How not to save amateur football

rite of passage np. An unpleasant, sometimes traumatic experience which serves no purpose in life other than to teach you not to do it again.

There are many ways to persuade a person to do something they don’t want to do. You can appeal to their better nature, you can promise the possibility of love, or sex, or riches, or increased popularity. You can tell them that, despite their reservations, it will honestly be a big bag of fun. If all else fails, and you get really desperate, you can tell them it’s character building.

It’s a nebulous argument, the character building one; the idea that, by taking part in a particular activity, you will somehow become a better, wiser, more rounded person. It’s the thinking behind a lot of these “100 things to do before you die” lists that fill up broadsheet newspapers in the middle of August, and I’m never quite convinced by it.

(Note to anyone compiling these lists: the words “before you die” are superfluous. I must have read dozens of these features, and I have yet to come across a single activity in any of them that I will be able to undertake after my death. And until someone publishes a list that includes “quietly decomposing in a coffin”, I don’t expect that to change.)

When someone suggests that you do something solely as a rite of passage, then you know they’re struggling.

That’s why I feel more than a little sorry for Dave Coffey, secretary of the Altrincham and District Sunday League.

I have never met Dave, and know next to nothing about him. But just from the fact that he is willing to take on the demanding and thankless task of administering Sunday amateur league football, I can deduce that he is a hard-working, well-meaning, passionate and honest man, and – in the best possible way – a football nut.

He’s also a worried man. Fourteen years ago, his league had 46 clubs. Now it has 20. Coffey fears that, in three or four years, there will be no Altrincham and District League at all.

Interviewed for an article in today’s Manchester Evening News, Coffey blames the kids of today, arguing that they would rather play computer games, or watch games on TV, or have a five-a-side match at their local Soccer Dome. I think he’s right; but I don’t think it’s necessarily the fault of the kids of today, whoever they are.

And it’s not exactly as if Coffey sells the league to them, either.

“The changing facilities aren’t what they used to be,” he says. “I think some just don’t fancy it. It used to be a rite of passage for a young player but not any more.

“They don’t like it when they get cleaned out by a strapping centre-half in his 30s or 40s.

“We’re trying to get the referees to protect the kids a bit more, but it doesn’t seem to make any difference.”

It’s there, Dave! The answer’s right there! It’s there, in what you said! I think what has happened is this: When your strapping centre-half in his 30s or 40s has “cleaned out” one of the kids of today, said youngster has picked himself up, checked he is still attached to all of his limbs, and thought: “Bugger this for a game of soldiers, I’m off home to play Championship Manager.”

You see, there are people who want to play football professionally. They work hard, take the game seriously, look after themselves and – if they are lucky – achieve their dream. Then there are those who want to play football for fun. They may not be very good, but they get a group of mates together for a kickabout and have a laugh. Many of them will play in amateur leagues too.

And then there are people who want to play football as an excuse to bawl and shout and kick people without getting arrested. One or two of these people might, through having a bit of ability too, get to play professionally. The rest populate Sunday league football pitches like dog turds.

Two stories. First: A friend of mine played football in an amateur league (not the Altrincham and District League, I should stress). Before one away match, they turned up to find broken glass scattered up the touchlines. My friend asked if there was any chance of it getting cleared up. “No,” came the reply from a representative of the home club. “It’s to stop you lot making sliding tackles. We know it’s there. How you handle it is up to you.”

Second: Peter Spencer, the sports editor of the Manchester Evening News, is a qualified referee. Two years ago, he was punched to the ground by a player he was about to send off in a Lancashire and Cheshire League game.

This was an extreme case, and all amateur leagues have worked hard, with the backing of the FA’s Respect campaign, to improve discipline.

Nonetheless, I can completely understand why, given the choice between a Sunday-morning ‘rite of passage’ and a game of five-a-side with a few mates or an hour on the Xbox, amateur leagues are losing the vote.

Roger Reade, chairman of the Manchester FA, recognises this, telling the M.E.N: “There’s a changing culture among young men. The FA are addressing these issues. We’ve got one or two ideas.”

For the sake of the Altrincham and District League, I hope they’re good ones.

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