When the park comes alive

THERE’S A SPECIAL moment in mid-February when the grass at our local park is so smooth, tended so carefully, that it’s almost like a skating rink. Well watered, well fed, well mown. The park has been empty most of the summer, but that day, when the park comes alive, you know winter is coming – such as winter is in Sydney – and winter means football. Not professional football with its million-dollar packages and broadcast rights. Not football as something you watch. Football as it’s meant to be. Football as something you do.

Each winter, there will be close to two thousand children, teenagers and adults playing on this park for our local club. I’ve been here as a coach for our team, first when they were under-6s and then as the kids have grown year by year into the 7s, 8s, 9s, 10s and 11s.

I’m not sectarian about football. I can watch and appreciate just about any game of any code. But there’s nothing like watching the children I coach. I’ll see Conor (these aren’t their real names) slice the ball through the defensive line to pick up Matthew coming across from the wing. Or Eddie pass to Lewis, run into space and take the return pass, creating the gap. Or Charlie at left back steal the ball off the feet of the opposing striker and drive it up the line to Marco. All of them doing magical things that they never knew they could do.

Watching them play, walking up and down the sideline shouting out instructions, suggestions and support, that’s the highlight of my week. You can have your Fantasy Football. I’ll take this for real life any winter.

THE GRASS IN our park is rooted in the grey sandy loam of the area. ‘Botany Grey’, greenkeepers call it – not quite sand, not quite soil. Good for one thing: grass. Most of the dunes that predated the suburb have long been dug up, trucked out and spread around the greens of the city’s golf courses. To the west, they’ve been replaced with brick three-storey public housing whose blind windows wink back at the morning sun and whose shadows creep across the park, reclaiming it for the dark each evening.

Baking under the sun of late summer, this green, an English green really, could not seem more out of place. In Dharug, it’s djaraba – non-Aboriginal. This is djaraba grass, an alien remnant of the meadows nurtured by the Gadigal people – a landscape preserved only in the name given by Captain Cook to the lands of the neighbouring suburb, Banksmeadow, now home to the Orica chemical plant and the warehouses of Port Botany.

Knowing the green, expecting it, is no defence. It still hits you like a slap in the face, gleaming in the midst of the drying heat, the baking asphalt and the dying gardens, hidden away just north of the now-closed cigarette manufacturing plant and the Eastgardens shopping mall, both built on the site of the old Pagewood car plant.

It’s called Jellicoe Park. Could it be more English? Jellicoe was the First Lord of the Admiralty in the Great War, inventor of the convoy that fed Britain. There are Jellicoe parks throughout the residue of Empire: Auckland, New Zealand; Vancouver, Canada and here, in the south-eastern suburbs of Sydney.

The park is shaped as a westward-facing U, fringed with Port Jackson figs – damun in Dharug. Their white flowers are like stray sheets of paper blown around and scattered through the pointed, glossy, bottle-green leaves. They must be over twenty metres tall, creating a wall of cool shadow trapping the air and heat inside the ground. Standing in front of the municipal brown-brick football club change rooms and canteen that lie at the bottom of the U, you can see the stripes cut into the lawn by the ride-on mower stretching away, up and back, up and back, up and back. Breathe in and you can smell the newly mown grass.

Walk past the park in high summer, or sit on the wooden benches under the trees and the aperture of the U, that empty space inside the lines, is bare save the slight haze that seems to speak of the grass photosynthesising, pushing out its rhizomes, pushing down its roots, growing sideways to avoid the mower.

If you’re there late afternoon, when the bore-fed sprinklers come on, the westering sun treats you to the smallest of rainbows.

That’s where summer leaves us the park, for this moment when it comes alive. The glow of the green, the smell of the grass and the heat, the squealing of birds in the trees: the first day in February of football training for the Pagewood Botany Football Club.

THERE’S BEEN THE warning signs. Registrations start in late January. The committee members sort the needs for the season. Parents come back to enrol their children.

