Think not of what your club can do for you –

but what you can do for your club. Would you stay and fight for your club? This player would…

Altruism – Putting others needs before your own by a selfless or charitable act

Not for the first time in my career I find myself involved in a relegation battle due to an exodus of players and a timescale that left no time to find adequate replacements.

I am not sure if I am unusual or there are others out there who feel the need to try and help teams that find themselves in desperate straits. I suppose you could analyse the psychology of this or wonder if it is simply a way to ensure I get a game every week. I think I am still good enough to justify my selection for most teams I have been at, so it is not something I have worried about too much unless I have had a personality clash with a manager. (Another article on another day)

I believe, as I have thought about this quite a bit – it is to garner a sense of being needed. It makes me want to push myself more when I am fighting against the odds and trying to turn a situation around that is set against you. Not all players want this type of challenge and prefer to leave and join a club near the top of the league. I guess you call it the path of most resistance as opposed to least. The irony is that when you lose 3 or 4 players, you might be able to gather yourselves together, regroup and replace these players with hungry youth teamers or new players who will relish the opportunity. The problem is that in reality, what tends to happen is that the middle order players see the best players have left and in a self-fulfilling prophecy, decide to jump ship as well and ensure that what might have been a winnable, against the odds struggle, becomes a challenge akin to trying to rollerblade up Kilimanjaro.

The mess that is left behind is never pretty and puts the coach who is often new and the players who remain or have come in to help, in an invidious position. Suddenly you are a completely new team and not only do you have to gel, you also have to give time and deliver fast- track coaching to the girls who have stepped up to the level from age group football or a lower league club.

This basically means that the coach has to accept a fall in the normal standards for the short term and offer a kinder more constructive approach in the first few weeks. Eventually you can start to raise the bar and get back to where you were in terms of what is acceptable. This can come as a culture shock to newbies who thought that the slack lackadaisical approach was just the norm. This means the coach has to be able to discern football ‘growing pains’ from those that will not be able to make the required standard at this stage of their career.

I would like to paint a nice picture and say that the efforts of all these parties bear fruit and relegation is avoided maybe by winning against the league leaders on the last day. However football is not all 30 yarders and goal line clearances. Sometimes it is deflected goals that undo all the hard work in the last 5 minutes or the referee makes a mistake and you find yourself 2 goals down. Your most experienced player inexplicably gifts a goal to the opposition, much to the dismay of the youngsters who are playing above themselves. There are very few fairy tales in football. Generally it takes time to turn a club around and the bigger the wreckage the harder it is to put things back together.

I am in this situation for the 3rd time in my career: having been part of the Fulham side that lost all of its team and the Charlton side that had all its funding withdrawn.  The first two times were in the top league and so it was possible to offer young players in the reserves at big clubs a chance to test themselves at the top level. Both times were a whirlwind of activity and hard work that resulted in a massive gap being bridged but ultimately time ran out and the rebuilding was done at the next level down. The irony being that some of the girls who left due to the difficulties,  come back because the team is most likely going to be towards the top end.

The question for me is this: Do you think you can make a difference or do you think you need better players around you to succeed? I suppose both can be true but as I pointed out earlier it is the fact that most players don’t swim against the tide, that usually results in the ship floundering against the rocks.

I now find myself at Crystal Palace – who lost a lot their best players during the last couple of seasons after being relegated from the Southern Premier. Further players decided to leave in the summer after the trial day which was well attended but lacking in the required quality. The usual happened and the 3 or 4 girls who could have kept us afloat decided to leave instead of fighting. This made a difficult situation even more desperate. Manager Ian Jackson had already stated that he was leaving and so the club appointed Stephen Ephiate and Anthony Sinclair to compliment Richard Callaghan, who had been Ian’s assistant for the previous couple of seasons.

Stephen and Anthony came in and I was impressed by their ideas and implementation but due to the lack of experience in the squad, they were forced into a regressive training regime to bring players up to speed. The clock was ticking and every training second was utilised to give us a chance in the season opener.

