Turf war: How Britain's playing fields became a battleground

Screaming, shouting, fistfights, firearms – and that's just the grown-ups. Simon Usborne discovers why a record numbers of children's football games are abandoned due to parental hooliganism.
Click to follow
The Independent Online

It's 1-1 with five minutes to go at the Nursery Road playing fields in Merton,awealthy district of southwest London. Two teams of nine-year-old boys are battling it out in a closely fought football match. On opposite sides of the pitch, about 20 parents have gathered to cheer on their sons from the touchline.

As the referee's watch ticks towards full time, an attacker from the visiting team sprints gamely down the wing towards the penalty area, only for a defender to take him out with a crunching (and illegal) late tackle. The away supporters emit a collective groan as the boy crumples theatrically to the ground.

Back on his feet, the felled youngster inspects a grazed knee, and the game resumes with a free kick. But the player’s mother is incensed. Seconds later, she launches a volley of expletives at the referee. A mother in the opposition's set of fans reacts and, within seconds, a fight has broken out. Hair is pulled and palms start connecting with faces as the air reverberates with the sound of swearing.

As the fisticuffs escalate, the referee (himself an amateur) decides to abandon the match. Groups of confused boys are led away from the action; many are in tears. Meanwhile, fathers from bothsides struggle to separate the marauding mothers as the fight spills into the car park.

It’s the sort of spectacle you might expect at a high-stakes, grown-up derby between pub teams in a gritty area of Glasgow or Liverpool, not at a match involving nine-year-olds in a leafy, respectable London suburb. But violence in kids' football has become shockingly common. At the highest level of the beautiful game, administrators say it has reached crisis point – and people on the front line of youth football reckon it’s getting worse.

Last month, Surrey County FA made headlines when it issued a letter to more than 2,000 local youth teams, for which about 40,000 players turn out every weekend, asking them to clamp down on violent conduct among parents (who are nearly always the culprits rather than the children,who are the victims) after a rash of incidents in the first few weeks of this season, six ofwhich had resulted in abandoned matches.

“Just what do these adults think they are going to achieve by abusing referees, opposition parents and club officials?” asked Ray Ward, the Surrey County FA’s secretary. “It is beyond my comprehension why some adults devote so much time during the week to providing children with the opportunity to play football,and then lose all self-control and ruin the day for those same children.”

But his words fell on deaf ears. With the season barely half played, Surrey FA has reports of more than 20 abandoned youth matches on file at its headquarters in Leatherhead. The issue, repeated the length and breath of the country, is tarnishing the national sport. “We’ve had to kick racism out of football,” says one under-10s coach: “Now we’ve got to kick bullying out of the game.”

Ward, who has now launched an inquiry into the Merton incident, speaks of “dreadful, sickening reports” of youngsters being abused. “Just last week, we had a hearing for a match that had been stopped,” he says. “I had 52 pages of correspondence from parents, team managers and referees. It’s a massive exercise every time something happens, and it is definitely getting worse. I dread to think of the misconduct that goes on every Saturday or Sunday that never gets reported.”

The problem is widespread. Last week, Pope Benedict XVI, the German-born pontiff and a Bayern Munich fan, spoke out about the tarnished image of the game. “I’d like the game of football to be a vehicle for the education of the values of honesty, solidarity and fraternity, especially among younger generations,” he told his footballing pilgrims.

It’s a bitterly cold Saturday morning at Nursery Road, a few weeks after the fight. Three AFC Wimbledon teams are playing their firstgames in the Epsom & Ewell Youth League after the Christmas break. The atmosphere on the touchline is refreshingly cordial, but if you speak to anyone, you will hear about a string of ugly incidents witnessed in recent months.

Jill McElligott, whose son Connor is tearing around the pitch for Wimbledon’s under-10 B team against Bookham Colts, witnessed the fight between the mothers. “It was horrible,” she says, pausing to cheer on her son, who has pulled his bright yellow sleeves over his knuckles to protect them from the arctic wind. “We couldn’t believe what we were seeing.”

