Lions Sign Off for Christmas in Style

Waltham Lions U7s played their final game before Christmas on Sunday and made sure it was one to remember. Playing our 14th match of the season, completing the first part of the season having played every team twice.

Pre-Match Session

As usual, all pre-match training and warm up stuff is with the ball. We’re not here to do athletics training. Let’s have a ball involved. After a few weeks when a lot of our training sessions have been based around some different “turns”, mainly the “outside hook”, “stop turn” and the “drag-back”, the mini-training session before the match gave the players the chance to show some of those without being asked to. To begin with, we did a 4-gate game with 3 blockers, and the player on the ball in the middle trying to dribble through the open gate as the blockers move between gates. A great game to get the player in the middle making decisions as well as executing moves. Always having to look around and think where he needs to go based on where the blockers are and where the empty gate is. And as they turn to change direction quickly, they’re automatically using some of the turning techniques we’ve been practising, as well as some from their own imagination. And as the coach I’m not telling them where to run or when to change direction, mainly staying quiet but adding the odd “where do you need to go now?” or “where’s the empty gate now?” prompt as the blockers move around to cover different gates. The boys were all brilliant at this when it was their turn with the ball in the middle.

This moved on to another game where the player receiving the ball from my pass had a defender behind them, yet they had to somehow get to dribble through one of the gates which were behind them and about 10 yards apart. Again, encouraging the player to turn, but also giving them things to think about. Questions I asked before and during this exercise where: “How will you decide which way to turn?”, “what might you do if the defender comes up on your left to try and tackle you?” and “How are you going to know where the defender is?” The answers the kids gave to these where spot on. Telling me that they need to look to see where the defender is, and that if the defender comes around one side they would try to turn the other way. Yet again, the kids coming up with their own answers to the problems they’ll need to solve in this game but also on the pitch. And you can tell by the way they are on the pitch that learning this way is helping them remember what to do and how to make decisions during games without any of us (myself and the parents) shouting any instructions of what to do from the sidelines. This game worked quite well too, considering it is the first time we have attempted it, and I’m sure would run better after one or two more goes.

Following on from last week, we had a reminder in the 2v2 attack vs defence practice right before the game of how many players should be running to tackle the opposition player with the ball, and what the other players on our team could be doing. But as usual, I wasn’t telling them, but asking them to tell me. If they’re telling me, they’re showing themselves (as well as me) that they know the answer, and as I said earlier, I think that’s helping them problem-solve on the pitch all on their own.

The Game

Onto the game itself, and the Lions were down to a bare 5 players with Oliver Hendry and Jay Crichton unable to deputise for Ethan Lowe and Benjamin Harrison who are suffering with Man Flu. Our thoughts and prayers are with you boys, hoping you recover soon from what is a horrific version of the common cold that ladies suffer from.

I personally think that with us down to 5 players, and also missing Ethan who likes to go in goal for at least a quarter or two of the match usually, it made all the players pull together that little bit more. Before we started we spoke about how everyone would need to take a turn in goal, and there were volunteers for every quarter, including boys that went in goal last week, and boys that never normally volunteer themselves for a stint between the sticks. I think this set the tone for what would be a great display of team-work during the game too. Lucas Jex, Lucas Gill, Rhys Racey and Leyton Bolton all took their turn in goal, and Ben Crolla had a full game outfield after playing the 4th quarter of last week’s game in goal himself. We also had a different player in each quarter playing in the role of defender, with Lucas J, Ben, Leyton and Lucas G all being very disciplined and putting the team first by holding a position behind the rest of the team.

The ‘Defender’ = The ‘First Attacker’ 

Short ball from Goal Kick

The Short Goal Kick

When going through the line up with the players I always stress that the role of the defender is always to be our first attacker, in the sense that they control where our attacks will go. This is because we take advantage of the retreat line rule and play out from goal-kicks as well as I’ve seen from any other side this season (and that includes a couple of older age group games). I ask the defender to start just outside the GK area from our goal kicks, and our GK nearly always makes the simply decision to pass to this defender, who is then in charge of whether we attack by passing to his left, right, down the middle if possible, or if he holds onto the ball and dribbles. I know being the defender won’t be seen as the glamorous position that kids will all want to play, but I hope that by giving it this responsibility and importance, it is something that they’ll enjoy more as they realise this. Also, as a result of the way we play out from goal kicks, the defender often goes through spells of having more touches than anyone on the pitch.

