BY DAN DAVISON
Jim Harris cuts a lonesome figure at Hartecote recreation park. It’s 8:45 AM and. most of the nation are still in bed. Rain is lashing down like mini-javelins and shows no signs of relenting. The occasional dog-walker can be spotted marching across the adjacent path – but they’re few and far between. With a resigned sigh, Jim continues walking forwards in as straight a line as possible in a desperate attempt to turn the lines that mark the football pitch from invisible to barely visible.
Jim is the manager of Hartecote Under 12s and today marks the visit of local side Pilleram United in the Hertfordshire Under 12s D League. Kick-off is not until 11am, but Jim has been there since 8am in a desperate attempt to get the game on. Jim briefly pauses at the halfway line, imagining being at home with his wife Sandra watching Sunday Brunch with a cup of tea in bed. But then he remembers his son, Jack, his entire reason for putting himself through this shit every week.
The truth is Jim doesn’t even really like football that much. Not to the extent his son does anyway. But his love for his only son gave him a sense of duty. And, more to the point, none of the other parents were willing to put in the hours. Two hours a week for training and a match EVERY weekend. Home matches in particular require hours of setting up and preparation beforehand. Then there was the liaising with other managers over the phone.Organising lift-sharing for away matches amongst the parents. Attending club general meetings in the Hartecote town hall. But, ultimately, Jim is happy to do all this for his son – enjoying himself with his pals on a Sunday morning gives Jim unlimited amounts of happiness. Jim is putting up with all this shit for the benefit of him, and by extension the 15 other boys who play for Hartecote Under 12s.
Youth coaches are the unsung heroes of football. Whether professionals working in an academy or volunteers alike – what they do for our boys and girls is invaluable. The game simply wouldn’t exist without them. David Beckham has often in interviews described his relationship with legendary Class of ‘92 youth coach Eric Harrison as being ‘like a second father’. This is a relationship many of us can relate to. Whether we played for Manchester United like Becks or a just a local amateur youth team like Jim’s son, it’s every boy’s dream to become a professional footballer and their manager holds the keys to that dream. As a kid, you respect them and perhaps even idolise them.
With that comes a sense of responsibility. In recent months, we have read about the horrifying and predatory nature in which former Crewe Alexandra employee Barry Bennell took advantage of young boys in his duty of care and subjected them to horrific levels of sexual and emotional abuse. These crimes have rocked the British footballing world and raised real questions about duty of care and stricter guidelines for working with children.
But the truth is that Barry Bennell is an ugly, disgusting devil amongst a colossal sea of angels. His crimes are totally unforgivable and utterly despicable. But the rest of youth football coaching should not have to be tarred with the same brush as such an evil man. 99.9% of youth coaches are coaches of entirely selfless reasons. The vast majority are volunteers, but even those at professional clubs aren’t going to be buying Bentleys any time soon. There are those who do it for their love of the game and there are those, such as Jim’s dad, who did for their love of their child. Both are noble motives.
Sure, you get the odd wanker. A guy who think he’s he the next Pep Guardiola, insisting his Under 7s play their own unique brand of tiki-taka. Or worse, the guy who shouts “JUST FUCKING GET RID” at his terrified young right-back who dared to take a touch and look up. These are a tiny minority though, and thankfully restricted mostly to park football. In academies, you see the same professionalism with the Under 14s that you see on your TVs in the Premier League at the weekend. These guys are trained, not just in how to coach football but in how to handle children.
Child protection is undoubtedly a huge issue in youth football and it is now a government requirement in the UK for any prospective youth coach at any level to have a criminal background check and obtain a safeguarding certificate – just as it is in any job involving children. Big strides are being taken in the right direction but as the Barry Bennell situation highlighted, more can be done.
Football is such a huge part of the lives of these young boys and girls. Any abuse from a coach or adult, whether it is of a sexual or physical nature or ‘merely’ verbal could lead to lifelong scarring. Football is a huge part of all of our lives but, ultimately, it is just a game. Even in academies, all activities and sessions should be geared around enjoyment up until a certain age. Therefore, it is important that the coaches understand this and have the skills required to be a fun presence around children as much as the ability to coach football.
And most do. The vast, vast majority of youth football coaches do an excellent job. They go above and beyond their remit to deliver the best possible sessions and have a fantastic rapport and understanding with their players/kids. Like every profession though, occasionally there is a bad egg. Barry Bennell was more than that, he was a total monster responsible for ruining countless lives.
Bennell, thankfully, is an anomaly. The actions of one man, however predatory and grotesque, should not undermine an entire profession. And there are few professions I admire as much as those who coach the sport I love, to the next generation of football-lovers.
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