Further along the touchline, David Needs is supporting his son Harry. “You often witness verbal abuse,” says Needs, who looks enviably warm in an AFC Wimbledon jacket stamped with his initials, a reward for sponsoring the team; he is the owner of an upmarket Chiswick restaurant. “It’s all puffy chests and handbags, but when you hear people saying things like, ‘Come on you bastard,’ it sends the wrong message to the children.”

Their moods perhaps cooled by the near-freezing temperatures (not to mention the presence of our photographer), the parents at Nursery Road today are displaying admirable restraint. There is not the remotest indication that fisticuffs might ensue, and voices are kept in check.

“Referee!” comes the modest cry after one heavy tackle. “Hurry up!” calls another parent after the ball is slow to return to play as his son’s team desperately seek a winning goal.

The only, admittedly mild, expletive to be heard in the air over Merton on this day comes from Rob Anderson, the coach of the under-10 B team, who suspects that an overdose of advent calendar chocolates has sapped the pace of his players. “Get to the bloody ball, Ryan, come on!” he shouts.

Elsewhere in the country, the scene is not so pretty. Touchline tyrants are not confined to inner-city clubs. In rural Somerset, there are reports of parents tripping up seven-yearolds running down the wings, leading to fights.

In Wiltshire recently, a father drove his Range Rover on to the pitch in protest against a referee’s call, refusing to back it off unless the decision was reversed. The game was abandoned. There are also independent, if unsubstantiated, reports from Liverpool of a parent pulling a gun at a youth game.

Jim White, a writer and the chairman of the Oxford youth football club Summertown Stars, says the problem is worst at games involving children aged six to 10, who play shorter, seven-a-side matches on small pitches. “I’ve been coaching my son’s team for eight years and, now he’s 16, you only get the occasional complaint about a line call,” says White, who chronicled countless weekends spent on the touchline in his book You’ll Win Nothing with Kids.

White believes the reason is as simple as it is telling. “Many of the abusive parentsdisappear because their kids drop out of football. When my son started 11- a-side football, aged 10, there were 12 teams inourarea. Now there are two, and I would say one of the principal reasons is that they are put off by the overwrought atmosphere on the touchline.”

The worst case White has witnessed came during a summer tournament in which a new rule said that outfield players would concede a spot-kick if they entered their own penalty area. Soon enough, a puzzled seven-year-old defender put a foot wrong. “When the ref pointed at the spot,parents screamed abuse at this kid,” White says. “But nobody explained what he had done wrong, so, two minutes later, he did it again. This time, a parent came onto the pitchwagging his finger and calling the kid a ‘useless twat’. The boy stood for a moment, looking bewildered, and then ran off into a nearby copse and sat in a tree, refusing to come down.”

White adds: “You can bet if someone’s shouting horrible things on the pitch, they’ll be having a go on the way home and over breakfast before the next match. The kid will associate that with football and pack it in.At least three kids at Summertown have given up because they’ve found it too intense on the touchline.”

As witnessed in Merton, mothers can be just as bad as fathers. “They can get very protective,” White says. “A linesmanwas knocked unconscious by a mother recently. I’ve seen incidents that look like an audition for Macbeth.”

There is growing concern in the game that touchline abuse could be doing more to kids than turning them off football. “Sometimes it is nothing short of child abuse,” White says.

Kairen Cullen, an educational psychologist who has consulted in community football schemes, says the game should be a force for good. “Football teaches physical, cognitive, behavioural and social skills,” she says. “It provides an opportunity for children to prepare for life.

“But if you’ve got adults with whom you are closely connected showing negative emotions on the touchline, that’s going tohave a knock-on effect on the children, who need to feel confident and emotionally settled to develop well.”

Football was a different game when Sir Trevor Brooking, the former West Ham and England No 10, kicked a ball around the streets of Barking, Essex, where he grew up in the 1950s. “I used to come home from school, leave my bag and meet up with my mates round the corner for a couple of hours,” says the former BBC pundit.“We’d play five-a-side, six-a-side, or however many of us were there until it got dark and I wandered home. There were no parents watching us there, or at school, where we also played a lot of our football.”

