I never set out to run a Sunday League team and never imagined it would take over as my many hobby for the next 8 years. I blame the guy who put me on the bench for a manager-less team one Sunday morning.
Back into it
I’d been out the game for years as I went down the route of playing in an indie band for almost a decade. When I finally did begin playing again I spent my final days in the bottom of the Liverpool District League. A new club under a manager who ran the team to give his son a game.
We were awful. And so was I. After a change of manager and a good season or two under my belt I began to feel confident in my role as a centre-half. Finishing a season with a little trophy for ‘player of the season’. No lie!
I was poor with the ball at my feet. My games were all about communication and throwing my body on the line. And as we spent 80 minutes of every game defending for our lives I was involved in most of the play. I would be the last man trying to stop the ball crossing the line. So much so a tent peg went right into my knee as I slide to stop a shot going in. (That’s what happens when you don’t do the nets right!)
It only takes one to spoil it
Just when we began showing signs of developing into a team that could climb the table the worst thing I’ve ever seen on a football pitch happened.
One of our best players had brought his cousin to the club who was also decent. During a game, his cousin was done in a bad tackle. Neither player got back up right away. Within a split second our team-mate stamped on the head of the player who’d snapped his cousin. All hell broke loose. All I remember after that was trying to stop their keeper from killing someone. He was a massive fat head and surprised he didn’t end my life on the spot.
That was our last game. Our player was fined and banned for a year. The club was fined heavily and couldn’t afford to pay it which forced the manager to fold our team. We were all gutted. What made it worse was the County FA recovered the debt by splitting it up among every player who was signed on for the club. Even if you’d not played a game but was on the books you were handed a forty pound fine. I had to pay it else I couldn’t play again.
I made the decision to look for a team. The new season had just started so I contacted all the teams in the bottom division to see if they needed players. I wasn’t getting any younger and only had a few seasons left in the tank if that. Blackthorne FC invited me to training and signed me up.
My first game was in the County Cup were we faced none other than Canada FC. We lost the game 10-0. I came off the bench with about 10 minutes left. After that, the manager resigned.
The players carried it on but it was disorganised. I made my starting debut for them against The Mills FC and was brought off at half time at 2-0 down to change to a 3-4-3 formation. We lost the game 12-1. It was embarrassing. The lads who were dictating didn’t have a clue. And I was fuming for being dragged off at half time when we weren’t doing to bad.
The next away game they lost the kit as no one took responsibility for the kit bag. Luckily we got it back. But there was no sign of leadership or ownership I couldn’t see it lasting much longer.
Where it all began
I can’t remember who we played but the game I was benched I couldn’t keep my mouth shut. I began barking orders to the lads as our shape was a joke, especially at the back. Towards the end of the game one of the lads, who later became my longest serving player, asked would I manage the team.
You sound like you know what you're talking about
It didn’t take me long to say yes. All those hours spent playing ‘Championship Manager’ could now pay off. It was better than being benched. I could now pick myself! I had no idea what I was letting myself in for.
I spent the week trying to get organised. Contacting the League and the County FA to inform them I was the new Secretary. That was easy… I asked the lads to get me all the paperwork. Team sheets, referee sheets, player photo ID cards, rulebooks etc. As well as sign-on those who hadn’t.
I got a bit of shock when they posted at least two hundred pounds worth of unpaid fines through my letterbox. It was a mess. I had to gather all players names and numbers and get to know who played where, as I was still getting to know everyone.
I don’t remember my first game in charge. But I think it was a loss. We didn’t win many games that season.
I didn’t hang my boots up to start. I gave player-manager ago. It’s much tougher. You see the game from a totally different angle from the sideline. The amount of times I heard “I didn’t realise we were so bad now I can see it from here” from a player who’s just watched the remaining 20 minutes after being brought off.
One of my final games, which stands out for being one of my better performances, I remember being shouted at from the sideline by my substitute “Jimmy, am I getting on or what?” Followed by a load of abuse. We’d only played 35 minutes. This was one of the reasons I couldn’t continue playing and managing. I couldn’t focus on my game as well as everyone else’s.
For seasons after that, I’d hear “get a kit on Jim… Jim, you’re gonna have to play.” For a start, I’m wearing my glasses and two I haven’t got any boots or shineys. And I’m not signed on to play. “So… Just borrow a pair and stick some newspaper down your socks. (Yes I’ve seen this happen) You don’t even need to see what you’re doing either.” Most games I wish I was blind!