Our team has been together now into its seventh season. About half come from the Catholic school to the north-east of the ground and half from one of the public schools to the south-west, with one or two from round about, giving a squad of ten to twelve from year to year. Each season, one or two kids have come or gone, but the core of the team has been constant.

The children bring an energy that’s hard to constrain. Here, at the start of the season, they’ll be like hundreds of others at the ground, wearing shirts of the big English, Italian, Spanish or German clubs. Or still in their school uniform, or in their playing shirts from last season. Often in new boots for newly grown feet, and the shin pads the club insists they wear for training and play. We’ll claim a space, preferably with goal posts, and that becomes our training space for the season. As coaches we – that’s me and two of the other fathers – begin the work of seeing what skills they remember from last year, what they need to work on, what they need to learn.

Our team aren’t stars. But that’s not the point. Some are better than others. Some are stronger at one skill than another. Others bring an understanding of the game to balance a skill weakness. There are hundreds of thousands of kids playing football. You want them to be the best they can and you want them to love the game and love playing the playing of it. None of them are going to be professional. Here at season’s beginning, we’ll see Jack has a stronger kick than last season, or Nathan is using too much of his toe or there’s a new player who has a nice step, but hangs back from tackles. They train against their weaknesses and to build their strengths.

Our own sons are in the team, of course. Our greatest secret fear, admitted only to each other, is not that we’ll be biased towards them, but that we’ll bend back too far and give them less attention than they need, that they’ll tend to be the first player replaced each game.

Training space is limited. It’s a small ground, but a big club.

That U fits about three full sized fields, with little spare space between for parents and friends as spectators. Each Saturday, they cut and recut those fields into eighths for the under-6s and under-7s, thirds for the 8s and 9s, halves and three-quarters for the 10s, 11s and 12s. Full size only for the teenagers and adults. Once the season starts in March, on any given Saturday close to two thousand players – four thousand feet – will tear at the grass in their boots and studs. On Sundays, the grass endures it again for the all-girls’ teams and, occasionally, for the visiting Jewish teams that can’t play on the Saturday.

Monday to Friday, those same feet, still booted and studded, tear at the grass with enthusiasm and reluctance in equal measure for training.

Despite the limitations of the park, the club has grown and claims to be the largest sporting club in Sydney’s Eastern Suburbs and the fourth largest soccer club in Australia. In 2015, it had 1,874 players, and expects to recruit more. This gives the club the resources to manage their players and to provide coaching, training and support to all the fathers and mothers who manage and train the individual teams.

In any given age group, there can be twenty teams within the one club. Most of the season, we play each other on our own park. Occasionally, we play away: at the other major Eastern Suburbs club at Queens Park up to the north, where the parking is hard of a Saturday; or at the other long-term clubs in the area – Mascot to the west, Maroubra to the east, or, a couple of times a year, Maccabi on a Sunday. For the children, I learn a new word in Australian English. We don’t play against a team, we ‘verse’ a team.

The small-sided game is non-competitive, not in in the game itself, but in the sense that no points are recorded. There’s no table. No finals. No promotion or relegation. The club tracks the scores, but only to ensure that teams are matched. The club claims some secret algorithm it uses to ensure that teams are challenged. Some years, we’ll start winning comfortably 3-0, 5-0, 4-1…and then 1-1, 1-2 and sometimes even the magic that only a soccer tragic could enjoy, nil all!

Our team, our regime of Saturday games and Wednesday training has come off the back of the embrace of what’s called ‘the small-sided game’. Over the past decade, this game has transformed youth soccer. Now, just about all Australian clubs are required to play in the format up to age eleven or twelve.

‘Small-sided’ is what the name implies – small sides on small fields, giving all the players space and opportunity.

YOU’LL HAVE NOTICED that I use the terms ‘soccer’ and ‘football’ interchangeably. I’m not a purist in this. The demand that soccer loyalists reserve ‘football’ for the round-ball game is a recent phenomenon. ‘Soccer’ comes from late nineteenth-century England, as a slangy abbreviation of as-soc-iation with the suffix ‘-er’ as in ‘do-er’, perhaps as slang for someone who played Association Football and, by derivation, the game itself.

