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CHAIRMAN’S BLOG - January 2024

No doubt due to a disappointing end to last season’s campaign, there was a fair bit of apathy towards Pre-Season Training during the Summer with several sessions having to be cancelled due to a lack of numbers and with nobody available apart from myself to organise the sessions anyway. However, when we decided to move our traditional first Friendly of the Summer against regular opponents Estudiantes London to a Friday night due to England’s Women’s Team reaching the World Cup Final that was due to be played the following Sunday morning, it resulted in us fielding arguably the strongest squad of 16 we had put out since our ‘Project Re-Start’ began in July 2021 with the likes of Sam Pritchett, Chris Jordanou, Dapo Alaoye & Charlie Savage all available to start when they were hardly able to play at all last season for various reasons. On the bench we also had two very good trialists in Oliver Hearn-Leer and Michael Menzies as we fielded a squad of 17 & 18-year-olds only, with last season’s three experienced players Tre Maxwell, Leon McKenzie-McKay & Nana Obeng all going on to ‘pastures new’ Tre’s case working on Sundays, in Leon’s case watching his son Callum…a future Rovers player no doubt !?...playing Mini-Soccer, and in Nana’s case being snapped up by Highgate Albion’s First Team to play as a regular for them this season in the Barnet Sunday League’s Premier Division (having moved to live in that part of London). Despite Estudiantes fielding a side that had competed fairly evenly against several Step 5-7 Saturday teams in their preceding Pre-Season Friendlies, our team of teenagers played some excellent football with Harvey Antoniou and substitutes Rashawn Bennett-Dyer & Tairique Harrison all scoring two goals each in a 6-2 victory.

Our only other Pre-Season Friendly was actually played on the first day of the League season on the 3rd September as we had our new Home pitch at Enfield Playing Fields available but no opponents due to North Athletico folding. We therefore played Division Four side Camden Lock instead, but even though the weather was perfect with no wind whatsoever and the pitch was in even better condition than the Edmonton Sports & Social Club pitches that we had been using for the previous 8 years, a large number of our players decided to give this game a miss for some reason. However, that allowed two more prospective new 18-year-old players in Fergus Murray and substitute Josh Gilmore to make their Rovers debuts, while Oliver Hearn-Leer also had another run-out after making his first appearance for the club in our previous Friendly. This was also Josh Wakeford’s first match as our new Player-Manager after we finally decided to copy what we had done when myself, Dave Ashton and my brother Trevor (amongst others) founded the club as 15-17-year-olds back in 1976 where we ran everything ourselves, including picking the team, the formation and tactics without any parents getting involved whatsoever. Josh had bravely volunteered for the Manager’s role, but in the knowledge that we had four other 18-year-olds in Charlie Savage, Harry Dorward, Myreon Keane & Harvey Antoniou who turn up to play in every match, but who also help with things like Pre-Match warm-ups, bringing the kit, putting the nets up and collecting in subs…which was exactly what myself, Dave, Trevor, Gary Cooper and the late Glenn Weaver did as teenagers when we first started the club. Having that sort of responsibility at that age will help Josh and the others enormously in their everyday lives at work or University...which it did for us five 47 years ago. The only difference at the moment is that I am still the Club Secretary doing all the Admin work, but hopefully one of these youngsters can be trained up to take on that role at some stage, while Stuart Dorward is still officially Assistant Manager (when he is not playing Vets football), but only really to supervise substitutions and have an input from the touchline when Josh is out on the pitch and invariably in goal.

With everything now sorted in that respect, we then produced another excellent performance to beat Camden Lock 4-0 in a game where we could easily have scored many more, but that result has since been put in perspective as our opponents…who have now changed their name back to just the ‘Camden’ that they were known as the season before…have lost all 13 matches they have played so far this season, including scorelines of 0-7, 3-11, 1-15, 0-18 & 1-14 ! So although we were ‘buzzing’ and super-confident after those two Pre-Season results, maybe we were not quite as good as we thought we were ?

Indeed we were very fortunate to win our first competitive match of the season against newly-formed Division Six side London Football School in the First Round of the League’s Roger Jones Challenge Cup the following Sunday as both sides turned up with just a bare eleven because of the ‘unbearable’ 90-degree heat, and it needed two excellent penalty shoot-out saves by Josh to see us through against a team who fielded a number of Step 4 Semi-Pros and have since gone on to top their division by a wide margin and notch up a goal difference of +48 in the process.

