Is football ‘coming home’ again?

football coaching‘It’s coming home’. Three words that seem to have been the most frequently used in the nation’s vocabulary since Harry Kane’s last minute winning goal against Tunisia back on Monday 18 June. From that moment, the vast majority of the population have been caught up in World Cup fever. Replica shirts have been bought, many pints drank (or thrown in the air in celebration), and “did you see the game” has emerged as the greeting starter of choice for many work colleagues.  I’m sure that David Baddiel, Frank Skinner, and the Lightening Seeds have also done very well out of the renaissance of their 1996 classic, which has in turn inspired memes. This is my personal favourite:

For me, this World Cup has been about far more than simply sharing content on social media based upon popular cultural references, or introducing my children to Fat Les and New Order. Events over the past couple of weeks have reignited something that I feared had been lost from my youth. Something that had been tarnished as I grew older.

I was football mad as a child. Sure, I played and watched other sports, some with a good amount of success; but football was the one thing that held my attention the most. I longed to ‘be somebody’ within the football environment. I wanted the respect of my team-mates when I was playing, I’d look up at my teachers and coaches in awe, and I craved a future within such an exciting and prominent sport. Despite Sir Bobby Charlton’s direct praise at one of his soccer schools (a shot from outside of the box that flew into the top corner if I correctly recall); I was never going to make it as a player. I’d like to think that it was because of my involvement in a range of activities and my inability to specialise in just the one pursuit. Perhaps it was due to my flexibility on the pitch, and being classed as the ‘utility man’ who could fill in and do a decent job in any outfield position? As much as I may extrinsically protest with friends about ‘missed opportunities’, the truth was that like many millions of football-mad individuals, I just wasn’t good enough to be the star of the show, but that was ok. I still loved football, and once I’d realised that I could be more than just a player, I’d simply aim to work towards creating any kind of future within the beautiful game.

Some friends and family scoffed. “But what do you really want to do?” they’d ask. I was adamant that being a ‘somebody’ within football, would carry a great deal of respect and credibility. That’s the kind of power that football has, and I wanted a slice of it. I was obsessed, transfixed on my goal.

For many years, all was going to plan. I managed to gain my level 1 coaching award during my time at college and spent some wonderful summer holidays as a 16 and 17-year-old alternating between lifeguarding in some of Cornwall’s most picturesque swimming pools; and being out in the sunshine on local football pitches. I was able to develop my coaching skills further whilst at University through further coach education awards, and my learning on a sport development degree, coupled with some fantastic placement and employment opportunities, put me in a great position to find employment within the football industry. I enjoyed some wonderful years working on some fantastic projects with some incredible people. I was living the dream, and yet something didn’t seem right.

As much as I reflect upon the various experiences that I enjoyed, I have struggled to pinpoint exactly where my love for football suddenly vanished. I went from being completely and utterly in love with football, to being rather ambivalent about everything that it represented, and have instead come to the conclusion that a variety of factors affected my thoughts, feelings and emotions. As a coach, I felt consumed by my annoyance at the minority whose practice seemingly did more harm to the game than good. Through my role as a development officer, I started to see all of the problems that needed to be ‘fixed’ in football, and any positive interventions couldn’t really be enjoyed, as we often quickly moved onto the next problem or issue.

This experience is perhaps to the benefit of the students that I’ve encountered on our own BA Hons Degree in Football Development & Coaching at Plymouth Marjon University. I’d like to think that I’ve helped them to view football through a variety of lenses, and therefore enable them to appreciate the myriad of organisations, stakeholders and individual actors that comprise the football environment, and how their actions and interactions can be both positive and negative in relation to the wider development of the game itself.

Two weeks ago, I had made a decision to just watch the England games, along with one or two of the more high profile matches. One such high profile match was the fixture between Spain and Portugal on Friday 15 June. The events that unfolded struck a chord, and many of my old feelings and love for football came rushing back as I marvelled at the quality of Ronaldo’s play, the see-saw end-to-end nature of the phases of play, and the unbridled joy and frustration evidenced in the stands and television studios as the game constantly changed hands. My rugby-loving son even seemed impressed! It was like being a child again.

The unpredictability not just in the outcome of the match; but in the emotions that we feel in each action observed, and how this then manifests itself into our own words and actions played out in my lounge. Suddenly, I found myself jumping on the sofa, hugging my son, and experiencing an incredible urge to grab a football and to start to play with it. The next day, my sons and I did just that, and our shared experiences led to us getting new football related products for the garden. They have been well-used, with my battered lawn perhaps one clear drawback to such levels of World Cup inspired enthusiasm.

This is the power that mega and major events such as the World Cup can have. Whilst writing this blog post, I could have discussed in more detail the fact that teams at this World Cup are ‘having a go’ as opposed to sitting back and playing pragmatic football (one of my previous sources of frustration). I could have discussed the wider impact of such bravery within the context of coach education and development, and the lessons that we can pass onto coaches and clubs at all levels. Instead, I’d rather concentrate on the fact that events are a ‘shop-window’ to everything that is good about a given sport. Yes, they might be ‘staged’, heavily commercialised, and open to corruption and bribery; but they also bring people together to enjoy shared experiences. To experience both happiness and sadness, elation and frustration in equal measure, and this in turn may unlock something within us that we thought was long gone.

Once again, I’m hooked. I’m rushing to complete tasks so that I can sit down to watch the games. I’m smiling as I watch play unfold. I’m ignoring any negative coverage, and once again focusing on the positives. I’m enthused by the impact that this World Cup could have on others, regardless of whether England go any further in this competition. So, I’ll simply conclude by taking inspiration from some very clever England fans, who in turn were inspired by Gareth Southgate and the dulcet tones of Atomic Kitten:

Looking back on when we first met,

I cannot escape and I cannot forget,

Football you’re the one,

You still turn me on,

Football’s come back home again…….

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Ryan Thomas

Senior Lecturer in Football and Sports Development

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