In my youth, I used to wait for the long-delayed copies of English soccer magazines, which prided themselves on names like Soccer Weekly. They’d come into our local newsagent from England months after publication and, along with the highlights program Match of the Day, were the only links to the game outside our own Saturday competitions. We all had our own English teams that we’d know all about, although rarely see. For reasons that are obscure to me even now, I adopted Tottenham Hotspur. Perhaps it was because my father’s favourite Shakespearean quote was Hotspur’s response to Glendower’s boast: ‘I can call spirits from the vasty deep.’ To which Hotspur replies laconically: ‘Why, so can I, and so can any man; But will they come when you do call for them?’ For reasons of sibling rivalry that are much clearer to me, my brother then adopted Arsenal. He argues it the other way around. He adopted Arsenal because he played in a team with the Gunners’ colours and that it was me who was motivated by sibling rivalry to adopt their arch rivals Tottenham.

So it was ‘soccer’ from an early age for me. The etymology of ‘football’ is itself in doubt. Does it mean a game played with the foot or a game played on foot, that is, not by nobles on horseback, but by the sort of peasant or town folk that Shakespeare’s Lear would describe as a ‘base football player’. It’s a line of abuse that always made me think Lear got what was coming to him.

I’ll follow most codes of football, sometimes with an interchangeable passion. So, I’m fine with soccer. And I’m fine with football. I share the view of so many soccer fans that it’s the code that has the most underrated purchase on the Australian psyche and culture. It’s a widely held view that soccer doesn’t rate as a spectator sport, although this orthodoxy is being challenged by the growth of the A-League, the crowds for visiting English teams and support for the Socceroos.

But it has been as a sport that is actually played that soccer has dominated, particularly at the youth level in Australia. The small-sided game has, according to anecdotal evidence from clubs, intensified the experience of participation and kept players in the game for longer. According to the most recent Australian Bureau of Statistics figures, about 387,000 children aged five to fourteen play organised soccer over a twelve-month period, more combined than the other more professionally dominant Australian football codes – AFL, rugby league and rugby union.

Increasingly, it’s a game for girls as well as boys. Some teams at the junior level are mixed. Our team has usually been all boys, although we did have a girl for one season. I watch the girls compete and often as not they’re the best players in their team. At the professional level, women players are fighting for the right of equal treatment. I watch women play and wonder: Could soccer be the first sport to be fully gender integrated?

THE DAY, THEN, that the season starts, the colours, the smells, the sounds of our small suburban park mean joy and hope: joy in all the seasons past and hope for a season not yet started, with all the promises not yet bent and twisted by the hard realities of the week-to-week wins and losses of the game.

It can be hard to see through the appearance of utter chaos of parents talking, asking, trying to work out where they should be and children running and screaming, chasing down friends not seen since last season – or not seen since an hour before at school – all being sorted by the club committee into the order of teams, coaches and managers.

The concept of the small-sided game is built on one of the oldest fault lines in sport: the tension between individual skills and teamwork, the sense that the whole is so much greater than the sum of the parts. In all football now, this means breaking down a defence by passing the ball.

It seems so simple, but there are competing, and inevitably politicised, claims about the origins of passing – the essence of teamwork – in football. Was it a military response, developed by the Royal Engineers army corps? Or did it come from the northern English working-class teams as a sporting expression of working class solidarity? Notoriously, The Times fulminated against the unsporting nature of the use of teamwork to trump individual skill when, in the 1883 FA Cup final, working-class Blackburn Olympic defeated the exquisitely named Old Etonians 2-1. It was not the first – nor would it be the last – time that The Times thundered against working class solidarity, so I’m prepared to assume that they knew it when they saw it.

Anyone who played – or has had children who played – soccer as a six- or seven- or eight-year-old in the days before the small-sided game will remember what it was like. Six or seven kids from either side, running around the field like a swarm of bees all trying to get into the same flower. The teams looked like a tadpole with the fastest kids up front and the slowest trailing back in the tail, with the bulk rounding up the numbers in between, getting an occasional tap of the ball. As they’d age, coaches could successfully splinter off a couple of defenders and maybe a striker to reduce the size of the tadpole. By the time they were of an age that positional play started to make sense, they’d be on a full-sized field – lost in its vastness.

