar only for the opposition to go straight from that goal kick down the other end and hit the post, what a horrible heart in the mouth moment that was.
We hung on for around another minute then the moment that will live with me forever…the final whistle. I ran to the other manager shook his hand said unlucky then I was off to the players. We got into a huddle as I excitedly told them what we had achieved and now lets enjoy it and we all cheered like mad let me add and the cup was ours. The presentation ceremony was a bit poorly done and our captain was called up to collect the trophy without any kind of build up, but still we had done it. We had aimed to win a trophy back in September and come May here we were with the trophy.
It has been a hell of a journey from our beginnings playing catch up at under 13 level against teams who had been together since they were eight or nine years old, finishing bottom, losing numerous games by 6 or 7 or 8 goals. Then finally turning into a success. Admittedly it took six years but believe me when the goal in the final went in and the final whistle blew it was worth every single minute.
Alvechurch Under 18’s
3rd December 2007.
This article is a submission for the Soccerlens ‘Share Your Football Experiences’ Contest; to participate, please read the details here.