We then faced another tough game for our first Division Five match of the season at Home to Mill Hill Club De Futbol Seconds on the 17th September as they had signed up a number of new players for this season and had evidently drawn 4-4 in a Pre-Season Friendly against their First Team…who are currently in the Premier Division. However, we played superbly in the First Half and created numerous chances, but Mill Hill’s goalkeeper kept them in the game and we eventually lost 3-2 to a last-minute winner. Although that was a cruel blow, we were well pleased with how we had played overall as it was a game we probably would have lost by a four or five-goal margin last season against a side who have since gone on to remain undefeated in the League.

However, any positivity we might have had after those first four matches (including Pre-Season) was put on hold when we had to concede our London FA Sunday Junior Cup match Away to Metropolitan Sunday League side Thames City Blues in Sidcup on the 24th September due to a large number of our players starting their University Freshers week and having to travel ‘up North or wherever’ for that at Sunday lunchtime. If we had been drawn at Home, then we might have still been able to field a side, but we just didn’t have a big enough squad at that time to find enough players willing to travel to ‘Kent’…and not enough people willing to drive there either ! It was very embarrassing for me as the Club Secretary as it was the first time in the club’s history that we had ever conceded a London Cup match and it is not a pleasant job at all when I have to inform our opponents that we cannot field a team. Especially when they are the Home team, they have their pitch booked and they are then left with nobody to play. That is exactly why I then ‘let rip’ at our registered players and insisted that they showed more commitment.

Thankfully though, Stuart Dorward’s Whitewebbs Vets team didn’t have a match the following week as we faced Division Two side Real Menza in the Second Round of the Roger Jones Challenge Cup, so that meant the experienced Ritchie Redgrave was able to play in goal and two others from the Vets (including Stuart) were able to name themselves as subs in case of injuries. Stuart also took over as Manager for the day with Josh having to leave half-way through the match to travel to his University. We were not exactly at full-strength for this match, but at least we fielded a squad of 16 and gave our opponents a decent game, only losing 4-1 in the end after Menza brought on a quality player as a sub in the Second Half who was far too good for us. Indeed Menza have since gone on to remain unbeaten so far this season apart from a narrow defeat in a County Cup match and it looks highly likely that they will win the Division Two title this season, so it was no disgrace losing to them.

Our next match on the 8th October Away to Colney Hatch Athletic was an afternoon kick-off at Highlands School in Grange Park, which is quite local for most of our players, and unlike most teams who would probably struggle to get a team out for an afternoon kick-off when they normally play in the mornings, we seem to be the opposite and we were able to field a very strong squad of 15 for this one including another new 18-year-old signing in forward Kieran Ellis, who came off the bench to score a late winner for us in a 3-2 victory. That was despite Colney Hatch fielding a stronger side than normal themselves, and it was becoming clear now that the problems we had in the two previous seasons of opposing teams turning up with full strength sides against us so they could get free filming and win on You Tube was no longer having as much of an effect as we were becoming good enough to overcome all of that.

Unfortunately though, for our next match at Home to Camden Lock Seconds, a team who had beaten us convincingly in a Cup game the previous season when they were known as Camden Town Athletic, we were faced with a similar situation as we had for our London Cup match on the 24th September where something like 75% of our 18-year-olds all made themselves unavailable at the same time for one reason or another. This caused a huge panic as I knew full well that a second ‘non-fulfilment of fixture’ in the space of a month could end up with us being thrown out of the League and forced to fold. It therefore meant we were forced to field a team with an average age of 30+ and an average weight of about 20 stone as we hurriedly signed up various relatives of Harvey Antoniou’s including 46-year-old midfielder Marc McAuley and 45-yr-old central defender Louis Bennett, while 40-year-old Leon McKenzie-McKay and 43-year-old Lexton Harrison also both had to come out of retirement to help us out. With Camden Lock Seconds having only lost one game so far this season…and that only being due to a double sending-off…we therefore knew we were likely to lose this match with so many players playing their first games for years and half the team not knowing each other. We also had to field wing-back Christian Ellis in goal due to an injury that prevented him from playing outfield, while Myreon Keane had to battle through illness to make up the numbers. Not surprisingly we crashed to a 7-3 defeat with Camden Lock’s 23-year-old top scorer Jonas Borges having a field day in scoring five of their goals as he toyed with our ageing ‘old school’ players who did their best to try and kick him and Camden Lock’s other skilful Powerleague ‘ballers’ off the park but couldn’t really get near them.

