Yesterday I was linesman for my son’s under-17 football team. Today, I chaired a seminar on the RSA’s Connected Communities project. What’s the link?
One of the ideas behind Connected Communities is that regeneration strategies in deprived communities should start not by creating new state-sponsored capacity, but by understanding existing capacity and exploring how it could be enhanced. This is why we are spending the first few months of the project looking at the understanding of people in our research areas of existing organisational and interpersonal networks. One question is whether, if the community understood the existing pattern of networks better, would it be more able to make new connections and spot and address gaps? If people are already doing good things in their community, can they be encouraged and supported to extend their mandate?
Being linesman for an under 17s game is no fun. Many of the players and parents are fine but far too many are not. Being called a ‘f…g cheat’ by a sixteen year old boy who doesn’t like an offside decision is bad enough, but when the parents and coaches join in you really do wonder why you bother. Each Sunday now it feels like the whole match could kick off, with insults, fights and even death threats being bandied about (I’ve seen all three and the season is less than a month old). Yet this very volatility underlines what a lifeline organised football is for these kids. Without it where would the energy of fit, aggressive young men (many of whom clearly have huge issues with authority) be channelled?
As I stood yesterday weighing up whether to report the boy to the ref - which might provoke a riot - or put up with it, I wondered why more couldn’t be put into designing the context for the match. Three simple measures could make all the difference:
1. Players could be banned from making comments directly to officials, having instead to channel them through the team captain.
2. Parents could be banned from making any audible negative comment about any official or player (including their own team and their own child).
3. More radically, the two teams could be required to come into a mixed huddle before every match for a five minute conversation in which two or three players from each team are required to talk about what the game means to them and how committed they are to it being played in the right spirit.
It is really tough running a football team, particularly with challenging kids. With the pitch fees, the ref’s fee, the kits, hiring somewhere to practise, transport etc the costs rise all the time. It’s especially hard in the inner city where there is less space for pitches (I won’t be holding my breath for help from Boris Johnson’s invisible sporting participation plan!). And as the kids get older, as they get harder to organise and as their parents tend to opt out of responsibility, most teams seem close to folding, and many do. So, I admire all the adults who give their time to organise youngsters’ football. But just as the saying goes ‘if you want something done ask someone who’s already busy’ so I wish we could squeeze even more out of this commitment, building a culture around the game which meant young people learnt a bit of character alongside the ball skills.
The voluntary sector has stepped up and worked together during the crisis. For the challenges ahead, it needs to make decision making more democratic.