In 2008 the club needed a coach for the division 6 team. This was a challenge in our home. My son was not keen on dropping from 4th to 6th. I was very happy that the core of the 2007 team was spread between division 1, 2 and 3. My main role in this was encouragement and pointing out talent.
At the start there was a team below. However, with reshuffles and kids leaving the club plus injuries, the teams were merged and some of the stronger players moved up. This was a massive break for me as the coach of the team below was a very experienced and talented coach. Each training session we would split the team in two and give the players, some had had very little experience, lots of attention. Again my focus was on encouragement and advice. It wasn't hugely sophisticated. Things like 'when you are trying to convince an adult about something, look in their eyes - don't look down.'
Football Brisbane set up trial matches. I think this was an attempt to stamp out the division stacking that allowed strong teams to be placed in low divisions to boost a club's trophy cabinet. We certainly were found out the hard way. We go thrashed in all our trial matches. After one memorable 0-10 loss the teams cheered each other and I thanked their coach for a good game. With a Scottish accent he said, 'Good game? No this was a great game.' Without thinking I replied 'You wanker.' I regretted that. But he was far too happy to care. After the 5th goal his players had been doing cartwheels and their parents were screaming with joy. Imagine our luck playing a team - all with the potential becoming socceroos for 2010. My focus was on keeping our players focused on what they were doing.
In the last trial match we played another team who were getting whooped in every game. We were one short. They borrowed players. While we went 1-0 up off the kick-off, their borrowed players got cracking and they won by about 8 goals. Something they would regret as they stayed in the 6th division and lost every game.
Borrowing players is an amazing concept that I hadn't considered much before. For some clubs, particularly small ones with only one team per age group, the idea is have 3 to 4 above average players (who in other clubs could be division 1) and play them in a low division in their age group and in the lowest division in the next age group.
For the season opening we when down to division 7. Few players appreciated this move. I thought it would make the games more even. We would play 5 teams 3 times. We were scoring but because we were getting beaten players weren't celebrating. We had a great training session where we rewarded the most outrageous celebration. The next game was closer still.
We lost the first 3 games. But they were narrow loses. My focus was on helping the team to win one game. Some players had never been in a winning team. I wanted to change that. However, the main game was still on each players skills and their on-field relationships with each other and decision making. One method was a drill with 5 players in a diamond, the six player runs with the ball to each spot on the diamond - there must be a call and response and then a pass and return pass. Soon we saw this happening on the field.
The other coach got the better players passing, running and shooting. I got the others calling, marking and tackling and shooting. Everyone got better.
Then we won a game 9-0. Our team knew what being beaten like this was like. So there weren't celebrations. From me at the end, it was 'remember this for the next game but also when it gets hard at home and school.'
Then I experienced one of the most unfortunate games I have been involved in. It does have its comic side. Nothing to do with the players or coaches. One of their parents was rough 'punch him in the face next time.' But it was the ref. I introduced myself before the game. He was standing there farting loudly. He was mid to late 50s, tall and over weight. 'A hard night?' Little did I know he was about to dominate the game and send my son off (the youngest player I have ever seen sent off - if fact I don't recall seeing two yellows issues in 10 seconds in a junior game). The FFA is desperate to keep refs. Parent and coaches hack into them. At our level they are usually in the first seasons and many are around 15 years old. Therefore my focus is on encouraging my players to play to the whistle and accept ref decisions no matter what they are. And I thank them after the game. Not this time. We were playing the top team. They lost one game in the season. Their home results were exceptional. Talk about a fortress. Narrow wins and draws away where in contrast to massive wins at home. Most grounds have lots of refs who share the task with their assistants, you get the same ref 2 times a season. Not this club. Virtually all their home games are refed by one middle aged man without official assistants. The first thing we heard was the ref telling their players where to stand, particularly to get our players offside. For a coach who doesn't tell his players what to do on match day - this was galling. Then their keeper ran at and took out my son who was on-goal. Play-on. I had to carry my son off, he went back on after 5 minutes. Normally my son could take this but we had been burgled the night before and he was wound up. And we only had 10 players. One of their team's under-age players ran into my son (who had the ball) and was taken off. What was that free kick for? But the home parents were into it, 'punch him in the face', 'get him off ref'. Next thing their biggest player runs straight into the back of my son, 'play on' says the ref - my son went off - 'Right, I've had enough a yellow for you', my son ran from the field he knows cheating when he sees it, 'Right here is your other one and a red.' He had run right up to stand face-to-face with me. That is what got me the most, here was a 55 year old man enjoying sending off a child. With 9 players we had no chance. They beat us by about 5.
The next round of games we drew 3, and lost 2. The loss was to the same 'champion' team. At home we went behind to an own goal before half time and loss 1-3. There were 3 refs and they did a great job.
In the final round of games we won 4 and lost 1. It was the last game and away to the champion team, the local ref who proudly told our manager that our team had 'better behave' as he had sent a player off from the previous game. I hate this type of bullying. My son scored first and he did a short robot dance. I think it is important to celebrate but not a lot. This was an exception. Just before half time one of their players dispossessed one of our defenders by ramming him from behind. Play on and he scored. In the second half all decisions went their way. 1-6.
We had done enough to make the finals. Football Brisbane put out an edict to all clubs. Players could only be borrowed for the finals if they play for a team in a lower division irrespective of the age group (as long as it was younger). This was going to be interesting as the team we were to play only had 9 official players and every week borrowed 2 from the division 4 team in the age below. They were cheesed, but we got them to fill in the Football Brisbane paper work and the game went on with their borrowed players. As expected these players dominated their team. They went 2 up but we equalised in the second half. Extra time then penalty kicks. Their manager complained that this wasn't the way to decide a football game. But I was happy, they couldn't beat us in normal time. Their borrowed players took their first two kicks and scored. Our first two missed. And they went through to the finals. Football Brisbane relented on their decision re borrowed players which seems hard on every team that could have but didn't use them. But it is hard to make tough decisions in community sports.
Our team had learnt how to win. But more importantly they had done it themselves without a coach telling them what to do all the time. Hopefully they will carry this through to their lives and football will have done its real job - which isn't creating the next Harry Kewell.
The punch line for me? I was joint winner of coach of the season as voted by players and parents. My highest honour to date ;).