Twenty years ago - it sounds like a long time ago but up to around 1995 I was really actively involved in local football. Having successfully ran my own team for several years, we had gained promotions all the way from Division 7 of our local Sunday League - all the way to its very own Premier Division. That statement alone makes it sound quite straightforward and gives the impression that we had a team that were playing for many years below the level that is should have been.
The truth is that it we had tough times too - in fact at the end of our third year we had to apply for re-election having finished second from bottom of the lowest division in the entire league! That was without any doubt the most painful season as we had lost 16 of the 22 matches that we had played of which 12 of those 16 defeats was by the odd goal! We actually finished the season with a far better goal difference than other teams that had finished well above us. If you finish that low you should be able to accept that your players, your team, your club even - are just simply not good enough to compete at that level. If that level is the bottom level as it then maybe you should not be competing at all, If we had been regularly been getting beaten fives, sixes or even worse still then fair enough - we would have all agreed that we were simply that bad. But when you are losing 2-1, 3-2, 4-3 and so on just about every week - it really hurt.
So we did not have a team that were just pot-hunters - we were a team that evolved and for sure, over a period of time the faces changed in the team but at no point did we really have a mass exodus as players were kicked out to make way for a new flock that would take us all the way to the top.
Pot Hunting Superstars
Towards the end of my time involved in the local set up, I had become even more actively involved and had in fact even taken a position on the Sunday League Executive Committee as Press Officer. That basically meant having a fax machine installed in my living room so that I got a copy of all the latest results as soon as they were all in - I guess it was our version of the vidi-printer. From mid-Sunday afternoon through until well into the evening, my phone would ring hot and constantly with loads of representatives of teams ringing in to find out the other scores in their divisions and also give me their scorers from their own matches.
It was at this point that if it had never been truly apparent before then it was now - there were teams out there that had been formed for the pure sake of pot-hunting and that was all. Take the Claypot Casuals as they were once known. They consisted of players that predominantly played at a much higher level for their Saturday teams. Come Sunday mornings, you could argue that they used the Sunday League for a mess about and when they entered the league, all the committee had were a name and hence started them in the lowest division.
They would regularly beat the opposition scoring potfuls of goals - in some games they would easily reach double figures too. When they rang me with their long list of goal scorers each week it did start getting a little tiresome very quickly. They would end the season winning every game and with a goal difference that was just plain ridiculous. Even when the committee gave them a double promotion it made no difference to them as they knew they had the calibre of player to literally waltz through all of the divisions - and they did too.
The real acid test would then finally arrive as they entered the Premier Division and finally would get to face other teams with players much more closer to their own standard and sometimes possibly even better. Having finished a lowly fourth in their first season at the top level - the following season this team were gone, they simply in effect folded at the end of the year - something more likely associated with clubs that had struggled all year long - but maybe by their standards, they had.
What was more surprising though that during the following season, a team that had been a regular struggler in the lower divisions suddenly had a shift in results. It worked out that they were on the verge of folding and had been "saved" by an influx of new players. The registrations secretary on the committee wasn't paid to notice a pattern in these new arrivals and the fact that all of these players had been together the previous season in a now defunct premier division team. Even if he had been, there was no rule or law as such to stop this happening.
I guess this was the equivalent of (to use a crazy analogy) Manchester United missing out on the Premier League title and folding the following year. Then, before you know it all of their star players had joined Stockport County!
Of course now having basically taken over a team and put all your own players into it, the final thing to do would be to change the name of the side and they did that too. Bluebell Casuals were born and the Bluebell name just happening to be the renamed same pub as the old Claypot. Once again, the same players that had been scoring goals by the quadruples just a handful of years earlier were doing it again back down in the lower levels. The deja vu continued on with league titles and cup wins and what do you think happened once they won the 1st Division title this time?
The answer is they never even played in the Premier League! They folded having actually won the 1st Division title. This allowed them instead of having to wait another year - head back down to the basement levels straight away. The league committee were not stupid but were also really limited in what they could do to stop it. This was especially true when these guys all signed for a struggling, existing team rather than starting a new club as that would be too easy to spot.
To be fair, the "Casuals" were not the only bunch of players do try this trick. My own club started in the Sunday League in 1987 and were placed in the bottom division of the time (6). The Casuals were just one of many teams that we faced that year that absolutely battered us. Yes, we were on the poorer teams at the division and it did make us wonder what we had got ourselves into if the overall standard was that good even at this level.
