In May 2017 I was asked if I wanted to captain Keynes FC, my beloved university football team who I’ve had the pleasure of representing since my first year. My third year saw me spend a year out in Bologna where the football team I was a part of struggled to give me much satisfaction. The man management, the lack of support and socials took so much away from what was generally a successful and winning team. When asked to captain Keynes FC, there were a few things I vowed to improve on that I hadn’t experienced myself as a player, and these details became fundamental in our title winning season.
I don’t for one second claim to be a master in running and organising a team, in fact along the way I made many mistakes that needed course-correcting as we fought for the trophy. For one, I spelt my teammates surname wrong on his kit… ended up paying £30 for a new one. I’ve been occasionally prone to organising training at the last minute, and I set myself limits that were always there to be broken, only perhaps I didn’t realise that till later. I set out with a squad number target of 18-20 players, only to have to break my own limits by signing another 2 who were simply too good to let go. I set up my teams defensively in the hope we wouldn’t get beaten, only to realise we were the team that should be feared. Despite all this, we did lift that trophy, and what a feeling it was. So I must have done something right! Here’s a few things I’ve learnt along the way, in what’s been an amazing journey with this club.
22 men all determined to play every week is not an easy amount to manage. In our first friendly we played two different starting XI’s because we had the depth to do it. Telling someone they’re starting is easy. Telling someone they’re not, or rather not telling them at all, is far harder. I went into the season knowing from personal experience that not knowing why you weren’t playing, or not being acknowledged for it was always very hard. Perhaps I’m blessed to have an incredibly understanding and supportive squad, but whenever I had to make a hard decision, the players supported me. Communication doesn’t mean clarity from the captain, but also from the players themselves. If the whole squad is open and lets their thoughts known, resolutions to the inevitable problems you will face will come around much more quickly.
It’s great when your team support the decisions you make, but it’s vital you support your own decisions as well. There’s a fine line between confidence and security, and arrogance and stubbornness. My final line-up for the season was changed from what I wanted on the advice of my coach – sometimes you need to adapt. Ultimately, any decision you make will never be believed in by your team-mates if you don’t truly believe in it yourself. If you need to drop a player at the last minute, or take someone off, simply because their attitude isn’t right, you do it. If you need to change to a 4-3-3 despite winning 4 matches in a row with a 4-2-3-1, you do it. If you need to sacrifice individual potential for a better team performance, you do it. The point is, these decisions, however hard they get, are far more respected if you make them with confidence.
Believe in your team, and they’ll believe in themselves
My biggest regret of the season is not recognising how good we were, sooner. Of course there’s always a bedding in period at the beginning of the season, and perhaps pragmatism got in the way of my adventurousness. Simply put, this team, player for player, was the best team in the league from day one – I just didn’t see it immediately. Sturdy and safe team set-ups gave us far too much respect for the other team when perhaps we needed to just show up and stamp our authority on the game. Our best performances came when I told the team “go out and attack them”, because the tone was set from the start. The more I believed in the team and the more our line-ups and tactics showed it, the more the players believed this title was truly theirs to win.
According to Dele Alli, you don’t go a day without shaking the hand of every player and staff member at Tottenham Hotspur under manager Mauricio Pochettino. Whilst we perhaps didn’t implement this tradition so blatantly, we undoubtedly had a respect amongst the team that you need to bring onto the pitch as well. Every player would welcome the next one in, hugs and hand-shakes all round, team warm-ups and applauses at the end with a team vote for the man-of-the-match award were all elements of the togetherness the team had and the appreciation for one another. Just thank someone even for turning up, just for trying – it goes a long way.
December hit a low point for Keynes FC as 1 point out of 6 meant we wouldn’t be representing the University of Kent at Varsity this year, something we’d all dreamt of doing. This lacklustre attitude carried into the new term, and there was a sense of ‘getting the job done’ rather than simply enjoying the wins we were recording. We weren’t celebrating goals enough and we weren’t enjoying the success we were having. The fact is, it’s not celebrating mediocrity if you go out and celebrate one win. It builds a morale and a sense of excitement and not celebrating every win with a social or some sort of occasion is one of my biggest regrets. However, a 94th minute winner against last seasons champions saw the team erupt and flood the pitch as we celebrated what we knew was the biggest step towards the title we’d made to date. From that moment on, we celebrated every goal and we played with a swag, a confidence and a purpose. We were happy on the pitch and our performances reflected that.
Being captain isn’t just turning up and picking a line-up, nor is it just running a training session once a week. Of course everyone knows a captain should be motivational, inspiring, leading by example, open and in control. However, I learnt the value of these other things as the season went on, and I’m convinced they played huge roles in helping us achieve what we did. Make no mistake about it though – my players have real quality. 22 players have all had very significant role to play in this title win and that’s rare for someone to say about whole squad. When the wheels did come off, some star players stepped up to get us out of trouble, but that’s the beauty of football. Edson Onwumere contributed a staggering 29 goals in 16 games, some of them completely of his own making. But the team benefitted from exciting youth and a determined set of experienced players as well who were all worthy of their place lifting that trophy.
Thank you to Ayman Kassir, who came in to coach the team in our second term, and to all the players who helped make my final year footballing dreams come true. HALAKEYNESFC