Sky Sports' Johnny Phillips: For the love of the game, it’s truly a day to rejoice

For the first weekend this year, football will be played at all levels across the country.

Johnny Phillips (front row, second right) with his team-mates from Heroes Of Waterloo FC will be among thousands of Sunday league players returning to the game they love this weekend.
Johnny Phillips (front row, second right) with his team-mates from Heroes Of Waterloo FC will be among thousands of Sunday league players returning to the game they love this weekend.

The English game is blessed with some of the finest stadia in the world, filled with top footballers from across the globe. But there is no more fulfilling and wholesome sight than that of amateur footballers slogging it out on parks pitches for nothing more than a love of the game.

Elite level sport has continued through the pandemic, but grassroots football has suffered immeasurably. Sunday morning walks have been tinged with sadness as parks pitches lie empty. The goal frames remain, tape flapping along the crossbar like forgotten bunting, but no nets. No players.

There is not a form of amateur football further removed from the Premier League than that played on a Sunday morning. While youth football is about development and Saturday league matches maintain a façade of professionalism in their organisation, if not their standard, Sunday league football has a purity of devotion that cannot be matched. No matter how low the standard stoops, the players still turn out.

Sunday league is full of contradictions. A bad habit that cannot be kicked. An essential discipline to rescue a wasted weekend. Every player has a different reason for participating. Camaraderie. Escapism.

Sunday league players are faced with the poorest facilities. They are at the mercy of the worst day of public transport. They are under threat from developers closing in on prized public land.

If not always thriving, Sunday league is at least surviving.

It is 20 years since I was first introduced to the joys and idiosyncrasies of London’s Sunday league with Heroes of Waterloo FC. After leaving Leeds – and a well-organised weekend team – for a new job in the capital, several months passed without that fix of parks football.

Then one Sunday morning, I woke up on a workmate’s sofa after a house party and was asked if I wanted a run-out as his team was short of players.

Our opponents that day at Regents Park were International Student House. It was a double-header to atone for a raft of winter postponements, which meant two matches of 60 minutes. A ruthless hangover cure.

The London West End League Division One was filled with teams representing the capital’s cultural, economic and ethnic diversity. Churchill Arms, Moroccan Youth, Original Black Stars, Brazen Head, Rapid Decline, Bloomsbury Spiders, Daventry St Germain. When Lokomotiv Knightsbridge fell out with their pitch owners one season they simply rebooked under the name Red Star Belgravia and continued to fulfil their fixtures.

It was all about survival. One Sunday in 2011, Heroes’ numbers were down to the fewest ever.

Just eight of us made it on to a field in north London to face Colindale.

We escaped with a creditable 4-0 defeat, tactically lamping the ball as far out of play as possible at every opportunity, leaving the home side consuming time by trudging across neighbouring pitches to retrieve the ball. It was a low ebb but the club kept going, which is all that mattered.

In over 600 fixtures since being founded in 1994, Heroes of Waterloo have never named the same starting XI twice. Over 600 different line-ups; the transient nature of Sunday league football laid bare as players come and go. Taken to pastures new with work, a relationship, or just their dignity.

End of season tours are the Heroes’ raison d’etre. Every summer – until the pandemic struck – we head to the continent in search of sun, cerveza and shambolic opposition.

Inevitably there have been mix-ups in translation leading to some mismatches of epic proportions. In 2006 we visited Bratislava having lined up a friendly against SKO Miloslavov, who turned out to be residing in the fifth tier of the Slovakian league.

Suspicions were aroused on arrival at a venue with actual stands, where the local mayor had come out to greet us for a photo opportunity with the town’s newspaper.

The semi-professionals went easy on us, sensing this was not the top English opposition their fixtures secretary had led them to believe, coasting to an 11-1 victory.

More commonly, these European games involve a lengthy trek to the parts of town not featured in any tourist guide, for a game on a run-down council pitch before our hosts sweep us away on a pub crawl which props up their local economy for the weekend.

Heroes of Waterloo have not kicked a ball since the second weekend of December.

There have been no head counts at the side of the pitch. No attempts to pick a formation from seven forwards, two midfielders, a right-back and a lad who “likes to play the ten role.”

No nets to hang. No refs to harangue. No shouts of “clear it” or “time” when Sunday league footballers possess neither the awareness nor ability to ever have time.

No forlorn attempts at an offside trap when there has not been a linesman operating at this level since the 1970s.

Today it starts again for the Heroes, with a friendly charity fundraiser down in Dorking ahead of tomorrow’s league return. Despite the travel this friendly involves, 18 of us have declared for the fixture, although there still won’t be a recognised left-back. Everyone has missed it.

For us older ones, appearances are restricted to the odd fixture each year and end of season tour games, with family priorities replacing treasured Sunday mornings on London’s municipal playing fields. But each year there is a fresh intake of young lads keeping the club alive with renewed enthusiasm, vigour and dedication. And the same limitations and failings as the rest of us.

Here for the love of the game.

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