We did manage to have ten of our 18-year-olds available to start in our next match Away to Radlett Town…another former Division 6 team who had beaten us convincingly in a Cup match last season, while 22-year-old Kai McAuley volunteered to play in goal for his first full game since signing as a 17-year-old a few seasons ago, and new signings Eddie Cox (a 20-year-old who played one game for us last season) & Ben Willmott, another 22-year-old, were the only two players on the bench with no over-40’s being used for this one. The problem we had for this fixture though was Manager Josh Wakeford and Assistant Stuart Dorward both being absent at the same time and certain older players, parents and supporters being opposed to my decision to allow 18-year-old Captain Charlie Savage and Stuart’s son Harry to be joint-Player Managers for the day instead of having any of our 60+ year-old Committee members and/or supporters who come along and watch/help out for every match officially taking over as Caretaker Managers on the touchline instead. Problem was…those supporters still ‘took over’ unofficially anyway with their angry shouting at our players whenever they made a mistake. That was especially so on the final whistle after we had fallen to an embarrassing 4-3 defeat with Radlett scoring a late winner when they only had nine men on the pitch after a double sending-off. This game was also marred by one of Radlett’s players (who has been sent off several times this season) and some of their supporters on the far touchline winding up our players and the parents on our touchline with it all ‘kicking off’ on the final whistle with people from both sides coming on the pitch to angrily confront each other.

This game and the one before it made me particularly incensed. I do not like our club being dragged back to the dark days of the 1980’s when our ethos back then was to be as physical as possible on the pitch and to be angry and confrontational off it. But more on that later…

Thankfully Josh and Stuart were both back for the following Sunday’s match at Home to bottom team New Barnet where they managed to calm everybody down, and although we still had numerous players missing, we managed a 4-2 victory and then went on to also win our next three matches with the only older player used (in two of those games) being goalkeeper Ritchie Redgrave. Our line-ups in all four matches included more new and/or returning 18-year-old signings and our whole team of youngsters also started showing a lot more determination to win the ball, defend well, communicate & organise well and be a bit more physical all round following the criticism they had received after that defeat to 9-man Radlett Town and the two previous games this season when they had made themselves unavailable en-masse. This run of four victories in a row included an 8-1 win against Atletico Grammar which was our biggest victory since our Division Two title-winning team beat St. Johns Deaf 12-0 back in 2017, it included a 5-2 revenge win at Home to Radlett Town, and it also included a 4-0 victory against Enfield Albion which was the first clean sheet we had kept since bringing in our current players as 16-year-olds in the Summer of 2021. We did nearly throw that victory away against New Barnet though by continuing to adhere to the policy we had kept in place since that 2021 re-start by giving new players a game ‘whatever’ when they were named as a substitute, as the new player brought along for this match without us seeing him play in training first…because we no longer have training sessions due to University commitments…was far too unfit and was getting caught out of position. He therefore had to be quickly hauled off after we had conceded two goals in the space of three minutes as soon as he came on and we had to advise our players after the match that substitutes would now only be brought on if they were needed for tactical reasons or to replace players suffering from injuries or illness. That was mainly because we were now in fourth place in the table and in with a chance of actually winning the League, so it would be silly to throw that chance away now that we had reached a desired level after two seasons of us concentrating on giving all our players game time so that they could get used to adults football.

The 26th November again saw both Josh & Stuart missing at the same time despite us assuring those who complained after the Radlett Town Away match that it wouldn’t happen again. In fact Harry Dorward was away for this match as well, leaving Captain Charlie Savage as Caretaker-Manager on his own with the usual Committee members in their 60’s including myself there to help out if and when needed. As we were playing Away to Division Three side AC Finchley in the Barnet Sunday League’s John Motson Challenge Cup though…a competition we were unlikely to progress very far in with Division One sides also involved in it…we were not too bothered this time and saw it as a chance to test ourselves against very good opponents without any pressure on us. Indeed AC Finchley fielded seven players who had played for them regularly in the Premier Division only four years ago, so we were always going to be up against it with numerous players unavailable and we did well to only lose 4-1 in a match that was very similar to our defeat to Real Menza by the same scoreline.

