Filed: Tuesday, 21st February 2017
I hope you'll forgive me, but I'm straying a little off the West Ham garden path this week. Instead I'm going to go back in time a little.
In the summer of 1986, after Diego Maradona had knocked England out of the World Cup, I decided to go to my next football training session wearing an Argentina shirt. If nothing else, that should probably give you an appreciation of the job my parents had to do back in my formative years. In retrospect I don’t really know why I did it, beyond a childish desire to be awkward, nor indeed where I got the shirt in the first place, but wear it I did and with predictable results.
My team was Gidea Park Rangers and, if you’ll excuse the pomposity for a moment, we were a pretty serious outfit. Even at the age of eight we were good, and much better than the under ten Gidea Park team that we trained with. I think it was chastening for the older boys to constantly be made to look silly by the younger group, and so they were never shy of sorting us out. That night, as I waited to do some drill or other I suddenly got hit in the head by about four balls simultaneously thrown by the bigger kids. As my face burned and my eyes watered it occurred to me that maybe my dad had probably been on to something when he said: “Wear it if you want – you’ll learn”, a laissez-faire approach to parenting he would only abandon when I nearly topped myself riding a bike down the side of a ravine a year later in Italy.
But my coach wasn’t having any of that. He pulled the kids out, dressed them down and told them – “You don’t pick on your own team. You show people respect at all times and you don’t turn on your own”. It was a valuable lesson for me of both what it felt like to have someone stand up for you, and the pressure you can place on other people when you’re deliberately being a wind up merchant.
That coach was a gentleman called Steve Cowley and on Saturday his two sons, Danny and Nicky, steered Lincoln City into the quarter finals of the FA Cup.
Certain things get better with age. Fine wine, Swiss watches, Raiders of the Lost Ark and Salma Hayek. But on a more prosaic level, to this list should also be added – “How good middle aged men think they were at sport when they were younger”.
You all know the type. The guy who marked Wayne Rooney as a boy and didn’t think he was all that. The kid who faced Jimmy Anderson and sniffily reckons he faced quicker elsewhere. The bloke who fought Lennox Lewis as an amateur and only lost because he’d been away on holiday the week before. All these men exist somewhere, and are united in their belief that they too could have achieved sporting greatness but for the vagaries of fortune, or their own lack of desire. Pick a pub in Britain and sit at the bar on 9pm on a Friday night. Eventually one will turn up.
I try not to be one of those men, but as I watched Lincoln defeat Burnley on Saturday I couldn't help but bask a little in the reflected glory as Steve’s son and my former team mate, Danny, outwitted Sean Dyche to etch his name into FA Cup folklore. Now, Sean Dyche thinks that all Klopp and Guardiola have done to make their teams better is to encourage them to run further, so maybe outwitting him doesn’t seem like much of an achievement, but it really really is. What the Cowley brothers have done and are doing is both amazing and wonderful. Not that you should need an excuse to cheer for Lincoln, but I can also tell you that the Cowley family are all West Ham fans too.
It should be said that for the first time in 103 years a non-league team has made the FA Cup quarter finals and it’s actually possible that you were largely unaware of their heroics. This is because the BBC have somehow managed to let that happen without broadcasting a single one of their fixtures. They did, however, manage to screen Man Utd v Wigan, which might have been the single most boring 90 minutes of my life, beating even the solitary occasion I agreed to watch a Christmas episode of Call The Midwife. Also the fault of the BBC. Shame on them.
But, I digress.
I first joined Gidea Park Rangers at the age of five. I liked football but had no idea what I was doing, so my mum asked around and Rangers were just up the road from Harold Hill where we lived, and had a good reputation. Some young kid at Arsenal called Tony Adams had played for them a few years before and he hadn’t even been sent to prison yet, so it ticked all the right boxes.
At the first training session someone’s grandfather held a ball up off the ground and encouraged us to run in and try to head it. That was pretty much all we did for most of it, and I was a bit unsure, being five years old and a bit of a fucking know-it-all apparently. My mum and dad, however, encouraged me to go back and so I did. The next session was taken by a tall, dark haired, friendly but brilliant coach by the name of Steve Cowley and my life would never be the same again, not to be too melodramatic (whilst being quite melodramatic) about it.
Suddenly football was fun and exciting. We practiced our turns, our kick ups, our dribbling and our skills, all in the name of playing good football. Steve wanted us to play like West Ham but, you know, be successful. Nobody went long, nobody stuck it in the mixer and we never Pulised anybody.
For the next ten years, we would play in the famous Echo League in Essex and won pretty much everything in our age group, including beating the representative sides of Arsenal and Spurs. The league produced professionals by the boatload. Frank Lampard, Luke Young, Bobby Zamora, John Terry and Paul Konchesky were just some who made it to the Premier League. Plenty made the lower divisions too – less heralded names like Joe Keith, Lee Goodwin, Freddie Sears and Leon Knight. Whenever I hear the phrase “hotbed of British football” applied to the North East of England, I roll my eyes. There is more talent on the most easterly four stops of the District Line than there is in Sunderland and Newcastle combined.