Play by the rules
I think I’d only played one game as manager before I was pulled up in front of the league. A team had accused us of playing a ringer. It was the game the week before I’d joined the club and I remember the lads talking about the victory during my first training session.
If this happens you’re invited by the League Committee to attend a disciplinary hearing.
I was made to feel like a criminal in front of the committee even after trying to explain I’d only just come into it. The opposition’s manager took full advantage of the situation and had more experience of being in this situation.
They forced us to replay the game and took 3 points off us so we had to win. We lost. So we lost the 3 points we’d won and had another 3 points taken away for playing a ringer. It was because of this I always tried to play by the rules. Avoid playing ringers. I didn’t want to be pulled up and be treated like that again.
Balancing the books from the off become really important. With the fines we’d incurred and no money in the kitty we needed to get money together. The council split their pitch fee into two. They invoice you at the beginning of the season just before your first game for half of the amount.
They give you a few weeks to pay before they inform the league and then the league are forced to take action and suspend your fixtures.
The next half is invoiced the first week of the new year when no games are even taking place because the snow has kept the ground frozen solid for five weeks.
This is where I began to keep a little ‘subs’ book. I also logged ever game in terms of team, formation, goals and assists. I didn’t have a smartphone back then. (Showing my age).
I managed to convince my new boss at work to sponsor us. He gave us a couple of hundred quid. With this, I bought two full kits second hand, funnily enough of the team who’d accused us of playing ringers and causing us to lose points. I got my works logo printed on the kit and used the rest to pay the pitch fees still outstanding.
Play to your strengths
The more games we played the more I knew what each player could and couldn’t do. We lost a lot of games by big scores in the early days. 7, 8 nils. We needed to focus on defending first instead of going gung-ho when going down two nil. Gradually the deficit reduced and we turned losing 8 nil into 3-1 losses which because 1-1 draws till eventually we began winning. Teams recognised us as ‘hard to beat’.
My centre-half breaking his arm was the first bad injury I’d seen while managing. But that’s not the half of it. That morning, him, my centre-mid and our cat between the sticks had turned up to the game still a bit messed from the night before. I heard them laughing about a party they’d been to where they’d raided the girls bedroom knicker draw to which they then began showing all the lads and myself the knickers under their footy shorts. “You’re leaving them on to play the match?” Silly question.
When our centre-half snapped his arm and was carted off to the hospital I jokingly said “they best not cut that footy top off you!” To which he replied “** I’m wearing knickers!!” I can’t imagine what the nurses thought when he was seen to in A&E. I felt really bad for him. Not only was he unable to play for a few months he couldn’t work either. And the insurance we had didn’t cover a broken nail never mind a bone.
The season after he broke his arm again in the exact same place. He came running over in the middle of the game “Jimmy I’ve done it again”. His arm looked like a banana. “Can you run it off?” He ended up needing it pinned. Bad times.
You’ve got no fans
Plenty of times I’d stood on the sideline on my own. No subs, no mates, no fans… While the opposition looked like they could field another eleven.
What I did for the club others had 2 or 3 people. I was the chairman, secretary, treasurer, kit-man, physio, coach, manager. I’d asked a few down the years to join me and help me run the club but of no avail.
I once watched my lads battle against a horizontal hailstorm. I had 2 or 3 coats on trying to flag for throw-ins with freezing cold hands and couldn’t see as my glasses were soaking. My substitutes were all standing in the doorway of the changing rooms waiting for me to signal them. When I did wave, no one came.
When the first season finished there was barely any money in the kitty. But what we did have we put towards a tiny trophy for ‘Players Player’.
I took a vote from each player. Some didn’t grasp the concept and tried to vote for themselves. I found my subs book with the results in the back had been tampered with in the last game with one of the lads putting a dozen ticks next to their name.
Our Keeper took the reward and rightly so. He kept us in so many games which stopped his teammates in front of him from giving up. Which resulted in us grinding out results. From there the trophies grew and expanded with the presentation night becoming the highlight of the season.
From here I was hooked. I’d put in a lot of hard work to make the club stable. All the funny stories that came out of that season have stuck with me as have the stories from the seasons after that. Banter with the lads and bigger trophies.
Want to know more?
Read about Running a Sunday League Football Team.