Wednesday 13 December 2017

The Fielder: Cold shoulder opens door to league success

Photo: Ramsey Cardy / SPORTSFILE
Photo: Ramsey Cardy / SPORTSFILE

The Fielder

When myself and two team-mates took charge of the club's under 14 boys this year we had big plans. Unfortunately, our first training session brought us back down to earth in a big way. Eleven lads showed up and the hardest part was settling them down. Like little girls, they giggled and laughed, ignoring us as we tried to explain complicated drills and plays to them. It was like letting a group of calves out of the shed for the first time – total pandemonium.

Frustration crept in as countless balls flew in every direction. The innocent young ears were blackened with profanities as the three of us shouted every cuss word under the sun. As the first water break came, a staff meeting was called. Perhaps we'd aimed too high. A quick reshuffle to a more simple layout and a false promise that "the seniors couldn't even manage this one" seemed to do the trick. Eureka. All they needed was a challenge and the response was rapid.

That got me thinking. Training was fine but how could I make them react like this in games. Another eureka moment ensued. Before every game I would write three statements up on the whiteboard.

'Off the Shoulder'. Our friendly matches had taught us that we were a pacey, running team. Therefore if our lads learned to come flying off the shoulder, not unlike rugby teams, we could create overlaps and pillage the opposition's onion bag repeatedly. We banged in 29 goals in four pre-season friendlies. Take your points, me hole.

'Set Standards'. A bit wishy-washy, but basically I wanted each player to be critical of his own performance and eventually aim to hit a self-defined peak in every game. They were probably a bit green for it, but it would stand to them in the future.

'Tackles'. This was the secret weapon, the ace in the pack, the cherry on the cake, the sugary bit at the end of a cup of tea. We knew there wasn't a lot between the teams in our division. Champagne football wasn't going to guarantee victories. It was down to work rate. But how do you transform stroppy, hormonal adolescents into hard-working, honest footballers? By robbing one of the furry dice from your sister's rear-view mirror that's how.

I quickly promoted one of my assistants to Head Stats Man and asked him to put a little 'T' beside a player's name each time he tackled or made a decent attempt at a tackle during a game. At the end the player with the fewest tackles had to toss the "Dice of Death".

Rolling a one meant you had to wear a swimming hat and goggles in the next training session. Should a two appear then biscuits for the whole team (and plenty of them) had to be brought to the next training. A three was my personal favourite. The offender had to prank call one of our opposition managers, pretending to be from the county board and tell him they were kicked out of the league for fielding overage players. Those who rolled four were made do a lap of the pitch carrying our 'keeper, a unit of a chap who resembled a fridge in both appearance and stature and subsequently earned that nickname. A five meant you had to clean the top tackler's boots and a six earned you a red arse from the penalty spot; with both players and backroom men getting a pop. This is under review after I nailed our corner-back on the calf and tears flowed like watery slurry.

The reality is that most teams at this age are built around a handful of gifted individuals. We were no different and when our galacticos were in the mood we would slaughter any side. One player in particular was integral to us. We played him at midfield and he was our puppet master. Unfortunately, young Ethan was soccer-mad and played with Home Farm in Dublin. Rather annoyingly, they came first. But playing without him meant forfeiting the result. There was simply no way we could win in his absence. Last month the clash of one of Ethan's soccer matches with our Division 1 league final led me to do something I am not proud of, but I deemed necessary.

I could tell the mood was off in the dressing room before the game. Deep down everyone knew that we had no chance without him. No one would say it but we needn't have togged out at all. However, I had a plan so devilish I didn't even inform my selectors.

As I called out the team there was a sharp intake of breath. I'd named one of our benchwarmers between the posts instead of our stalwart, The Fridge. Heads began to shake and lads began to mumble. Even my backroom men were shocked.

As the ref threw in the ball, I turned to my substitutes and called The Fridge to my side, all 14 stone of him. "Listen Fridgey, I didn't start you because I've got a job for you," I whispered quietly so nobody would hear. "Let's be honest, without Ethan we're not going to win. But, in a few minutes I want you to go on at midfield."

He gasped and his eyes widened. We both knew he was about as mobile as a pile of wet sand.

"Listen Fridge! They don't do back-up referees at this age-group," I added before he could speak. I pointed at the referee, a weedy old fragile-looking chap.

"I want you to go out and accidentally run into that referee as hard as you can . . ."

He looked at me in utter bewilderment and started babbling.

"Feck sake, Fridge. Do you want an under 14 medal?"

He nodded his head.

"Good. If you hit him hard enough he'll be fecked and the game will be postponed. We'll have Ethan for the replay. But you can never tell a living soul about this or we're both fecked!"

He nodded again and I shouted in for a substitution while doing the wiggly finger motion.

Did it work?

Why don't you ask the Division 1 trophy sitting on my mantelpiece?

Ask not what your club can do for you. But what you can do for your club.

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