The truth of it though was that there were at least six teams that year that were trying the same stunt! Some people even said that when these teams faced one another, the standard was as good as the Premier Division at the time. Obviously with so many pot hunters in the same division at the same time meant that their would even be casualties amongst themselves. At least two of the teams failed to complete their seasons fixtures when they realised that they were not going to be champions!
As the Press Officer - even years later I would still see this happening with other teams. One caller I had did not even mess about when talking about the overall standard of the opposition - regular referring to them as "useless" and much stronger words of the same ilk. These remarks were usually made after his team had beaten them by "only 15 this week"! was one remarkable comment that he made to me.
Does it still happen today? Actually I would say yes it does but some times in a different way which in some respects is far worse. I will write about the depleting numbers of Sunday League teams in a different article but because of the far lower amount of teams in the entire league these days, it is far more difficult to do what I have described here.
However - what I have seen happening is so much worse, it makes the league look like a bit of a joke. For example, last season's Premier Division champions (yes the actual champions!) lost two out of their first four matches this season already. By the weekend of their fifth match - they were unable to field a team! Just how sad is that? Is that what it has come to? It isn't just the Premier Division - it spreads all the way down to what is left of the other divisions. A team lose a match or two, players lose interest and don't bother showing up any more, the club then fail to field a team and get heavily fined too and then the club folds. One division alone this year has already lost two clubs because of this and you can possibly see more coming.
The Digital Generation
So what has the current generation of young adults seemed to have learned? It seems to be from my judgement that with a computer game, you can just click the restart and go again until you win. In the same way as most people "support" the big and successful Premier League clubs rather than the Oldham Athletic's or Gillingham's - people want to be associated with success even if it just means simply jumping on a bandwagon rather than earning it or properly enjoying it when or if it ever happens naturally.
Trust me - there is nothing better than having one of those natural successes especially when you never saw it coming. The first time I had it happen in the Sunday League, it still took a while to sink in what was going on! First of all we were winning games regularly - not by huge score-lines but we were winning and it was great to be on such a roll. Would the run suddenly end or could we contain it? That was the next question we asked ourselves because there were still at least two other clubs that were keeping up with the pace that had better previous track records than our own (including one team of pot hunters) and a few other teams behind the front group that could inflict damage. When we met the pot hunters of that particular year, the previous season they had beaten us 4-0 and 5-0 and when we had played them before that in their previous form - it had been 9-0 on both occasions.
We went into that game with both teams having played 8 and won 8. It took all of five minutes to get the first and main issue sorted - and that was to actually score a goal against them at last! By half time we led 3-2 with attackers on top for both teams. That would change dramatically after the break after we decided that we needed to really tighten up at the back even if it meant relinquishing some of our attacking options. The second half became like a siege on our goal but whatever they did - they just could not find a way to score to level the match again. In the last minute, they had pushed everybody forward when they had another corner - and they paid the price as we cleared the ball to our striker who ran three quarters of the length of the pitch, rounded the goalie and put it in the back of the net for 4-2 - that was such a significant moment for us and one of sheer joy and realisation that we had finally arrived and were serious title contenders. At the same time it was also so sweet to actually beat pot-hunters - they folded at the end of the season having finished third - what a surprise.
If professional teams had the same attitude as local pot hunting teams then the likes of especially Spurs, Liverpool and maybe Everton and one or two others may well fold and head down to the lower levels to pick up a few easy trophies. You could almost argue that some teams in recent years have kind of done that. Manchester City, Southampton, Norwich, Leeds, Nottingham Forest, Wolves and Leicester are some of just a few of the big name clubs that have found themselves dropping down to the third level of English football from top flight to then all win something before heading up again. It does not always work out like that though and ironically it is Sheffield United who are proving how easy it is to get stuck there.
The local pot-hunters now from my era are all now probably retired. I just wonder how they really feel when they look at their large medal collections how they feel about it now? A large collection of Divison 5 and 4 winners medals, top goalscorer with 87 strikes in one season - do these things really have the same meaning if you know you are playing well below your own ability? My own team won two titles, we finished runners-up a couple of times too as we climbed up the tables - but all of those medals and the memories of those seasons are still truly special to me because they were genuine successes.
There were loads of articles on the old site and I have began to transfer some of the most popular ones over to this site.