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“An Old Man’s Game…”

A collection of stories from a 20-year-old coach in Australia and his U16’s 11 a side team.

“You can’t win anything with kids” – Alan Hansen

Prologue

  • “Matty these kids don’t even know what time training starts, how do think we’re gonna get them playing a false 9?”

That’s Alex – my assistant coach. It’s not exactly optimistic, but who could blame him. Born in Ipswich in 92’ and damned to a life of supporting the tractor boys, his inner Mick McCarthy was showing.

We’re currently on our way to the Annual Point Cook pre-season tournament. The car is loaded up with my oversized whiteboard and balls in the back. We’ve prepared our teams for 3 games over the next 6 hours. Win all 3 and we get to play in the final.

My inner-Mourinho tells me already that things are stacked against us. There are 8 teams in the tournament – 4 of these have been fielded by the home club, Point Cook. 2 of their sides are unfortunately in our qualifying group. Then things do in fact start to turn against us when Peter, father of substitute central midfielder, Nath, tells me that he hasn’t brought our spare tops: “Don’t stress Matt – Essendon and Point Cook will have other strips”. They don’t.

To make matters worse our left-winger, Eden informs me 15 minutes before kick-off that Aaron, our left-back, isn’t coming.

  • “Why isn’t he coming Eden?”
  • “He didn’t tell me.”
  • “Why didn’t he text me or Alex or Peter?”
  • “I don’t know coach” – He isn’t disappointed in Aaron, he is disappointed in himself.
  • “That’s okay, warm up.”

I remind myself that this is U16 football in Australia, not the Champions League. Take it easy, Matt. Enjoy yourself.

I insert another stick of gum into my mouth. I’m on edge.

I still have so much to teach them.

I have taken a page out of Pep Guardiola’s book – fasting until after the game. This seemed like a romantic, heroic gesture at the time. In hindsight, it was not one of my brighter ideas. For both players and coaches, nutrition is key. And by ‘nutrition’, I mean not starving yourself. Especially if you could be stuck out in Point Cook for 6 hours.

Game 1: Williamstown U16B v.s Point Cook U16As

  • “What have we inherited, Matty?”

This is the first-time Alex has watched our team play in a proper game. His tone suggests that we have just taken over the Melburnian equivalent of Accrington Stanley. But I keep the faith: this is the sacred contract between player and coach; their loyalty to me will be repaid with my belief in them.

The game is a physical one. We snatch a goal on the break and at half time I tell them to keep playing the way we’ve trained (a fluid 4-3-3 with a set holding midfielder and interchanging forwards). A complex tactical framework such as this does not preclude mastering the basics: “Don’t get bullied off the ball, lads. Get stuck in. No silly mistakes”.

I must mention before I go on that the Point Cook tournament runs on a siren system. All 3 pitches start and finish games at the same time. This means that stoppage time is non-existent.

As the minutes wane on with my boys still 1-0 up, we win a throw in. I bring a substitute to the touch line. A crowd of Point Cook parents behind me start rumbling as I ask the ref for a sub. I call Eden over; near the end of his walk to the touchline, I arrive at a sudden change of mind. I decide to bring our centre-forward, Mohamed off instead. He too then begins the long walk to the dug-outs. The supporters behind me are furious at this efficient time-management strategy. As our substitute sets out on the pitch, the universal siren sounds.

I raise my hand to the supporters behind me with a single index finger in the air. One. Nil.

Starting XI:

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Onto the next game –  Essendon United U15As, a brilliant technical side who won their league last year… but I have a plan.

Game 2: Williamstown U16B v.s Essendon United U15As

It just so happens that the Point Cook Tournament allows for one team to have a 30 minute break whilst the other 2 teams play. Fortunately, that team was us. I debrief the team on the improvements we can make in the next game whilst Essendon United, our next opponents, are out playing. They will have a 5 minute break between their games – we will have 30.

