Mark, Ollie, Zack, Max, Eddie and the others in their number did not think they’d ever make it into a football team, let alone these football pages. They seemed to belong to the “not-all-that-great” fraternity of players about whom coaches, writers and the Football Association seem fairly unconcerned amid this country’s obsession with why the England team is… well… not all that great.
But they decided they had had enough of being selected for a school second team which hardly ever staged fixtures and, in some cases, standing around on a bitterly cold touchline as unused substitutes. They wanted to play the so-called people’s game, free from the football elitism which dictates that the excellent are interesting and the rest need not bother turning up. So, one day, the father of one of them decided to help put the idea into practice and a football team which has become the talk of south Manchester was born.
Their ethos was that everyone – good, bad or indifferent – got the same game time and that no one dished out blame. They called themselves The Deliverers, by dint of the fact that the Royal Mail was willing to stump up some sponsorship, though delivering results did not come so naturally. The squad was 20 in number – illustrating the preponderance of teenagers who found themselves marginalised by football – but the simple act of starting a 90-minute match was a novelty to some.
There were setbacks. Somehow, no one can remember precisely which team dealt them a 19-0 hammering early in the first season – when they only played friendlies – though perhaps that’s because it is just best to forget. “Yes, we were tragic,” says 18-year-old Mark Lazenby, in the squad that day and for the four seasons since. “The idea was that we weren’t only in this team just to win. Results like that tested it a bit. Of course we wanted to win…”
Football’s default action when a team receives a pummelling is to drop the culprits. But though the defeats kept on coming – it was several months before the first draw, “3-3 at Hale Village,” right-winger Ollie Holliday-Smith recalls, proving that it’s easier to remember the good times – no one dreaded the repercussions. “We heard some other teams slaughtering each other and I guess that helped us along in a way,” says Lazenby. It was the father who had made the huge commitment to setting the team up, Jonathan Michael, who did most to help maintain the ethos – never selecting the starting XI on the basis of ability and always rotating to give everyone a game. There must have been temptations. This now multinational band includes Ghanaian Kwasi Nuamah, whom most managers would want to pick every week. He takes his turn like all the rest.
The results were still bumpy when the initial sponsorship ran out but a chance conversation introduced Michael and his players to the idea of joining the substantial Stockport Vikings club, which has 21 teams, more than 300 young people and – significantly – the infrastructure they needed to deal with the mountain of administration: fixtures, health and safety, and child protection. For a while, Vikings could not withstand that irresistible urge to demand that the players who formed their new B team should set traditional objectives. “Initially, they just wanted us to play to win,” Michael says. But he and his players stuck to what they believed in, while benefiting from the Vikings’ coaching system. “The coaching made a big difference in many small ways,” says Lazenby.
Wins became less of a novelty. Very modest players completed football matches which they could look back upon with a sense of satisfaction. They recall one of their number finding it a struggle and drifting off but the team finished mid-table in the Stockport Metro Junior Football League. They repeated the feat. And then did it again. “Vikings realised that we were getting good results but also we kept our players and found we had a happier team,” Michael says. “Some teams who prioritised their best players ended up without enough players at the end of the season to carry on. Players got disillusioned and left.”
He is describing a trend across the length and breadth of the country. The FA acknowledged last year, that 14- to 17-year-olds are dropping off from football in significant numbers, while a quarter of a million fewer people were playing the sport in the year to this July. The elitism is as much of a factor as the derisory facilities, which we are told a £102m investment in grass-roots infrastructure announced last month will help put right. That headline figure was a fancy way of stating that the Government, the FA and Premier League will provide £38m every year. To put that in perspective, English football paid £77m to agents alone last year.
Michael and his players will believe the facilities are coming when they see them. That notion is a remote prospect for a team who very rarely play at a ground with a useable dressing room and showers and who, when I turn up for Sunday’s Cup match against Inter Macc JFC Under-18s, are making do with cars to change in. There’s no car park, mind you: just the side of a busy road where the Mersey crosses the Manchester Road at Cheadle. They are just happy to be here, though, preparing to play some football among team-mates who won’t judge them.
“They’re a tough team. Get heads in,” Michael instructs, putting them through warm-up sprints which the opposition, who play one league higher, dispense with. They go behind to a goal from the Inter Macc centre-forward, Tom Priest, who can play, but it is testament to their ethos that the Thai right-back Kanpisek Dokdin, universally known as “Max”, helps to retain a hold on things. Michael did not find him blessed with inordinate natural ability when the teenager’s father called to say his son was desperate to play. The boys all confirm that he “runs around a lot.” But there’s an interception from him. Two. Three. And he grows six inches taller before my eyes.
The interval has come and gone when Nuamah finally finds some space to run and cross for Zack Michael, who volleys a very fine and emphatic left-foot equaliser. Mark Hogg is running midfield – because even teams with this ethos need a talisman – and Italian Eduardo Menna impresses. The side lack a little width, though – reticent, perhaps, about the bank the ball will run down if they employ the left flank of the school pitch which they hire. Priest proves to be the difference, scoring again and supplying a third in Inter Macc’s 3-1 win.
A post-mortem ensues before Lazenby is named man of the match. “Don’t get him started on the merits of his three-man defence,” Holliday-Smith says of the manager, trying to make light of defeat but with the same disappointment etched across his face that the others share. Yet there are no recriminations. This is not an inquisition. “They always look out for each other,” Michael says, watching them leave the field to fight another day. “And that is very humbling.”