Things were then complicated for me when we played Charlton, and Paul Mortimer who had been my manager at Charlton, spoke to me about coming to Charlton in a ‘Player Manager’ capacity. The idea being that I would work with Bill Long and wind down my playing career and take over the reserves. I was honoured to be offered this role but conflicted by me not wanting to add to Palace’s woes in what was clearly going to be a difficult period. I spoke to Stephen at Palace and he was really supportive and pointed out that this was an opportunity to build towards my future as well as learn my coaching skills within a top set up, like Charlton.

I spoke to Paul who reassured me that there was no pressure on me to give up playing and it was to be a slow transition into full time coach. I told Steve my decision and started to play for Charlton.

Due to the dual signing I was able to play in Palace’s first league game against Chesham and Steve was given a rude awakening about the chasm that he had to bridge as we found ourselves 4 down in just 15 minutes. The magnitude of the task was laid out in front of him and I felt for him, as this is not the experience that a decent coach should have to deal with in his first foray into women’s football.

I then went to Charlton to begin my apprenticeship and could only talk to Steve occasionally to gauge how progress was going. I had a taste of the new fitness regime he had adopted that included running up and down the stairs of the Crystal Palace sports stadium several times, until your legs felt like they were going to drop off. They worked on technical issues and tirelessly worked on finding the best shape to suit the players at their disposal.

I was playing for Charlton and feeling a little guilty about taking the easier option for the first time in my football life. I was getting a feel for what would be expected from me at Charlton when the bombshell went off. Paul Mortimer was leaving after 5 years in charge. He was my mentor and my respect for him as a former top player and erudite coach and man was total. I was in shock, as this meant that Bill was to get his well deserved chance at the top job and I was now under pressure to stop playing and take the reserve team manager’s role. The problem was that I had worked so hard to get fit, I felt conflicted about this, though understood the position that Charlton took. Bill and Sue Prior were brilliant and said they understood where I was but their vision was now different to the one Paul had envisaged.

It was with a heavy heart that I had to let go of the fantastic opportunity to coach at Charlton and returned determined to re-join the battle for survival that was Crystal Palace. I played against Chichester in a midweek game with a lot of the youngsters from Palace’s outstanding Under 18 squad and we were very unlucky to lose 2-1. I was astounded at the progress that the coaching and playing staff had made in the month I had been away.

Steve was very good to me and allowed me to assist him even if it was just to get a different take and utilise my experience. I was more than happy to help. Training was good and Steve and his team were able to raise the bar and this meant that some players were let go. Some went because of their bad attitude and others because they were not going to be able to assist the team this season.

Steve and the team were working hard and the girls were giving their best but we continued to be punished for the inexperience of our team. They were learning fast but football always lets you know you have more to do. We played MK Dons and played very well before the heavens opened and the game was abandoned. We then played a near the top of the table Ipswich who gave us a lesson in finishing despite possession being almost equal. They then beat us in the cup the following week. We could have been 2 up but in the end experience and taking chances put paid to us. It was only 4-0 – so we trained harder.

This week we played Brentwood and confidence was good going into the game as we had started all of these games really well and felt if we could get the first goal, we could build on this. Unfortunately we were 2-0 down in 10 minutes and never recovered. We got one back but conceded just before half time. Brentwood ran out 3-1 winners and we licked our wounds and navel-gazed once more, looking for that elusive winning formula.

Recriminations are in the air and people are looking to blame each other when it is imperative that we stick together. It is easy to be a team when you are winning but less so when football keeps giving you a bloody nose. Steve and the team are on the right road but you cannot turn around a situation like this overnight. It is a gradual improvement and eradication of rudimentary mistakes whilst learning the harsh lessons of football life at the bottom of the league is a less than palatable dish.

I hope we can turn this around and there are some players out there who like a challenge and realise that putting yourself on the line can be just as rewarding as sitting on the bench, higher up the table. Your loyalty can turn a thunderstorm into a shower and show that loyalty and determination to stop your club sinking can be victorious in a different way.

Keep the Ball moving…