Just as I am about to read out the line-up for the next game, Peter comes crashing into the scene;

  • “They’re 3-0 up”
  • “It doesn’t matter Peter”
  • “But Matt, they’re good” Turns to the already nervous U16s
  • Guys you have to be careful, they’re a top notch passing team – like Barcelona”

Awe inspiring.

I go to watch Essendon and Point Cook U15 game while Alex takes our boys through some set-piece preparation. Granted, Essendon move the ball well. But I’m half Italian – I live for these situations. Alex does not understand.

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I tell Mohamed, Wally and Eden:

  • “Sit off their centre-backs and let them try to force a pass into the middle. Once one steps into the midfield line, that’s when we press and take advantage”.

They say they all understand, but only time will tell.

The game goes somewhat according to plan. Cooper, our centre-half, pulls us out of a few dark spots with some last-ditch tackles. However, we fail to convert a key chance on the break, and end up with a 0-0 draw.

At least I didn’t get abused by any of the opposing team’s parents.

Team Played Points GD
Essendon United U15A 2 4 3
Williamstown U16B 2 4 1
Point Cook U16A 1 0 -1
Point Cook U15 1 0 -3


Game 3: Williamstown U16B v.s Point Cook U15As

So side in order to make it to the final we either need a favour from the Point Cook U16 team I pissed off in the first round, or we need to score 4 goals in our final game against the Point Cook U15. I debrief the boys again whilst Alex scouts the other game (Point Cook U16 vs. Point Cook U15). We’ve been working on playing with a false 9 in the past fortnight and I decide that now is the time to deploy it. Essendon’s supposed “Barcelona-esque” passing against Point Cook U15 will pale in comparison to Eden’s adaptation of Messi’s false-9 role. Mohamed and Nath are to play, interchangeably, on either side of him. I break out the whiteboard, and give my front three a lesson in Guardiola offence.

Mohamed remarks;

  • “But sir me and Nath are not wingers”

Time for an education on football, young Mohamed.

  • “Mohamed, don’t think about a position – think about space: you might start out wide, but when Eden drops in, you have to go into the space that you would usually take up when you play as a ST.

He looks puzzled.

  • “So do the same things I was doing but just start wider?”
  • “Yes.”

They learn so quickly.

The “Point Cook Derby” finishes 4-0 in favour to the elder side, leaving the table as follows;

Team Played Points GD
Essendon United U15A 2 4 3
Williamstown U16B 2 4 1
Point Cook U16A 2 3 3
Point Cook U15 2 0 -7

We need at least 4 goals to go through. It’s a big ask, but I let the lads know they’re up against tired opposition (in the course of this address, I may or may not have referred to the “Footballing Gods”).

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We get off to a poor start. Their centre-forward capitalises on a defensive error and we find ourselves 1-0 down. Fortunately, the front 3 are making the correct movements and more than enough chances are created. We go 2-1 up due to a tap in from Mohamed at the back post; after a deep cross from Harry and a curling right footed effort inside the box from Eden, Mohamed managed to wriggle away from a bamboozled defender and tuck it in the back of the net.

We need 3 goals going into the second half. I tell Tom, our captain, that if we do score, to grab the ball out of the net straight away. Luke, with his tendency for knocking balls over the top into the frontmen, comes on in order to increase the supply to our own M-S-N.

What happens next, I can’t really explain – it’s certainly not how I imagined winning the game. We score the same goal twice: on both occasions, Nath wins a corner from a parried shot, Luke delivers the ball into the box, and Tom is there for a tap in at the back post. Both times he grabs the ball and screams at his teammates to “Get the f**k back”. That’s my captain.

To think they all laughed at Alex and I when we stressed the importance of set pieces.

The final goal comes after Harry slips Mohamed through their defence, taking up the space freed up by Eden dropping out of the middle (thanks Eden). Mohamed is fouled in the box and a penalty is given. I remember the siren system that the tournament runs on and scream at the team.

  • “Take it and take it quickly”.

Tom steps up. I turn away. I hear cheers – then a siren. I turn and see Alex, Brian Kidd-esque, has run onto the pitch. The boys lift Tom up. They don’t realise that only a 2-0 win from Essendon will see them go through, but that’s okay. We’ve done all we can. 5-1.