In the 1970s, the Dutch transformed soccer with totaalvoetbal (Total Football), the idea that any player (other than the goalkeeper) could fill any position, enabling the team to disrupt defences as players moved with a seeming randomness across the park. Aesthetically, totaalvoetbal sounds Teutonic, almost fascistic. Yet it was a creative counter to the dead end of defensive man-on-man marking of the more glamorous-sounding Italian catenaccio, with its libero. In Italian, it sounds much more romantic than the prosaic, trades-like English translation of a dead-bolt defence with a sweeper holding the key.

Total Football was a revolution; its master, Johan Cruyff, was mourned throughout the football world after his death in March. The Dutch became a world football power and evangelised the game, although there were almost twenty lost years before the Australian game truly caught up by abandoning English coaches for Dutch.

Kids’ football as it used to be, with everyone chasing after the ball at the same time, was perhaps a form of total football, but almost certainly not what Johan Cruyff intended. It filled in time, but the core skills of football were picked up more by accident than by the actual doing of it.

The small-sided game, instead, is built on the self-obvious: children are not playing the adult game on a small scale. As a coach, we try to build core skills through drills, two or three each session, repeated and mixed up – kicking long and short, passing, running with the ball, coupled with critical spatial awareness. The kids endure the drills, hanging on for a small game at the end of all those drills to test what they’ve learned.

THE SUCCESS OF the team – and the success of the club – is built on volunteers. Our team has me and two of the other fathers as co-coaches, along with two as co-managers. Multiply those numbers by the number of teams in the club and there are hundreds of people putting in three, four, five or more hours a week to make it work.

Like most teams, we train mid-week on a Wednesday. It’s late afternoon when we start in February. By autumn, it’s turning to early evening and twilight.

If it’s been a hot summer, the black cockatoos, glossy and sleek, with a touch of red to their tail, will have fled to the coast like squatters moving to the beach for the season. The Gadigal people call them garmit, onomatopoeia for their cry. In the late afternoon they come back to the figs to roost, arguing with the daytime tenants, the fruit bats. The contesting squeaks and screeches float over the prepubescent cries of the players and the deeper-voiced commands of the coaches as the players practice their dribbling in relays through cones, fast and slow, up and back.

As winter closes in, you can watch the sun sinking while the players work their pass-and-chase drill – push the ball down the line of a triangle, chasing towards the receiver, trying to trap them before they get the chance to pass to the next corner and chase in turn. In the depths of winter, it’s dark by the second or third drill and we rely on the floodlights. The drills need to be faster now, to keep them warm, maybe five on five running, chasing space to maintain possession for five passes.

On a Saturday we see how they’ve gone with games designed for their age, not the rules of the adult game. In the under-6s and 7s, the children play four on four, with no set positions on a field about thirty by twenty metres. You can fit somewhere between eight and ten of these fields in a normal field. The goals are nets about 2.5 meters by one tall. Half a team will play half of another team for twenty minutes and then the two half teams swap and play the other half of the other team.

For the under-8s and 9s, the field grows to somewhere between a third and a half the size of an adult field with fixed goals. The players start to develop positions, although only in the most general sense. There’s a goalkeeper and a crude sort of 2-2-2 or 2-3-1 style, six on six in the outfield. Despite the coach’s best efforts, there’s still a fair taste of kids’ style total football about it, as they chase after the ball.

It’s only as they start to pass the ball that you can see the light go on inside them, realising the power that passing gives them. Too often, by the next week they’ve forgotten again. Then a week or so later, you’ll see the light go again until, almost unexpectedly, it’s part of their game.

From ages ten to twelve, the field is about half to three-quarter size and they play eight on eight plus a keeper. Even that feels too big for them at times. But now a passing game is critical and they’ve got the skills to make it work. There’s a natural mimicry in them and the more one of them plays passing, the more they all do.

