Whatever we do, having the right environment to do it in is essential, the right environment is where you feel supported, it’s friendly, it’s enthusiastic, somewhere you enjoy being, you have trust in those around you and most importantly of all you feel safe.
As a teenager I was fortunate enough to be exposed to the most incredible environment. I was a talented young football player and was invited to attend a one week trial at Manchester United. When I received this news I couldn’t quite believe it, a skinny lad from a tiny village near Cambridge going up to one of the biggest football clubs in the world. It was a dream come true.
As you can imagine I was hugely excited, but as the date got nearer trepidation and doubt grew inside me. I was really shy and the thought of meeting new people and that I wouldn’t be good enough to play for a club like that made me wonder if I should head off on this little adventure! But after some reassuring words from my family I packed my bag and got dropped off at the train station and off I went.
I still remember that train journey today, it seemed to take forever. I was staring out the window with my bag on my lap really nervous of what it would be like. When I finally arrived I was picked up at the station by a member of staff and driven to the Castlefield Hotel in the city where I would be staying for the next week with another group of kids from all over Britain that would be doing the same thing.
The second I was picked up the guy was so friendly, he seemed so pleased to see me, he was so enthusiastic about everything he said, it really put me at ease. The next week was absolutely amazing, everyone I came into contact with was exactly the same, the environment and culture that had been developed through the whole club made me fall in love with it. After one week I felt like I was part of something truly special and was desperate to get signed.
The strange thing is the biggest memories I have of that initial experience are not football ones, but how I was treated as a human being, I felt special, I felt cared for which allowed me to express myself and feel at ease in what I imagined was going to be a really high pressure environment. This allowed me to do quite well on the pitch and end up signing for the club soon after.
At the end of the week we played a game against Nottingham Forest and in the dressing room beforehand we were introduced to Alex Ferguson, this was obviously mind blowing someone I’d only ever seen on the Tv as a fearsome competitor on the side of the pitch. But when he spoke, he seemed so different, like everyone else at the club he was so passionate about what the club was all about, I was spellbounded as he spoke. This was the man that had built this culture of excellence throughout the orginisation and the environment that made everyone feel like they were part of something special.
I’ll never forget how I was made to feel during that week as it’s something that means so much to me. And it’s something we try to replicate albeit in a completely different side to football at the Football Fun Factory. Our aim is to make every child that attends our programmes feel welcome, in a friendly pressure free environment where they can learn at their own speed, feeling safe and enjoying themselves.
I’m incredibly privileged to have had the experiences I did in professional football and not many people get that opportunity. But football is for everyone, not just those perceived as talented at a young age, and the Football Fun Factory will continue to break down barriers to entry to give as many children as possible chamce to enjoy the game in a safe, supportive environment.
When my football career was coming to an end I didn’t have an idea what I was going to do next. I had no plan, I rather naively thought I could just keep playing and playing and didn’t want to think about life post playing. The reason for this was fear, fear of the unknown all I ever knew was football and the thought of life after it brought up too many uncomfortable feelings that I didn’t want to process.
But time catches up with everyone in the end and when my body wasn’t doing what the mind wanted it to do out on the pitch my football career was at an end and within the blink of an eye that was that. An 18 year playing career dedicated to football was over and a lack of preparation meant for challenges I certainly wasn’t prepared for.
This transition into the ‘real world’ was without doubt the toughest time of my life. I was lost, feeling like I had no identity and didn’t know where I fitted into the world, all I’d ever been known as was a football player and all the feelings of importance that came with it and it scared the living daylights out of me. In my mind the best part of my life was over and I didn’t have anything to look forward to in the sense of work.
To begin with I did very little, sitting around wishing away time. I then got a little more proactive going through my coaching qualifications and booking on to every course going. This was great to begin with and I learnt a huge amount doing them but when they were completed the feeling of emptiness would always return. I didn’t even know if I wanted to be a coach, it was just something I thought old footballers did and I didn’t really think I had the skill set to do anything else.
I continued plodding along and got a job at an academy at a professional club, this should have been the dream job for me! I wasn’t interested in being a first team manager or coach but the thought of developing younger players and people really appealed to me. I threw myself into it, working every hour god sends into making a success of my new role.
But again despite there being fantastic parts to the role I was doing, I didn’t love it and couldn’t see myself doing it for the rest of my working life. After a few years I felt drained from the long hours and to be completely honest got sick of the sound of my own voice, I began to dislike the person I had become particularly on the side of the football pitch moaning at referees and disappointed when the team of children I was coaching didn’t perform the way I wanted them to. I’d developed an ego which I didn’t like!
There were also parts of the job I didn’t like and didn’t agree with. Releasing young children from the age of 9 or 10 years old was incredibly hard to do when in reality nobody has a clue how they develop through those formative years. I thought it was crazy how young clubs bring the kids into the system and the expectations of them in terms of training schedule and the distance some parents would travel to get the kids to training.
At times it seemed like a lot of the children could lose some love for the game and it all got a little too serious too early and as time went on the smiles were lost. It became too much about the destination of making it as a pro and the journey and enjoyment were forgotten, when in reality so few would actually make it all the way through the system.
I knew this wasn’t the right job role for me, but what else could I do? Now in life timing and luck are two hugely important things and so it proved in my case! Two of my former colleagues at the club I was working for, James Cutting and Jonny Martin asked me to appear on their podcast to talk about my early experiences in Football for The Football Fun Factory. Now I’d spoken to them briefly before about it but didn’t truly understand what the concept was and what they wanted to achieve.
After talking to them on the podcast about what The Football Fun Factory was and how they wanted to engage children with football I was blown away and wanted to be part of it. The whole ethos of the company resonated with me and reminded me so much of my first experiences playing football, it was all about fun and enjoyment very much more so than tactical or technical coaching.
Within weeks I was on board as one of the first Head Coaches of The Football Fun Factory setting up my very own franchise in the community where I live in South Cambridge. I had gone from coaching how to beat a low block to a group of talented 16 year olds to teaching a group of 2-5 year old kids inside an inflatable football pitch in the village hall where I lived. And I absolutely loved it!
It was all about fun, I was coaching for smiles and developing positive human values through the vehicle of football. It was so rewarding having a positive impact in my local community, the community where I grew up and had the same positive first experiences in the game. Our programmes for 2-12 year olds are inclusive for all which meant I was the very first football coach for many of the children, this was a huge responsibility. If I could make it a fun, enjoyable experience these young children could fall in love with the sport forever, it was a responsibility I relished!
Fast forward to today and we have 80 Head Coaches up and down the Uk doing the exact same thing and hopefully in time every child will have the opportunity to take part in our programmes. That was always the dream, participation on a mass scale with tens of thousands of children playing football with a smile on their face and without doubt the reason I became part of The Football Fun Factory!