A Dad's Anguish From A Touchline Somewhere in North London

The game is the tight but the reds are on the attack. “Down the line, Sammy, down the line,” shouts a pitch-side supporter. “Now cross it, JonJo – George is in the box.” The cross comes in slightly too high and wide and a despairing George can’t get a boot or forehead on the ball. The spectator and his neighbours, as in unison, throw their hands up in the air and then bow their hands in anguish, head in hands.

But this is not the Emirates, Stamford Bridge or White Hart Lane. This is Market Road, London N7, and the game is between two teams of under-8 boys i.e. seven-year-olds, vying for victory. Games at this level are not officially competitive and no scores or scorers are recorded – but you could have fooled anyone walking idly past that this was not do-or-die football.

the attitude of some of the parents seemingly living their second lives through their children has come in for some justifiable ridicule

This picture is mirrored across London and across pretty much the whole of England. A quick peek at this website gives an idea of the breadth and depth of the impact of amateur football especially at a junior level: it claims to serve 100,000 teams of all ages. That’s around a million players.

Certainly the attitudes of some of the parents seemingly living their second lives through their children, has come in for some justifiable ridicule. It can even get ugly with stand-offs between opposing teams parents on the touchline.

There has also been growing concern that the way that children’s football is run and the way the teams and coached is becoming far too professional. Give Us Back Our Game, an organisation set up to allow kids to “enjoy football without all too much pressure”, says that the sport has become “ugly”.

It laments the decline of football in streets with jumpers as goalposts, thanks to parents’ justifiable concerns over both pollution and traffic levels as well as more knee-jerk worries about the risk of kidnapping by roaming sex offenders. The decline of street football is a shame and the selling of school football pitches was a crime. But neither should undermine the real value that organised football for kids as young as six or seven can play, especially in cities such as London.

One match descended into such a bear pit that one player and one team coach were sent off

There are so many positives that young children appear to gain from competitive football. The kit might be pricey but it is clear that it imparts a sense of camaraderie and collective responsibility. The routine of training matches is part of a wider discipline that governs being a member of a team. But perhaps most important is that it helps a kid understand how to lose – and to win gracefully.

Membership of a football team also opens up their social horizons to include kids with the same interests that they have that they might not otherwise meet.

This may sound a tad Panglossian and there are some downsides to the beautiful mini-game. Some behaviour by both parents and players can be over the top. One match descended into such a bear pit that one player and one team coach were sent off (yes, red and yellow cards exist in children’s football).

The habit of scouts looking for players to offer to the grown-up commercial clubs creates a feeling among children and parents alike that there are untold riches around the corner. However, a child snapped up by a major league side in his pre- and early teens can be strung along for several years, attending regular training sessions often miles from their home only to be dropped without notice just before there is any chance of a commercial deal.

Ultimately that is another sign of how the millions of pounds coming from televised rights are changing the game of football in England. It is hard to criticise parents for chasing the dream of a career that could change the livelihoods of the family. It is time for the clubs themselves to ensure they manage the expectations of the youngsters they pick up at an early age.

So as England fans can move into the Bank Holiday with a contended smile at the efforts of Harry Kane and Andros Townsend in the team’s 1-1 draw against Italy on the last day of March, they should remember that it all has to start somewhere. And that somewhere could be Market Road, N7.

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