We’ve all heard the stock lines used to describe grassroots football: pushy parents on the touchline, poor pitches, a lack of funding.
We may have used some of them ourselves. However, there are those who are seeking to repudiate these stereotypes.
Neil Thompson is a former semi-professional footballer who kept goal for Enfield Town between 1993 and 1997, before injury curtailed his career. He is assistant manager of Millwall Albion Under-12s, a team who currently top East London’s Echo Premier Division, a league containing the U12 team of the legendary Senrab, where it all began for John Terry, Bobby Zamora and Paul Konchesky.
Speaking to The Offside Rule (We Get It!), Thompson shared the ethos that he and Albion manager Kevin Hatcher have implemented to ensure that the club is a place where positivity thrives. “We don’t mind if we lose games”, says Thompson.
It’s a trend that Thompson thinks is gaining traction, becoming less about ‘winning at all costs’ and promoting physicality over technical development. Instead, he says it’s more about inclusivity and skill: “Most coaches now are looking to the smaller, more technical player”.
He cites his own son’s experience playing district-level football where it is mandatory to string together “a minimum of 10 passes before you can have a shot” as an example of how coaching at the higher levels of youth football is now falling into step with European models.
Thompson wants to plant the seed of technical prowess into children’s grassroots football. Rather than take the direct route, everything at Albion is built from the back:
“We split the left-back and the right-back so that both are in position [to receive the ball from the goalkeeper]. If the opposition shut us down that way, the midfielders know that one of them has to come deep to take the ball. It’s about moving the opposition around.”
This is not to say that the volunteers running Millwall Albion do not encounter a few tricky situations. Thompson and Hatcher have a simple approach to over-enthusiastic parents on the touchline:
“We have a word with them at the end of the game and ask them not to tell the kids anything different to the manager’s instructions.”
Though this might not always be possible, Thompson’s playing past and Albion’s 100% record give him an authority that is probably less likely to be questioned. The civility of the approach is key, and sets the right example.
Albion have recently moved from their old home on the Isle of Dogs to the famous Hackney Marshes for the simple reason that “it’s the best pitch around”, according to Thompson, and the surface most likely to benefit Albion’s youngsters.
Thompson concedes that securing funding is as big a problem for Albion as any other grassroots club, saying: “Fundraising nights and what sponsorship we can get is what keeps the club going”.
Thompson downplays the energy shown by the thousands of people like himself and Hatcher and their coltish players. It’s these people that really make grassroots football tick and keep children and families coming back year after year. We should, as football lovers, cherish and respect the enthusiasm of every single one of these people.
Do you know an unsung grassroots hero like Neil in your part of the UK?
McDonald’s and the home nation FAs are calling for you to nominate your local grassroots volunteer, coach, club or league for this year’s Community Awards.
If you know a grassroots hero across England, Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland then nominate them now at mcdonalds.co.uk/awards.
Follow @BetterPlayUK for the latest 2015 Community Awards news.
Read more from Tom Simmonds here.