With everyone back and raring to go the following Sunday for our Away League match against Mill Hill Club De Futbol Seconds in which we would have gone second in the table with a victory, it was then really frustrating when the Home team informed us on the morning of the match that their groundsman had called the game off due to a frozen pitch…which looked rather suspicious when every other pitch in the League had thawed out in time with all other games (apart from Mill Hill CDF’s First Team match on the next pitch) going ahead. We of course had been guilty of that ourselves when we played at the Edmonton Sports & Social Club during the previous eight seasons though, as there were many times when the groundsman there over-protected the pitches and unknowingly did us a favour by calling games off when we would have been fielding a seriously depleted side.

Our Home match against Division Five leaders London Orient on the 10th December would have seen us go top of the table with a victory had we played and beaten Mill Hill Club De Futbol Seconds the week before, so whether that postponement deflated some of our players and made them decide to do other things instead of playing in this match I don’t know, but we only managed to field two substitutes including another 18-year-old in forward Jordan Amusan, while London Orient of course turned up with a squad of 16. We were fielding a decent starting line-up though and found ourselves 4-1 up by the 61st minute with an excellent performance, but then defender Daniel Schwartz-Gee limping off injured at Half-Time started having an effect as we had no defenders on the bench, leaving London Orient’s five substitutes to come on and easily claw back the deficit to beat us 5-4 in the end.

It then got even worse the following Sunday in our last match before the Christmas break as we lost 1-0 at Home to second from bottom Atletico Grammar, a team we had beaten 8-1 only a month earlier. It was a result which left us stuck in mid-table for Christmas with a 5-0-5 Win/Draw/Loss record, therefore putting paid to any chances we might have had of competing for the Division Five title when everything had looked so promising after those four League wins in a row. As in the London Orient match, we were only able to name two substitutes after several players dropped out on the morning of the match, while both of those substitutes didn’t turn up until after the kick-off. We also had players having to frequently come on and off due to injuries and illnesses, while the gale-force wind, long grass and badly churned-up pitch meant it was impossible for us to play our normal passing game as almost every final ball was sliced off for a goal kick and all three shots we managed on target just trickled along the ground. That was no excuse as far as some of our regular supporters and Management Committee members on the touchline were concerned though, as they were all brought up in an era (back in the 1970’s & 1980’s) where pitch and weather conditions were never to blame because Sunday League football was all about getting stuck in, being physical and giving your team-mates a good ‘bollocking’ if they made a mistake so that they wouldn’t do it again. In their eyes, being angry breeds winners and it was the players who actually turned up and played who were to blame for ‘not trying hard enough’.

Those two costly League defeats in a row resulted in a heated debate in the club’s WhatsApp Group where it became clear that most of our 18-year-old players of course want to win, but they want to enjoy their football and play with smiles on their faces first and foremost, whereas most of our older players, particularly those who played in the 7-3 defeat to Camden Lock Seconds and also the afore-mentioned supporters and Management Committee members, want us to be an angry aggressive fired-up physical team and to bring in more older players to help us play that way.

What most of those angry-advocating club members don’t realise though is that when my younger brother Trevor became Manager in 1991 (and I started filming our matches for players to improve their games after studying their performances on video), we completely scrapped the culture of ranting and raving at the team as a whole (and at individual players whenever they made a mistake). It wasn’t getting us anywhere. We had just finished bottom of Division 4 in the Waltham Sunday League because the players were all anxious and uptight from being constantly shouted at and torn to pieces whenever they did anything ‘wrong’. They had been told to win games by being physical and aggressive, but it didn’t work because our opponents were all far more relaxed, confident, fitter, skilful and encouraged each other as a team.

