Glory goes grassroots

A day with the Balham Panthers

Top-tier management can feel like a closed book for young English managers. No Englishman has won the country's top division since 1992 – the final year of the old First Division. And the current crop of English top-flight coaches seem condemned to occupy the least glamorous jobs – or take caretaker positions until someone with a more exotic CV comes along. 

And yet, every weekend, young English men and women preside over ambitious clubs from Truro to Berwick-Upon-Tweed. Grassroots football is alive and well in England, and every club – no matter how small – needs a manager. But what can these budding coaches expect from a career in football? Can they punch through the glass ceiling, and perhaps catch the attention of one of the country's professional clubs?

Earlier this month, I caught up with an old friend of mine at Trinity Fields in Balham. Jamie Morris is now head coach of the Balham Panthers – Balham FC's ladies first team. I stood on the touchline as the panthers lost a league cup tie on penalties to Islington Borough LFC. Afterwards, Jamie and I caught up on all things grassroots football, Jamie's path into management, his ambitions for the future, and the opportunities available in the women's game.

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So, Jamie – tell us about your route into coaching. What made you want to become a football coach, and how did you end up in charge of the Balham Panthers?

"For me, coaching is the culmination of a process that started long before. I experienced quite a seismic change in personal circumstances nearly three years ago, and this helped me come to the realisation that what I did for a living didn't satisfy me, and that life's too short to waste on a vocation you don't enjoy. With hindsight, coaching seems so obvious now." 

"I've always loved football – playing, analysing, talking about it – and was always either captain or a very vocal member of any team I was involved in. Saying that, my route into Balham Panthers was very much down to circumstance. After completing my Level 1 coaching badge I started looking for opportunities, and responded to an ad I saw on the London FA website for an assistant manager position with Balham FC Youth U13s. After speaking to Chairman and Director of Football Greg Cruttwell, I realised it wouldn't work out because there's no way I could get to training in time after work. We were close to parting ways until Greg asked me if I fancied being head coach of the adult women's team, as they trained later in the evening. I just thought I had to take the opportunity."

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So you jumped straight in at the deep end. Are there a lot of opportunities for young coaches coming into the game? 

"This is a more tricky question because I haven't really looked elsewhere that much. I certainly count myself very lucky to have first-team coaching responsibility so early on, and I should thank Greg for taking a chance on me. There's certainly plenty of voluntary opportunities, but making the step up into paid work in positions of responsibility is far more challenging. We may be making great progress with our age groups at elite level, but the grassroots game is still chronically lacking funding. The FA is incredibly lucky that there are so many coaches in this country willing to work for nothing, out of love for the game."

So what’s it like being a coach at this level of the game? What are your main responsibilities?

"One of the most striking things is that you have almost total responsibility. My typical week includes filling in all the matchday data on the FA website, arranging fixtures with referees and opposition coaches, doing our social media, planning and delivering sessions as well as picking the team for the Sunday. I also have to set up and run all warm-ups on match day. During pre season, I designed and distributed recruitment flyers  as well as advertising open sessions on places like Gumtree. Bear in mind I also have a full-time job!"

"It sounds like a lot, but I honestly love it all. The only downside is in footballing terms. I only get an hour each week with the players, so I've learned to have a lot of patience – any substantial changes in playing style or tactics are not going to happen overnight. I also need to fit elements of fitness, tactics and technical skills into that single hour, while taking into account the fact this is amateur football, and people are here for different reasons. Some come for the social side, some for the exercise, and some for the competition. I try to bear in mind that players pay subs and registration fees, so they expect value for money if they're going to continue to turn up. But that doesn't mean you can't change much from a footballing perspective – you just have to be realistic."

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Do you think the women’s game offer more opportunities than the men’s game? You've spoken to me about Mark Samson's career trajectory before.