In the picture above Leyton Bolton plays an easy short ball out to Ben Crolla, who can turn and decide how we’ll attack by the time the opposition have closed him down from the half-way line. I would say in at least 75% of the games we have played so far, the other team we’ve been playing against have either actively encouraged their goalkeeper to “give it a big kick” (a phrase I think should be banned from the touchlines), or the goalkeeper has chosen to himself. I’m delighted that after we worked on it before games for several weeks a few months ago, I now don’t have to ask them to set up and play out this way. The players are brave enough to keep doing it even in games where we’ve lost the ball doing it, or played against teams that have beaten us by a big score. And they’re probably realising that we stand a better chance of keeping the ball amongst our players if we do this, rather than hitting it as far as possible when the accuracy of the kick will be compromised and it could go to either team.

As I told the players afterwards, one of the things that was very pleasing about this game was the variety in the great goals that we scored. But also that we almost scored a few more that would’ve been contenders for goal of the season if they’d gone in. It was an absolutely brilliant, stylish and entertaining performance that was exciting to watch. Leyton Bolton was as calm as ever on the ball, and why wouldn’t he be when the ball is never more than an inch away from his foot. Leyton was again showing he has an eye for a pass which is beyond what should be expected at his age, threading balls down the line for Lucas Jex to run onto and playing cross-field balls to Ben Crolla. Leyton nearly got a goal himself when a rebound fell to him just inside the area, but his shot was saved brilliantly by the opposition goalkeeper. He had a good 10 minutes as the defender, making some good tackles and also patiently started the attacking moves after collecting the ball short from our goalkeeper. Leyton also had a few good dribbles of his own, as he continues to keep the ball away from the defender whilst protecting the ball and keep it under control.

Lucas Gill continued his progress, not only winning more tackles than I’ve ever seen from him, but now being more composed when he gets the ball. One thing I love that Lucas is doing at the moment, is controlling the ball, then looking up to see the defender in front of him, and waiting for the defender to make a move so he can try and go round him – almost teasing the defender and then going to dribble. There were several times on Sunday when Lucas ran with the ball and either had a shot or passed to a teammate, when a few months ago he may have lashed the ball away first time. Hopefully now any nerves or panic when under pressure are disappearing as his confidence is clearly growing for all to see. This is hardly surprising though, as Lucas is an excellent trainer and takes in everything I say to him.

Lucas Gill dribbles towards goal

Lucas Gill dribbles towards goal

Ben Crolla gave the kind of all-action display that he’s become known for over the last few months. Managing to somehow be wherever the ball was loose, constantly winning the ball for the team and chasing back to stop several opposition counter-attacks. Ben scored a great individual goal by running down the inside left channel, weaving through and around one or two players before cutting back onto his right foot to smash it past the keeper for our first goal of the game. He almost repeated this when he ran from the left side of the half-way line, diagonally to the right-hand edge of the goalkeeper’s area to shoot, but this one just hit the side-netting. Ben definitely had his shooting boots on, and he unleashed an unstoppable shot from about 15 yards out with great technique, as straight as an arrow, which unfortunately cannoned back off the post.

Ben Crolla in possession

Ben Crolla in possession

Ben also played a huge part in what was my favourite goal of the game. After tackling and winning the ball (he’s only small but does he ever lose a tackle?) just inside the opposition half, he ran forward and found himself 1v1 with another defender. The good thing for the Lions was that this move had now become a 2v1 in our favour, as Lucas Jex had ran up alongside Ben. And as the defender made a move to go in for the tackle on Ben, he unselfishly slipped the ball to his left to put his teammate one-on-one with the goalkeeper. What Lucas Jex did really well to help create this opportunity, is stay away from Ben rather than crowd him out by running towards the ball. If he’d done that, Ben may not have been able to pass to him. Lucas got into space and maintained that space, whilst keeping a line for the pass as opposed to getting stuck behind the defender which would’ve made a pass impossible. And once the ball was played to him and he was bearing down on goal straight through the middle, he slotted it in the bottom corner for his second goal of the game. Lucas was, as he usually is, the most fouled player on the pitch. Not because the opposition were dirty or unsporting, but because he’s capable of gliding past players, often nudging the ball past them as they’re going in for the tackle, showing his quick feet. Other times it is just his composure to stop the ball dead and shield the ball, keeping his body between defender and ball. I think some parents may panic when they see Lucas do this, but I’m happy for him to do this no matter where he is on the pitch. His confidence on the ball is brilliant and I intend to nurture that confidence and help him use it to do creative, imaginative things with the ball, as well as encouraging others to do the same. The ball is not a hot potato, we don’t need to get rid of it or pass it as soon as we get it every time. Lucas also hit a David Beckham-like free kick from just outside the goalkeepers area, which flew in off the post for his first goal of the game.