We therefore brought in a large group of 16-19 year-olds over the course of the next three seasons (which included Stuart Dorward) and completely changed the culture, introducing a skilful passing game, zonal marking from corners, cutting out all the diving into challenges and aggressive tactics, and teaching our players how to stay on their feet, stand up and defend properly, and most importantly of all, actually encouraging everybody to laugh at each other’s mistakes by watching ‘Out-Takes’ videos together instead of ranting and raving at each other during and straight after matches if we had conceded a goal or lost a match. That then created a happy atmosphere and a great team spirit with players starting to socialise with each other on Saturday nights (down the Polo Club in Tottenham) but still turn up to play the following morning…no matter how much they had been drinking or how late they got home…all because of that team spirit. Subsequently our results on the pitch started to improve and from their third season together in 1993-1994 we were winning far more games than we lost, all because players were relaxed on the pitch and enjoying their football without any pressure being put on them. Then we gradually went up the Divisions with that group of players as our main core and we ended up being the joint second-best team in the Waltham Sunday League’s Premier Division in the 2002-2003 Season and one of the best Sunday teams in London. All because there was NEVER any angry shouting at players whatsoever whenever anybody made a mistake. Players knew when they had made a mistake. They would hold their hands up and apologise and the rest of the players (and any supporters on the touchline) would shout out ‘Unlucky. Head Up’. Every time ! If it was a tactical mistake, Trevor would mention it at Half-Time or at training during the week and it would be discussed and put right for the next match without any ranting & raving whatsoever.

This culture is exactly what myself, Stuart & Trevor are trying to re-create with our current group of young players. That was the plan when we started bringing them in as 16-year-olds in the Summer of 2021 and we are NOT going to abandon it now. However, we have other Committee members and a number of parents/supporters/older players on our touchline at matches who don’t agree with that philosophy because they have never played for or been involved with teams before who have been run in that fashion and they simply can’t get their heads round it.

Do other teams we play against rant and rave with each other when they make a mistake though ? Not any more they don’t. Adults Sunday League football in our area has changed considerably over the past few seasons. A lot of that is because we are playing in a very multi-cultural League and campaigns such as Kick It Out encourage more unity amongst players and less aggression, both physically and especially verbally. Call it woke if you like, but times have changed…and for the better in my opinion. We were one of the leaders of that philosophy way back in 1991 and there is no way I want us to go back to what we were doing back in the 1980’s in the Haringey League where we were one of the main culprits for aggressive shouting from the touchline which led to numerous punch-ups, sending-offs, abandonments and even our own players almost coming to blows.

The argument for bringing in older players to improve our results doesn’t add up either. Apart from the two Cup matches where we lost 4-1 to two quality teams from higher divisions but played really well in both, the only match we have lost so far this season by more than one goal was the Camden Lock Seconds League match (3-7) where we had to fill in with numerous older players. In all our wins so far this season (and in all of those narrow one-goal defeats) we have fielded a whole squad of 17-19-year-olds apart from 20-year-old forward Eddie Cox and sometimes Ritchie Redgrave in goal.

Last season and the season before, we were regularly getting battered with massive defeats of five-goal margins or more, and that was with Leon McKenzie-McKay (39-year-old), Tre Maxwell (28-year-old) and Nana Obeng (23-year-old)…all very good players…playing in most of those matches. We have had no defeats like that whatsoever so far this season when we have fielded a whole team of 18-year-olds (as an average age). As already mentioned, Nana is now a regular for Highgate Albion’s First XI in the Premier Division, which shows how good the standard is in Division 5 that he can easily step up to that level. There are players in our Division who are playing on Saturdays at Step 5 level or above and for AFA First XI teams. Players deliberately come down to play in Division Five from the top three divisions in our League so that they can get an ‘easy’ game. We don’t have any players who have played at Step 5 Semi-Pro level yet and our 18-year-olds are doing brilliantly to compete on level terms with those players when they turn up to play against us. Our youngsters have still clearly improved massively so far this season despite us being in mid-table as a result of those narrow one-goal defeats.

When we resume after the Christmas break, I am expecting that there will still be these disagreements between those of us who want us to play for fun and those who want us to ‘win at all costs’, but if our youngsters show a bit more commitment and stop dropping out on the morning of matches and/or stop turning up late, we will get back to winning ways anyway and there is no reason why we cannot finish in the top four and at least reach a Cup Semi-Final…as we did in two separate Cup competitions in 1993-1994, which would be a good achievement and real progress in my opinion. Then I’m sure everybody will be happy.