On a Saturday when most of the world’s major football matches have been cancelled to reduce risks from an extending Novel Coronavirus, I should turn to football.
I had a good football career, as a player (several countries), then referee (USA, Jamaica), then coach (USA, Jamaica); I enjoyed all of these phases, and they were not all done in the same place.
I recall starting football at about age 9, whether that was in a team or just in the playground I honestly can’t remember, but for sure I was playing for my school team by age 11. When I became a coach, in Virginia, USA, I always marvelled at parents who came along with their 4-6 years and told me how good their kids were and how great they would be. “Come back in 10 years,” I would say, and let’s see. I was saying that long before I knew or ready about 10,000 hours or 10 years as how long it takes to master something.
As I’ve written here, recently, I started as a midfielder/left half-back: I don’t remember scoring goals, and my team had some great forwards, some of whom would go for trails with professional clubs in their teens. Our coach was a former soldier and his regimen was hard; I mean, brutally hard, with physical punishment for not doing the right thing. I mostly did the right thing But, I enjoyed football, and running, and I could do both well, the latter much better.
When I went to grammar school, I continued playing and made the teams for my year form. I met there many players who were really good, far better than I had met at primary; many were from the Pimlico area and had played with each other at primary; I was lagging, but on the team because my speed was a great asset. We played almost every day in the playground, and football was so popular that several games could be going on at once, and not all in the same general direction, with boys of various ages. I would usually be an early pick in any games.
In the early years, there, we had a coach who wanted us to pass the ball and not kick-and-run; football was changing. We were a good team and won many of our matches, and I started to score goals playing as a winger, flying past people, intercepting back passes, and a few tap-ins. But, I wasn’t good enough.
Then, in my third year, just before one summer holiday , I spoke to one of the older boys about his dribbling and juggling skills. He told me I should practice every day all through the summer. I did. When fourth form started, we were eligible to play for the school 1st XI (eleven, if you don’t know Latin), and I was picked; I played for the 1sts every year till I left school. I became a more dangerous winger as I was getting faster and a bit stronger, and I was being exposed to better coaching. I had joined a semi-professional club in Greenford, Viking Sports, and it had players almost as good as those I watched in Football League matches at QPR, and they were young, mainly working professionals. Many had been on the books of pro teams at some stage. Some of the youth squad, like me, were trialists and were about to leave to turn pro. Their skill levels and dedication were of a different order. One boy would be there driving balls into the net before and after practice and when he hit the ball it went like a rocket, and he was 15, barely older than me. So, I would be playing for school in the mornings on Saturday and playing for Vikings in the afternoon. It was tough, as my school home matches were in south London; away games could be anywhere (but sometimes on the edge of Southall, at a complex called Warren Farm); the logistics could be tight, especially relying on public transport. These were not the days of parents toting kids around for games: “It’s not me playing,” my father would say. End of. But, it worked.
I stayed with Vikings after school and had gone to university. I went for London University team trials and was selected; no mean feat, considering the choice was from the many colleges, and a ton of good players were there. I played for five years at university and it was odd to be there with many others who played that long, noting that undergraduate study was three years, but many of the footballers were medical students on 5 year courses. The teams were good and our matches were tough, mainly against representative teams, like the Army, Metropolitan Police (MP), Southern League, or the reserve team of a pro club. Games were faster and more physical than I have ever encountered and teams like the MP had players who hit you like they were rocks. Again, a winger-supplier of goal chances, who netted a few times a season. I was also playing for Vikings, but less often, because the uni games were in the afternoons, as were my club’s. That started to put my club place under strain and I played more for the reserves, or as a substitute for the 1st team (this was in the day of only 12 players in a match squad). I often had to choose between being sub or playing for the reserves and thought the former would be better, being under the manager’s eyes. But, it had costs, as I found out with that scathing comment in the title.
But, I loved both sets of teams and the context and opponents were really in contrast.
From my early club days, it was down the pub after the matches for a few beers. As a junior, I couldn’t drink anything except shandies (beer and lemonade), and I also had to be out of the dressing room quickly after the matches when money was being paid out. I was still running for Hillingdon AC and was an amateur, and monetary affairs could jeopardize my status. It was always funny to have to run out of the shower, dress and scoot out of the dressing room. But, in the pub, I was ‘back on the team’ and in for the banter. A friend/team mate would often pick me up and drop me home and he was never the worse for wear, so my parents weren’t worried. At university, beers were often in a clubs house and accompanied by an odd mix of intellectual chatter and regular footballer rubbish. But, they were good years.
My link with Vikings broke naturally, when I went from university to take my first job, in north Wales; hard to commute and no need. So, I began playing for my ‘company’, Clwyd County Council, and the team sponsored by the union (NALGO). The league standard was high and the team was very good, and had a mix of lads who were all grades at work, plus a few who were miners or self-employed elsewhere. Again, my speed was an asset, but I was also being asked to play midfield again. Great chemistry on the pitch was built up by great bonding in the bar after matches, especially at home, in the Griffin Inn. I usually walked to and from home games as I lived in the town centre. Late Saturday nights were common.
Once I started work at the Bank of England, I had to choose between club (back to Vikings) and work team, which was quite good, and I played mostly for the work side. For many years, a friend and I would make the drive from north to south London (the Bank played at Roehampton) or points mostly south, as many of our opponents were financial firms and they had grounds south of the river. Again, after the match was often as good as during; good beers flowed and much chatter followed. Getting home late on a Saturday evening was normal. Then, things got a bit jaded; I stopped enjoying football. I was in my late-20s, near my supposed prime: I was struggling to hold my place. I decided to retire.
