This weekend, my son’s football coach stepped down from his role, after nine years of sweaty training, interlocking of goalposts, and sending of WhatsApp messages.
We’ve had a roller-coaster of a ride with Phil. The heroic comeback from 3-0 down in a cup quarter final prompting Phil to run Mourinho-like along the touchline screaming for joy. The tour to Portugal whose intensity almost led to a major diplomatic incident. Or being seriously worried for his safety when an opposing parent told him to ‘get to the car park now’ after Phil had ‘lost his cool’ with his son.
Things are never dull with Phil around.
Phil is a doer, motivated by a deep commitment to his family, to his community and to his work. He is typical of so many who give up their time so freely. His departure does not mean he is hanging up his boots, or his linesman’s flag. Far from it. Rather it’s because he needs to dedicate himself more to rugby coaching, also a big sport in the St Helens side of Merseyside.
And rugby, of the league variety at least, is now a bonafide spring and summer sport. Because of appalling facilities and the vagaries of the British weather, it is highly likely that football, of the amateur variety, will follow this lead. This season, no games were played during November, December, January or February. One was played in March but it was on a quagmire –we just needed laced balls, or the keeper in a cloth cap, to add extra retro authenticity. As a result, there is an almighty backlog to be picked up in April, May and June, in addition to a variety of summer tournaments and, hopefully, cup finals.
All very well you may ask? Seems quite sensible? Yes, but not if you are a cricketer.
Cricket is a unique sport, and we are in danger of destroying it for many, if not most, young people. By the time boys (and increasingly girls) have completed the winter sport seasons, we are down to one month for the cricket. So why bother?
But cricket gives a different set of skills and experiences. It’s a team game, yet places the individual in extremely lonely positions, challenging one’s nerve. Cricket demands patience and tactical acumen. It places young teenagers together with experienced veterans, offering many chances for coaching and mentoring. Until the Australians took it too far, the game is peppered with gentle humour and wit, vital for developing emotional intelligence. Due to its length (even a 20:20 game takes three hours) you can get to spend time with your team-mates, and even the opposition, by the time you leave for the evening. There are numerous other benefits, discussed in erudite literature from C.L.R James to E.W Swanton. It is a unique part of our country’s heritage.
My late uncle, John F X Harriott, called the game ‘the fifth Gospel’, and it does indeed provide some of those ‘awe and wonder’ moments that bring true fulfilment to a life.
And it’s in danger. With no young people coming through, clubs will struggle to field a second team, never mind a third team. Increasingly, clubs will survive only in affluent areas, where money can seduce the mercenary sportsman to don their whites.
This concern transfers to schools, where poor facilities, added to an obsession with core-subject examination results, leave most state schools guilty of providing pitiful exposure to sports such as cricket, tennis and hockey. My school hasn’t even got any grass, for goodness sake. To mitigate against this, we at least do try and link pupils with local clubs, and here provides some grounds for optimism.*
It is possible to reverse this trend, because of people like Phil, and if school leaders reach out to them. The likes of Phil would champion such developments and throw their weight behind them, as would a whole host of club members, stalwarts and semi-professionals.
HG Wells said that ‘Civilisation is a race between education and catastrophe’, which may be a little dramatic when applied to sport. But I think it really would be a catastrophe if we were to deprive all but the most advantaged young people of access to summer sports such as cricket. It follows a worrying trend that sees a narrowing of the curriculum, one that ignores the latent potential of large groups of children.
So thanks for everything Phil, and good luck with the rugby.
*As a footnote, and one that I would not dream of taking any credit for, an ex-pupil Peter McGrail, is coming home from the Commonwealth Games with a gold medal in boxing. To my knowledge, we neither offered Peter boxing classes, nor signposted him to the local (and brilliant) Rotunda gym.
But it still shows you what is possible if we can offer young people a wide variety of sporting opportunities. Enjoy the moment, Peter.