In recent decades, thousands of primary schools have banned football on health and safety grounds, or to satisfy the prevailing notion that competition is damaging. Last May, a proposed “super school” in Peterborough hit the headlines when its head announced that the school’s £46m budget would include a wetland eco-pool, but no playground.

At the same time, apron strings have been tightened as fewer parents allow their children to play unsupervised in parks and street culs-de-sac, which, in Brooking’s day, would buzz with the noise of gangs of children with scabby kneesand scuffed shoes having a kick-around. But the end of the “jumpers for goalposts” era has not coincided with a drop in the popularity of football. Instead, it has forced soccer-mad kids into youth leagues organised by – and, some say, for the benefit of – parents.

“Football has taken over from a lot of other things,” Jim White says. “I would imagine that there are far more kids playing football now than go to Scouts. Because more parents are getting involved, you are bound to find more dyspeptic loonies on the touchline.” Across England, there are now about 67,000 Football Association-affiliated youth teams, for which almost 900,000 youngsters play every weekend.

Trevor Brooking, who was appointed the FA’s head of development in 2003, agrees that parents who think they are offering encouragement can have a negative influence. “We all made mistakes in the games we had round the corner, but nobody was there to shout and tell us off, sowe learnt by watching older boys or by practising against a wall. You improved without the scrutiny kids are under now.” But White says that it is hard to stay calm when it’s your child out there. “I’ve spent eight years fighting with bubbling fury every weekend,” he says. “It’s like your kid is a projection of yourself, but there’s nothing you can do, so the only way to intervene is to shout.

“I remember an incident when our goalkeeper had made about a dozen mistakes. I knew it was the worst thing possible to shout at a kid whose nerve had gone, so it built and built inside me. Then, when my own son made a mistake, I went mad at him and immediately regretted it.”

For one group of soccer mums and dads, it’s not enough to regret an inappropriate outburst – for them, losing one’s cool is not an option. They are the parents whose children have been snapped up by one of the professional club academies.

René Meulensteen, a former Dutch professional footballer and now the skills development coach at Manchester United,says the only sounds on the pitch at academy games are of kids playing football. “We have parents’ evenings to explainthat shouting and screaming on the line doesn’t help. If they do it, they run the risk of having to take their kid away,” he says. “That hasn’t happened.”

The irony of academy games, where results actually matter, being played in what Jim White calls “monastic silence” is notlost on those involved in youth football. But many people in the game blame the academy alumni – the Premier League footballers idolised by those kids on the playing fields of Merton – for fostering the aggressive atmosphere that ruins the game for so many children.

“More and more, youth football resembles the Premier League. I call it the Premiership for tots,” says Paul Cooper, a youth coach in Cirencester, who became so frustrated with what he calls the “adultification” of grass-roots football that he launched a campaign, called Give Us Back Our Game, in a bid to change it.

“There’s an advert for Ford, which goes out before Premier League games on Sky. It shows pro footballers, and then cuts to a mum at a mini soccer game going mental, punching the air when her son scores. And kids arewearing kits with sponsors’ names on and playing in leagues published on websites. Youth football is almost packaged as an alternative to watching the Premier League, and touchline aggression is just one symptom of the problem.”

Another is the way young players emulate their idols. “You see them copying their favourite players’ celebration routines when they score a goal,” says Ray Ward at Surrey FA. “I remember when Robbie Fowler ‘snorted’ the touchline after he scored some years ago; four youngsters did exactly the same thing in a local league the next morning.”

Children watching the Match of the Day repeat with dad on a Sunday morning don’t need to be trained lip-readers to make out what players or managers think of referees they disagree with, and many believe that filters down to the youth game. In 2003, Sedgley Scorpions, an undernine team in Birmingham, were rapped by the FA for sporting the slogan “stuffem, tankem, ammeram [sic]” on kit badges.