I spent a year not playing and getting on with life and fixing up a house, and got miserable. My wife could only take it for a year, and told me to get back out there. Well, I did, ma’am. An old friend, who’d played for Millwall back in the day, asked me to turn out for his veterans team, as a ringer (and under-age player; two were allowed). They played on Sunday mornings, and it was a blast for me: games were slower, and I was all over the field, except in goal and scoring like rain. Give me more! My appetite for the game came back and I was better for having gotten super fit playing with the codgers. So, I played on at a high level till my mid-30s. Then, I left England for Washington DC.
Fortunately, football, or soccer, was blossoming in the USA in the 1990s, and I quickly got onto the IMF team, coached by a relatively stable Italian, which played in the Washington International League. Teams were mainly a mix of work types, like us (eg the World Bank) and regular club teams, though some came with great pedigrees (like Asterix, mainly Trinidadians who’d played for Howard University, including Shaka Hislop (later of Newcastle United and Trinidad, now ESPN; another team included John Harkes, later of DC United and USA, when MLS started). We held our own in league and cup matches, though were pipped at the post for titles a few times.
Playing for the IMF, at Bretton Woods, MD, on wonderful pitches (circa mid-1990s), on a team made up from many nations. Several things were different about playing in the USA: 1. It was soccer, not football. 2. Hardly anyone tackled from behind–a blessing for legs and ankles that had been badly battered since my teens. 3. Rolling substitutions, meaning players could go out but come back in, unlike everywhere else when a sub left it was for the duration; that was good for tactical and stamina reasons, and transformed how I played.
We played well enough, but not well enough for my liking–we had lots of great individuals but rarely trained as a team, so survived much on that ability not so much of what we planned to do. When things get tough, that lack of preparation and having a well-understood strategy can cost dearly. I decided the better thing was to cut and form my own team.
I went recruiting and took a few former team mates along, who liked the approach I wanted to follow, and built a team with varsity-level high schoolers of promise whom I was coaching, former college players, former senior players from many countries. I named the club Internationales, naturally, and we played in all-white or yellow shirts. I got us uniforms (cotton teeshirts and shorts and a friend who ran a sports shop did the numbers for free), and had practice gear from my coaching stints. We paid our league dues. I got us playing rights at Bretton Woods, as a Fund employee, so we were on the best fields available locally. It was a fun and talented team, and I played midfield (aging legs) and sweeper (better to captain from there) and was happy to sub myself out. We won a lot and contended for the league title well and in cups. Then, I decided to walk away because I wanted to coach my own youth team and the energies needed, plus the burden of IMF mission travel was too much (I was working on former Soviet Union countries and the travel was frequent and hectic).
I’d been coaching on and off from the time I arrived in the USA, in 1990, and people got wind of my playing background. I worked mainly with a group of middle schoolers in a recreational league and made them too strong for that level I then also started working with a friend-judge who was the Commissioner for the Washington International League, and had big ideas for his son’s youth team and later high school varsity soccer for the players. I enjoyed that, being really the technical man, not the manager, and we moulded the boys well, including getting some of them exposed to playing against men, which was not common in the USA, where things stayed around youth age groups. But, I was brought up in the mixed system as applied in most major footballing countries. It was fun, including a long van ride to coach the boys for a week one summer in Chalervoi, MI.
In the mid-1990s, I decided to coach a travel/select team, and I wanted to work with girls, because I found them more committed and less histrionic than teenage boys. Another girls team in the same age bracket had been formed the year before, and people had asked me to form a team but I wasn’t ready. However, I held my try-outs and got the squad I wanted, picking girls who showed intelligence and heart, irrespective of size of skills; those I could teach. We got into training, and the parents set up the funding for leagues and uniforms. We entered our first tournament and miraculously won, on penalty kicks, which we’d never practised. Overjoyed, the team of course thought they were the bees’ knees. We played well in the league and could have risen from third to first division, but missed out by a point. Anyway, my commitment to the team was that I would teach them how to be footballers who would make varsity teams and when a coach asked “Where do you play?” could reply “Where do you want me to play?” So, it was with the half dozen who opted to play varsity when the time came; the best player decided she’d try track and field and became a champion high jumper. Several of those girls then went on to play college varsity.
My first born was on my team and went on to play at university during her year abroad at Nottingham University. She’s now a select coach herself and a keen co-ed player.
I had one last hurrah when I as pressed to come out of retirement and play in a veterans/Masters tournament in Barbados in Whitsun 2003. Madness! I went back into training and we played some 5-a-side to train, then went on our trip. First, we played on marked cricket fields and they are faster-running than regular football fields, and with the heat, it was a lung-buster. We also played some teams of seriously good talent from Jamaica, Trinidad and England, with a stock of old pros (see photos below). But, the beer was great. For me, it was clear that I had gone past my sell-by date and try as I did, the legs were not always there. One serious injury to a teammate following a clumsy challenge also convinced me this was not where I wanted to die.
Thanks for the memories, but no thanks.
Since coming to Jamaica, I tried coaching boys here but a lot of things didn’t gel–cultural, attitude, language and more. I started a girls football programme my daughter’s school and it’s since developed a full-fledge set-up with teams playing in an international inter-school event (Soccafeva) in Kingston and a similar event in Nassau, The Bahamas, at Lyford Cay School.
But, my greatest joy came from ‘coaching’ toddlers and pre-schoolers on Mondays, for a couple of years.