AT THE OFFICIAL level, this focus on passing is about shaping soccer in Australia after the Spanish game, the twenty-first-century successor of total football: tiki-taka. Perhaps it’s a linguistic metaphor to capture the quick, short passing of the ball from player to player in space. Perhaps it’s from the Spanish word for a clacker waved by supporters.

If the first question in all football is individual or team?, tiki-taka answers the second question: possession or territory? Tiki-taka says possession. You play the ball out from the defence or keeper by short push-and-run passes – push the ball to a player, then run into space for the option of the return pass, then do it again with a third player. Now tiki-taka is being paired with the pressing (or pressure) game, an aggressive defence that continually harries the ball carrier by boxing them into increasingly small and unplayable spaces. It’s a joy to play and to watch, equal parts skill and intellect.

It’s not unbeatable, of course. Underdogs Leicester City won the Premier League this year playing almost anti-football: giving away possession, relying on packed defence and break-away attacks to score.

For kids – and for our kids – there’s a naturalness to pressing. They’re reluctant to leave the ball alone. They want it, although they struggle to tackle and to beat tackles. That’s a hard skill to teach. Some of the players pull back, fearful of contact. Others push in too hard, a danger to themselves and to others.

It’s a hard discipline. Individual skills encourage players to try to do it all themselves: to beat one player, then another, then a tackle too far. They’re beaten and lose the ball. Over the course of two or three games, they’ll take two steps forward and one back. Yet in the small-sided game the players touch the ball more, are engaged more and, most importantly for the gratification it gives, score more goals.

I played soccer for over a decade until my early twenties. I scored one goal.

I was a goalkeeper from age twelve. So were my three brothers. On a wall in her house, my mother has a clipping from the old Sydney Sun of the four of us in keeper’s gear under the heading: ‘There’s no getting past this family.’ If only that were true. There’s no lonelier position in team sport. Different rules – hands and feet. Different kit. Nowhere to hide. I never really wanted to play anywhere else.

One season, I played a handful of games up front. During one game, our centre-half brought the ball out of midfield with a high-stepping gait, tapping the ball ahead of him, running a diagonal line from left field to right, dragging the defensive line across with him. I ran a straight line into the gap to the right hand corner of the box. The centre-half stopped, shaped left and pushed the ball to the right in front of me. It bounced awkwardly on the uneven surface then landed perfectly for a right-foot drive into the corner of the goal. The other keeper was quick, but not quick enough. He just got his fingers to the ball, not enough to nudge it around the post.

So that was my only goal. And I still feel for the keeper. His line of sight must have been blocked by his defenders. The next week I was back home, between the posts.

ALBERT CAMUS WAS a goalkeeper. I like to think that only a goalkeeper would have said as he did: ‘All that I know most surely about morality and obligations I owe to football.’

In the small-sided game, the offside rule shapes the major moral obligation for the players. It shapes the game by requiring attacking players to have at least two defenders between them and the goal when a ball is passed to them. It’s what compresses play and encourages passing. It’s been part of soccer since the Football Association standardised rules in the 1860s.

In the small-sided game, there is no offside rule (too hard to enforce) but there is a moral obligation not to take advantage of this. So often I’ll see Camus’ sense of the moral obligation of sport played out in the outrage and disbelief of our players when their opponents ignore what our players see as a moral duty.

There’s a moral obligation on us as coaches too: give every kid an equal go. Of course, as a coach, you like to see them win. But the high point is seeing each of them play above themselves, take themselves to a new level. It’s hoping that by season’s end they’ll be better players than they are when the season starts.

And by season’s end, come August, there won’t be much of the grass left on the park. The sandy soil drains the winter rains quickly, but the dirt turns to mud and grit in the goalmouths and centre circle. The scuffing and divots have given an irregularity to the surface that has challenged the best of the players.

It will be another spring and summer to see the park resurface, gleaming green again, ready for the next winter, ready for the next four thousand boots.

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