Team Played Points GD
Williamstown U16B 3 7 5
Essendon United U15A 2 4 3
Point Cook U16A 2 3 3
Point Cook U15 3 0 -11

The boys sit on the side-line of the Essendon vs. Point Cook U16 game. I tell them to act as ballboys. If Point Cook are ahead, then they are to give the ball as slowly as possible. If Essendon are winning then, to paraphrase myself – they have to do it, and do it quickly.

Alex takes me aside and suggests we prepare a team for the final. Being superstitious – I’m hesitant, but he convinces me and we agree that we’ll back to a 4-3-3.

Harry’s dad comes across to chat to us. He’s a tall man, a trait Harry – towering over all the other players – has inherited. I fondly remember two years ago, when I was drafted in to coach Williamstown’s U13s whilst their coach went to Ibiza. Harry was playing and I remember even back then he stood out. Harry was still young enough to be playing U15, but he was a stalwart of the U16 side. He’s got more football in him than Alex and I combined.

What ensues was probably my favourite moment of the day.

  • “Am I interrupting boys?”
  • Alex: “Not at all mate, you alright?”
  • “You’re both doing an amazing job. I’ve never seen any of Harry’s coaches care as much as you two do – it’s paying off. No matter what happens today, just keep doing what you’re doing. They’ve come so far already and they can only do more from here. The determination they had in that last game against Essendon is something you just don’t see in junior football. You should both be very pleased with yourselves.”

I’m taken aback, so luckily Alex responds.

The Final – Williamstown SC vs. Point Cook U17

By this time, I am starving and sick of looking at the Nerazzurri of the Point Cook shirts. Needless to say, the boys are nervous.

I’m nervous.

Starting XI

4

2 minutes into the game, a penalty is given against us. It’s a clear foul, but I throw my hands in the air nonetheless and run out of the dugout, seeking a fourth-official to protest to. It’s only then that I remember there is in fact no fourth official.  The referee tells me to return to my technical area.

Keep it cool, Matt. Keep it cool.

Luckily enough, Anthony saves it. But minutes later we concede a goal to a wayward cross from the right side. It loops over Anthony’s head into the back of the net: this is junior football at its finest. Our lads panic. We resort to lumping it long to Eden. I don’t remember working on this at training – however there is not much I can get across to them in the heat of the half. I give my address at half time. (For video of this ‘Any Given Sunday’ moment go here)

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  • “How many goals did we score in a half last game? Exactly. So don’t panic – we keep trying to do this long ball, long ball, long ball and it’s not working. Keep it simple and keep to what were good at it. Focus on making it 1-0 to us in this half and then we reassess.”
  • Anthony: “What happens if it’s a draw coach?”
  • Tom: “It goes to penalties obviously”

Anthony is horrified.

  • Matt: “Mate you’ve already saved one, you can save 5 more.”

Unfortunately, he doesn’t get the opportunity. Point Cook resort to my own brand of time-wasting tactics and we lose 1-0. We’re all gutted.

Peter suggests that we go to the stage to collect our runners up medals. The lads look uneasy and it’s been a long day so I say suggest that he collects them and brings them Tuesday. I’ve watched 100 finals and the losing team always look dejected going up these steps walking past the trophy. I won’t subject my team to that.

I was always frustrated playing football. I couldn’t always influence the match as, at the end of the day, I was reliant on my other team mates. But this was different. I felt a purpose; not only was I teaching these boys how to be footballers, I was teaching them a mentality. Throughout this year, I am going to be writing more pieces on the team; it’s fun on the side-lines, I’m learning a lot about communication, preparation and myself. Coaching is more interesting than I imagined – whilst some might enjoy pretending to be Messi or Henry on the field, I get to channel my inner Mourinho, Klopp and Simeone.

____________________

Matt Vitiello is a proud member of the esoteric demographic of Aussie Fulham fans. You can follow him and the progress of his beloved Williams U16’s @mattvitielloWSC

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