Football: Big following for the game's Little Leagues

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The Independent Online
IF EVER I had a bad day at the office at the Football Association, which was surprisingly infrequently given the clanging egos that sometimes resounded around Lancaster Gate, I would go home and watch the wonderful clip of Mr Sugden's games lesson from the Sixties film Kes.

Mr Sugden, played by Brian Glover, is organising the teams in the centre circle. Naturally he has first pick for his own team. He is kitted out in his Manchester United strip and engages one of his pupils, Tibbut, in a heated debate about the respective merits of Bobby Charlton and Denis Law. He eventually indicates from the No 9 on his back that he is Bobby Charlton that day as "Denis Law is in the wash". End of argument.

I had a teacher who echoed writer Barry Hines' wonderful Mr Sugden. Ellis Tomlinson, known to all as Toss, was equally fierce on boys who wore vests under their football shirt. He joined in our games with similar gusto. And he consigned to the nearby cow patch any useless players. Toss wore not a replica shirt but a tatty old windcheater.

I thought about school football after spending an evening with the Morden Little League. There is little football on the national curriculum nowadays and the streets are out of bounds. But youth football is flourishing. Morden is one of 40 Little Leagues in a national organisation which caters for 8,000 children. Over 400 boys and girls play there every Saturday morning for free. The League is very strict on parents who become over- zealous on the touchline. There is even a booklet entitled "How to be a Parent".

The children are taught the values of team spirit, fair play and discipline. Heaven only knows what they thought of the antics of Ian Wright and Stephane Mahe last week.

Merton Council provide the pitches free because the League provides a service to the community. A little of the FA's Sky money trickled down to pay for some kit and start-up costs for the girls' section. And the referees give their services free.

However, there is still the expense of footballs, insurance and special events to be met by a variety of fund raising activities, lotteries and sponsorship. Dedicated volunteers are essential.

The special goals needed for small-sided football are also costly. Under Howard Wilkinson's "Charter for Quality", the prohibition on under-10s playing 11-a-side football will be extended up to under-11s next season. The move to small-sided football is aimed at is encouraging both enjoyment and skill. More touches of the ball means more fun means more skills.

The children move on from Morden Little League when they reach the age of 13. I presented leaving certificates for some boys who had completed eight years, so they certainly catch them young. Some of the players are now second generation, their fathers having learned their football in the League.

It was the television personality Paul Merton who overheard the shout "Get stuck in, Tiffany" when he revisited the Morden Little League he used to play in. That became the title of their admirable newsletter. Like me, Merton considered it bad manners to stand out as a talented footballer, much preferring to remain mediocre.

Girls have been included in Little League football since 1994. Women's football is the fastest-growing sport in England, with 34,000 players now registered under the auspices of the Football Association. An integral part of the "Charter for Quality" is the Talent Development Plan for girls. England should therefore be able to make significant progress on the international scene in coming years.

The girls nowadays are just as keen as the boys, though probably they still model themselves on the top men players. The stars are not yet there at the top of the women's game.

To the uninitiated, girls' and women's football is slower and less physical than the men's game. The ball is not shifted from one end to the other as quickly. Nevertheless, once these differences have been appreciated, spectators very quickly cotton on to the increasing skill levels and the undoubted commitment of the girls. Maybe the Professional Footballers' Association could relax its ban on women attending their Player of the Year dinner and mark their commitment to football as a family game by following Axa into sponsorship of the women's game?

Girls, of course, hardly played football when the likes of Mr Tomlinson and Mr Sugden struck terror into their charges. Mr Tomlinson somewhat surprisingly selected me as goalkeeper for the town schoolboys team in preference to a lad who later went on to earn a good living in the North American Soccer League. Brian Glover himself had played for the Barnsley town schoolboys team.

Both he and Mr Tomlinson died last year. I miss them both.