Community game

This Sunday in Skem is on the waterlogged side – pouring rain, puddles and offroad pathways turned to mudpies.

Joe Nelson and SJFL refs

Joe Nelson and SJFL refs.

Joe Nelson, 74, is out in it in a wet coat and steamed-over glasses, as he usually is on Sunday. Nelson is chair of the Skelmersdale Junior Football League, and has been for more than 30 years.

As Nelson says, it’s a commitment – especially on Sunday, which is matchday for junior footballing Skem.

Outside of the new clubhouse that the FA helped build (with a £400,000 donation), hundreds of small footballers between the ages of six and 14 tear around a huge marshy paddock. There are about ten games in progress.

Nelson says that about 1000 kids play over the course of each Sunday, with around 4000 people (kids, families, friends) turning up to the park in total. They’re impressive numbers, especially in action: swarms of brightly-dressed, miniature footballers as far as the eye can see.

Noticeable too is the number of tiny footballers playing to a spectacular standard of finish. Parents on the sideline at one game watch as one little kid, who is standing a good few yards out from goal, curls a near-perfect free kick towards the top left hand corner of the net. The ball sort of hangs in the air, then drops like a falcon. Amazingly, the ginger haired boy in goal is equal to this flightpath. He launches himself into the air, sails towards the ball on a straight anti-gravity horizontal, and swats the ball clear with both hands.

Nelson says the SJFL channels a considerable portion of its income (raised mainly through a weekly tote) into helping Skem kids into skills training events, FA courses and away trips to other teams.

Families, the kids and team managers are keen. Leon Osmond made it from the SJFL all the way to the Everton first team (Everton signed him when he was nine), and Liverpool, Everton and Wigan scouts still stop by SJFL games.

Nelson – an affable, grandfatherly type who has lived in Skem for 37 years and has five children of his own – has mixed feelings about these early-age big-club signings. He prefers to think of football as an entry to community, rather than a means of escaping it.

‘They [the big clubs] are picking them up too early if you ask me. A lot of [our] lads have gone to the likes of the Wigan teams, and some have gone through to the Liverpool setup, but they haven’t progressed as far as Leon.

‘They go to the academy, and then they get to a certain age, and they say “No, sorry, you’re not going to make it…they’re taking their childhood away from them. They can’t play for their [own] clubs once they’re picked up [by the big teams].’  Which isn’t to say he doesn’t understand. ‘If these fellas [football scouts] come up [to a parent] and say “I want your boy to join Liverpool,” what does a parent do?’

Anyway, Nelson says, the SJFL is less for the few than for the majority, which needs to be kept fit and busy and away from – well, boredom, arson, violence and throwing dogshit round the likes of the New Church Farm estate.

‘If you can keep kiddies occupied in the right areas you can keep them out of the wrong areas. [SJFL] kids train two days a week with their teams. The club holds social evenings for the kids and their families. We’re getting floodlights, so they can play at night.’

A lot of Skem sees one point or the other of the exercise. The league’s army of volunteers (organisers, fixtures secretaries, coaches, managers, refs, tote-collectors, cooks in the canteen) is mostly local. Players who stay in Skem as adults stay with the league as referees.

‘We’re lucky to have a good pool of referees. It’s one of the hardest things, because of the abuse that referees take,’ Nelson says. ‘We don’t get that much, but we do get some.’ He laughs. ‘You always get some.’ The coaches and the managers put a lot of work in to improve the [kids’] skills. Nearly every manager we’ve got has been on an [FA] course for the first level of training.’ They’re all cleared to work with kids.

Nelson worries about Skem, although he’s happy here – ‘I think Skem has been left behind a bit. In truth, it hasn’t come along like it might have done.’

Four of his five children still live here. The one who left did so on the strength of football – she was a good player who moved to San Diego with her husband, a trainer and coach. The next family member out of Skem will be Nelson’s granddaughter, who is also a footballer. She’s a 22-year-old who has played for England and joined Everton as a youngster.

‘She’s out in the US, so she’s doing very well out of it. She’s got a two year scholarship, so she’s had a good little run out of it.’ He stands in the rain with us, watching the hundreds of miniature footballers. ‘There’s a lot out there if the opportunity comes along.’