"The women's game is expanding massively, and participation is growing every year. It's really exciting to play my very small part in that. There's still a chasm in terms of funding and advertising revenues between the men's and women's games, so there's naturally far less scope for paid employment – both for players and coaches."

"Obviously there’s been a lot in the press about Mark Sampson recently and I don’t want to go into that, but I definitely feel that his career trajectory offers real hope to grassroots coaches looking to rise up –  coach of that age, with relatively few jobs behind him, having that level of responsibility in the men's game is unheard of. The very fact there isn't the same money or global fame in the women's game means those in charge of selecting coaches and managers can take more of a risk and give young, ambitious coaches a chance.".

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What about your own career trajectory. What are the realistic next steps?

"I’m not really sure what the future holds just yet, and to be honest I’m trying not to plot too much of a course at this relatively early stage. I know that I want to end up running a football school for disadvantaged children – something along the lines of the incredibly successful Football Beyond Borders. I’m a huge believer in sport as a tool for social mobility, providing structure and discipline and as an aid to education – particularly for those who haven’t been afforded the best start in life."

"For the immediate future, it's about gathering as much experience as I can and doing my badges – I'm due to do Level 2 in early 2018, and want to be UEFA B before the end of the decade. This is the most important stage in reaching my first big achievement – being full-time employed as a coach!"

Tell us a bit more about the Panthers. What level do you play at? And what are your aspirations for the team?

"Balham Panthers are the ladies adult team for Balham FC – a very high-achieving, FA charter-standard club. We play in the Greater London Women's Football League, which sits between levels 6-9 in the women's football pyramid. We’re in Division 2 South, where we finished mid-table last year. A run into the latter stages of a cup and a higher points total than last season is my minimum aim for this season, but a promotion challenge is still very much on the cards."

"We’ve only had two bad performances this season. Our position in the league doesn’t reflect our quality, and the group we have is more than capable of challenging for the top two. But we’ll need to start putting together a decent run of results if this is to remain a realistic goal."

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Do you have much of an opportunity to impose your own style and personality on a team at this level of the game? Does it depend on the players you have available?

"Like I said earlier, there are significant obstacles in terms of player availability and the limited training time, but that doesn’t mean you can’t invoke change. It just takes time, and you need to be realistic with your aims. When I first arrived we shipped goals left, right and centre, so I focused on organisation a lot in my first season. We're now amongst the most miserly teams in our league."

"However, you're completely right that what you can impose is determined by the players you have available. We’re a counter-attacking side in the main because I recognised when I took over that it suits our strengths – we have a lot of pace going forward, and have players who really enjoy pressing and winning the ball back. It’s also important to remember that I deal with adult footballers, and realistically once players get to their mid-20s and above you aren’t going to be able to improve their technique significantly – that’s what age group coaching is for. At this stage, it’s more about tactical and mental improvements."

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What do you most enjoy about grassroots football? And what are the biggest frustrations?

"The community spirit of grassroots football is wonderful. No-one gets paid, so everyone is doing it for the love of the sport. At Balham we all get behind the different teams, help each other out and cover for each other when we can. You really feel like part of something bigger. My biggest frustrations are the facilities – privately-owned grounds are generally of a good standard, but these tend to be very expensive and extremely hard to get your hands on."

"We're very lucky with our ground at Balham, but we're very much in the minority. At any age group or skill level, there’s nothing more frustrating than watching a technically superior team lose a game of football to a physical, brutish side simply because the pitch wouldn’t allow them to play their game. I think this contributes to why we've struggled to consistently produce technically world-class players. There needs to be huge investment in high-quality, all-weather, public pitches at grassroots level – the combination of our wet, cold playing season and our reliance on public grass pitches is one of the biggest obstacles to progress."

- Words by Louis Rossi. Images by Rachel Lewis and Joe Bonnell.

With thanks to Jamie Morris and all the women at Balham Panthers WFC. You can find out more about earning your coaching badges and browse available coaching jobs at thefa.com.