And it’s often the referees who bear the brunt of the abuse. Last year, 7,000 referees threw away their whistles, leading to anational shortage of officials. As a result, youth games are often presided over by unqualified parents, or children as young as 15 whose age rarely protects them from reproach.

“They’re just as amateurish as the rest of us, but nobody gives them any leeway any more,” says Jim White. “That’s something young players and their parents pick up from the TV.”

Desperate clubs have tried everything to curb the touchline tyrants, from roping off pitches to codes of conduct, but such tactics may not be enough. Paul Cooper is among a growing group of coaches and parents who think that the only solution is a radical overhaul of youth football. This, he says, would also improve the standard of the national game; something that the suits at FA headquarters are desperate to achieve as a summer without international football approaches.

Cooper is now devoted full-time to Give Us Back Our Game, which he launched in October 2006. He tours the country, preaching a new school of football which he hopes will transform the game. His approach amounts, in essence, to supervised street football. Children play on smaller pitches, often without goalkeepers, refs or substitutes. Teams are fouror five-a-side and games last 10 minutes. In a morning, kids might play six or seven games in a round robin competition.

There are no leagues for dads to pore over online or in the local paper. Nor are there forwards, midfielders or defenders (“At this age, it should be about positioning, not positions,” Cooper says), and if the ball creeps a foot out of touch, the kids, refereeing themselves, just play on.

“It’s all about giving kids maximum time on the ball,” says Cooper, who believes this method should apply to childrenupto the age of 12. “It brings creativity back to the game and helps them to develop skills rather than just hoofing the ball up the field because they’re terrified of making a mistake.” Give Us Back Our Game fun days have taken place at schools and clubs all over the country, involving as many as 19,000 children. Cooper expects to double that figure this year.

Keith Gould, a coach at Sandhurst Town Boys & Girls FC in Berkshire, tried the system in a tournament last summer. “It was great, because the only pressure on the kids to win was the pressure they put on themselves,” he says. “I spoke to a few parents and they said they weren’t really needed any more. When you change the system, they don’t know what to doso they keep quiet. A lot of our parents sat around having picnics.”

One man looking closely at Cooper’s campaign, as well as other new approaches to youth football, is Trevor Brooking. With his colleagues at the FA, which governs organised football for children as young as six, Brooking is considering ways to improve the game and “take the intensity and pressure” out of youth football.

“At the top of those discussions is parental and player behaviour,” he says. “Our top priority is setting a philosophy that says football has got to be fun.”

Measures being considered at the FA include scrapping leagues for the youngest players; introducing smaller teams; improving coaching courses; using local newspapers to identify the best-passing or most-sporting team (“It’s not all about coming top of a league,” Brooking says); and making organised football more accessible. The FA cites surveys showing that more than a million young players who want to play for a team can’t, either because they don’t know where to find a club or because there are no facilities.

At Nursery Road, however, some parents are resistant to sweeping reforms. Paul Howlett is watching Wimbledon’s under-10 C team, who, as full time approaches, are pegging opponents Horley Town deep in their own half in a thrilling 1-1 draw.

Asked if he approves of Cooper’s campaign, Howlett says: “It’s not what the kids want. They want to play for a properteamwith a league, and pretend they’re a mini Arsenal or Chelsea.”

Howlett’s son, Jordan, 9, speaking through chattering teeth after being substituted in a game that Wimbledon goes on to win with a last-minute deflected goal, agrees with his dad. “I prefer this because it’s like the real thing,” he says. “I used to play that kind of football and it was boring.”

But Brooking is adamant that if we are going to turn the national game around after England’s failure to qualify for Euro 2008, and bring the fun back to the football field, things will have to change. “You’ll get little groups that will resent it, but we have to get them to join in the transition to make them see the benefits,” he says. “We shouldn’t shy away from biting bullets to make sure that we all buy into what we’re trying to achieve. We’ve got to bring fun back to youth football.”