Our best player was a quick footed blonde kid called Mark Gower. He was a brilliant central midfielder who would later go on to play for Spurs, Barnet, Southend and then in the Premier League for Swansea. By the time we reached the age of fourteen the entire squad was signed with professional teams, Mark was playing for England schoolboys and the team was disbanded because of the demands on everyone’s time. Mark went on to be a professional, Danny went on to be manager of Lincoln, and a wiry kid in our midfield by the name of Jeff Brazier went on to present television programmes and appear on the front of Hello! magazine. It sort of puts that time I got retweeted by David Gold into perspective.
I was devastated at the end of it all. As the weakest player in the team I had the most to lose, I suppose, although I still think it’s better to be the worst player on the best team than the other way around. I played for Queens Park Rangers for a bit, but I wasn’t good enough to last and their youth coach was a lunatic, and eventually I drifted on playing Sunday League stuff until one day at twenty six I tore my cruciate ligament and that was the end of that. I had no regrets. I really did try my best to become a professional footballer but I didn’t have the innate talent. It does make it all the more difficult to watch Michael Dawson and know that the same is true of him, but there you go. It’s a funny old business.
None of which is terribly interesting, but it occurred to me recently that I never reflect on that time at all. I just park it in a corner of my mind marked “Childhood football - happy memories” and that’s it. Alongside it sit other unopened mental boxes like “Childhood violin lessons – bad memories”, “Childhood swimming lessons, lost my trousers in the changing room – never speak of it again” or “That time Dad wanted us to go on holiday to Auschwitz – What the fuck was that about?”. It’s only when events come along like Lincoln’s FA Cup run that we look inwards and start to explore those memories, and truly appreciate the impact of certain life events upon us as people.
It’s probably hard to imagine now but back in 1987, Britain was run by an unfeeling female Tory Prime Minister, the US was run by a celebrity and the FA Cup was worth watching. In that year’s final Keith Houchen scored a famous diving header to help Coventry defeat Spurs 3-2, and inspired kids up and down the country to break their arms trying to recreate it. We were no different, and at training that week Steve laid out mats on the gym floor and we practised diving headers.
Try as I might, I couldn’t bring myself to do it and after a third failed attempt the ball passed by me like an intellectual joke going over Piers Morgan’s head. Once again the big kids had a laugh with that, and so Steve took me aside and told me we were going to do one-on-one drills and that nobody would get past me. He knew the older kids were a bit crap, but he was right and I walked out feeling like I’d have run through a wall from him. Thankfully that saying wasn’t in vogue then or I’d have probably done it too, given my apparent predilection for stupid decision making as a child.
He knew me pretty well by then. I was always more prone to cry if I got injured, or self-immolating when I made a mistake, than the other boys and so I think he looked out for me. No player at Gidea Park Rangers ever got a public dressing down for a mistake or playing poorly, thank fuck, as I was apparently ahead of my time by basing my game on Malky Mackay in those days. We were encouraged to think about the game, to try and work out why we’d made mistakes and learn from them. We even used to have a debrief session every week at the end of training where we discussed the previous game, if you want to psychoanalyse the very existence of this blog.
Parents weren’t allowed to scream at the kids, only encourage, and absolutely nobody was allowed to question or intimidate referees. All of that might seem like the bare minimum one might expect from a children’s football team, but for those who you who played or have kids that play now, you’ll appreciate that it isn’t.
It was only when I really thought about it that I realised how important that time was in my life. The values that my parents were instilling in me were being reinforced by somebody I respected away from home. Most kids listen to their parents up to a point and then it becomes white noise, like the music of Sting or the sound of Nigel Farage talking.
But I was having those same messages that my parents were giving me followed up every week. Work hard, don't let yourself down through a lack of effort, don't make excuses, lose or win graciously without exception, be respectful of yourself, your opponent and your teammates at all times. I'm not suggesting I managed all of those things but I know they are worth striving for.
Those life lessons would serve me well for years, and were more important even than the time that Steve patiently took me aside one day and said "James - if in doubt, kick it out" in an attempt to stem the flow of misjudged Cruyff turns on the edge of our box that I was debuting at the time.
By the early 2000's there was a vast increase in the number of asylum seekers flowing into Barking and Dagenham from Eastern Europe and beyond. My mum was a social worker then and I still remember the night she came home in tears having had to turn away women and children from the temporary council shelter through lack of space.
As the government got organised, things improved and the council even got so far as to establish a football team for the kids who were new into the borough and had nothing else to do. They played on Sundays and my mum set it all up. The trouble was that she had no coach for the team.
I would have done it but I was already committed to play for a team, and we were that group that had ten players each week and used to scratch around for ringers every Saturday night. "You're playing left back, if you get booked your name is Tzarkowski, don't fuck up the spelling or we'll all be in the shit" - that kind of thing.