Lucas Jex find space for a Lions throw-in

Lucas Jex finds space for a Lions throw-in

Rhys Racey was also at his threatening best and was at the heart of many Lions attacks. At one moment in the first half he picked up the ball on the left around the half-way line, and had a player 5-6 yards ahead of him. Rhys showed his blistering pace as he gave the defender a 5 yard head-start when he knocked the ball forward to his right, sat down for a Mars Bar and some Ribena, then got back up and still beat the defender to the ball. It was a bit reminiscent of Michael Owen against Argentina at France ’98, only the keeper stayed stood up and strong (as opposed to the Argentina ‘keeper at that World Cup) and Rhys’ shot went just the wrong side of the post into the side-netting. In the 3rd quarter Rhys did manage to score, to give himself a great record for the season of 14 goals in 14 games. The ball fell to Rhys in the area and he smashed it into the back of the net before the ‘keeper knew it was past him. Rhys also hit a first-time volley as a ball came down from high above him, this was from a long way out and as it flew through the air, some of the parents may have heard me say, quite excitedly I must admit, “OH MY GOD!!!” as I thought it was going in the top corner. If it had, it would’ve been one of the best goals I’ve ever seen. And not just in junior football. Unfortunately it went only just wide of the post as it flew past everyone in the air.

Rhys Racey determined to get to the ball first

Rhys Racey determined to get to the ball first

Proud

I couldn’t have been prouder of the boys for not only all playing well individually, but also for playing together and functioning well as a team. Again we had one player chasing the ball to tackle at a time, no crowding around the ball making it easy for the opposition to pass around us. We had a great blend of passing and dribbling that made it a performance of real quality, as well as excitement. We scored some great goals and were lucky enough to have an own goal also go in our favour, although the few seconds of silence on the pitch as no-one seemed to know what had just happened was quite funny, until Rhys ran away celebrating as if he had scored it himself (sign of a true goalscorer I suppose). In the final 2 quarters I don’t think our goalkeepers had much to do, and that was due to the teamwork of the guys in front of them, with the defenders also playing their part in recognising when and where there was danger, and going to cut it out.

This was probably the best the Lions have played over a full 40 minute game so far. We have had spells where we have been pure class, often for 2 or 3 quarters of a game. But it is often the odd quarter when we concede a few goals that lose us a game when it comes to the score. But I’ve been happy that I know we’ve been playing better football than many teams, even in defeat. And that long term that will benefit us and it will get to a point where we will cope against the physically bigger teams and won’t be afraid when 2 or 3 bigger lads are charging at us to get the ball. So I hope the boys and also the parents haven’t made too much of a big deal of us losing games, or not winning as many as they would no doubt have liked. And whilst anyone reading this who knows me will know that winning isn’t high on my list of priorities in u7 football, I don’t mind admitting I was delighted for the boys to win the last game before Xmas after going quite a while without a win.

Tommy’s Highlights

  1. Tottenham Hotspur fan Leyton Bolton refusing to wear Ben’s goalkeeper gloves because they were Man Utd goalie gloves. He was quite happy to go bare-handed until I remembered I had some spare Sondico gloves in my bag. Leyton – respect to you!
  2. Lucas Gill’s header after the ball came down from about 10 feet up in the air. Probably the first intentional header like that we’ve had from our u7s. Brave lad!
  3. Goal celebrations. From Rhys Racey’s knee slide to Lucas Jex’s funny wacko Jacko dance. Apologies to Lucas’ mum for reminding him to do it, but he spent 10 minutes before the game telling me what he was going to do when he scored, only to forget it when he actually scored, so I thought…well, he might as well do it.

Up the Lions! See you at the Waltham FC Christmas party next Sunday.

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