Also, I'd be a terrible coach. I gave my girls a fascinating 45 minute PowerPoint last week on Expected Goals and shooting locations and they barely listened. You can't help some people.
So my Mum looked up our old friend Steve Cowley, who happened to work for the same council and he suggested Danny and Nicky take the job. And they did, even though they were still just kids really and neither had finished their degrees at that stage.
It was a decent and brave thing to do. Asylum seekers were no more popular a concept in Britain then than they are now, and matches were regularly being abandoned due to the kids being racially abused by opponents and fights breaking out, but they took it on and they helped those kids integrate to England. Young teenagers from Kosovo and all over Africa were given the gift of playing football. It doesn't seem like much but when your homeland gets torn apart by a civil war, even Central Park in Dagenham can seem appealing.
I meant to come down and say hello and watch a game or two, but life took over and I never did and before I knew it they'd moved on to the FitzWimarc School, Concord Rangers, Braintree Town and now Lincoln City.
I went to watch my daughter play a game of football for her school a couple of weeks ago. She is a dedicated ice skater and hardly plays football, but she wanted me to go and I wanted to go, so I took the day off work and put on my winter coat with something approaching excitement.
Before the game started, I noticed that the opposition coach was warming his team up by practising corner routines. He would drill hard, head high crosses into the box and then yell something about "No desire!" at the group of ten year old girls who understandably weren’t showing any interest in trying to head the ball. After the game, which my daughter’s school won 5-1 and during which conceded no corners, the same guy had his team sit on the ground and yelled at them some more about a lack of passion or some other bullshit. Like a shit Phil Brown, if you will. And in that moment, a group of ten year old girls who don’t play the game probably decided they still didn’t want to play the game.
“He does this all the time” muttered another dad, who shared my view that the best moment of the game was when three of the girls stopped to have a chat about ponytails while the ball was up the other end, causing Coach Yeller to turn a curious shade of lilac on the touchline.
In that moment I was so grateful for what I'd had as a kid. It's taken me nearly thirty years to fully realise it but the sacrifices that people make for the grassroots game are huge. The Thursday night work drinks that have to be missed so that training can go ahead, the Saturday nights out that have to be curtailed to ensure you can get up on to take the team on Sunday morning, the summer holidays that have to be arranged around pre-season training. It's like listening to Spurs fans go on about glory - never ending and unrewarding.
Shit, even my sister had to go on tours to Bognor Regis and Prestatyn Sands one year, and that's never been anyone's idea of fun.
Danny, Steve and Nicky Cowley - the look on Steve's face here is fairly reminiscent of the time I told him I should be playing up front [pic: Echo]
So, why am I boring you with all this nostalgic reminiscing that could only possibly be interesting to about twelve people? Because without Lincoln City there would be no West Ham United. And without Concord Rangers there would be no Lincoln City. And without Gidea Park Rangers there would be no Concord Rangers. And without men and women like Steve and Gill Cowley, my mum and dad and my sister there would be nothing at all.
These are the silent stanchions of the English game, selflessly giving of themselves to allow people like me to breeze through a childhood of extraordinary privilege. By my rough estimate I easily played over 350 games for Gidea Park Rangers and even as I sit here now I cannot tell you if I ever scored a goal for them. I was like a less dangerous version of Steve Potts, I think. And yet I remember those training session incidents vividly, because they shaped me.
Years later when, God help them, I started to manage staff of my own I was surprised at how many of those lessons could be transferred over. Respect each other, support each other, work hard, give your best, treat people fairly, don't lose your man at corners....it all works.
I remember Danny wandering over to me during a game and putting his arm around me and telling me to keep my head up after yet another error leading to a goal. I remember him congratulating me when I made the Havering district schools team and he didn't, even though he was much better than me. I haven't seen him in twenty years, but I remember him as a kind, decent, hard working and loyal kid and when that ball scraped barely over the Turf Moor goalline on Saturday I couldn't help but think of Steve and Gill and all those hours of sacrifice to get to that point, and the heart bursting pride they must have been feeling.
But in truth, I wrote this column as a love letter to everyone who volunteers to help junior football in this country. Even Coach Yeller, who doesn't appreciate his kids discussing Zoella's latest Vlog on the halfway line as the opposition break away and score. Without him, and all those other thousands of coaches, referees, officials, parents and siblings who give up their time, none of it could happen.
If I have any advice, it would be to channel Steve Cowley. Make everything fun. Winning will come eventually, but how you treat those kids now will stick with them forever. Use that opportunity wisely. It wasn't in Steve's gift to make me a brilliant footballer, but he gave me a brilliant footballing education and I've always been grateful to him for that.
So I can't wait to see Lincoln go to Arsenal, and I hope Nicky and Danny keep rising up the leagues until maybe one day they even manage West Ham, because when you're dreaming you might as well dream as big as you can.
Oh, and if in doubt - kick it out.
Please note that the opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, nor should be attributed to, KUMB.com.
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