Two weeks being unable to play due to bad weather is a long time, especially if you are a football-mad youngster. So, the excitement was palpable among the players of Ducklington Yellows Under 8s Football Team as they gathered ahead of their recent match against Witney Vikings Warriors.
The U8s Team is just one of 14 youth football teams representing Ducklington Sports Club, a thriving sports and social club near Witney, Oxfordshire. Visiting the club for the morning at its grounds off the A415, and only a mile or so from Courtiers’ Witney office, was Leo Hallam Courtiers Head of Brand & Communication.
Courtiers recently agreed to sponsor Ducklington Yellows U8s Team, who play in the Witney & District Youth Football League. Today was just the second game in their new Courtiers-sponsored kit. After narrowly losing the first game, how would they get on? Would it be a question of second time lucky? These were the immediate questions on Leo’s mind. Beyond that, he was keen to find out more about the team and delve a little deeper into the club.
Arriving half an hour before kick-off on a chilly but thankfully dry Saturday morning, first impressions were certainly favourable, says Leo. A well-appointed clubhouse that served refreshments, including bacon butties, and well-maintained pitches and facilities. But above all, Leo was struck by unmistakable signs of commitment and enthusiasm. Talking to various people at the club on Saturday, that commitment and enthusiasm wasn’t difficult to find.
Take Nicola, a volunteer who supports the Ducklington Yellows U8s with her voluntary admin work. Her children play at the club, something she said that’s given them a great boost of confidence. Being in a team environment has also helped them to develop important life skills. “They have to work together and listen to each other and their coaches,” Nicola said.
As with sports clubs up and down the country, Ducklington Sports Club relies on the efforts of volunteers. People like Ian Luckett, who manages and coaches both the U8s and the U16s. With teams spanning such an age range, all the support from the coaches and other volunteers is vital in making the club what it is today. A lot of often unseen work goes on behind the scenes, from renewing membership, to registering players and finding sponsors.
People take it in turn to run the tea bar, which provides valuable funds, while others paint the lines and put up and take down the goals. Other invaluable tasks carried out by volunteers include buying kit and equipment and helping to organise tournaments. Parents play a vital supporting role. It’s something that Leo is quick to pick up on. “Everyone chips in. There’s a real sense of community spirit,” he says. “Everyone does it for the love of football and the children,” adds Nicola.
Through the generations
Stephen grew up in the village and like other members of his family and friends, he played for the club – although at the time he was tying up his boot laces it had a different name. And Stephen’s not the only one. Many parents of today’s youth team players turned out for the club when they were their kids’ ages. For Stephen the club is a really important part of the community. “I think it’s one of the few spaces in Ducklington, where you can do something like this,” he said.
Over the years, the facilities and amenities at the club have developed. The current ground used to be a ploughed field. And whereas previously players used to have to change in their cars, today they can enjoy the comfort of the pavilion. This was built in the 1980s largely as a result of the efforts of one man, Brian Hicks, after whom it’s named. Further changes followed, the most notable being the move from having just adult teams to one that has youth teams as well. Today, the club is on a roll with 14 youth teams and one adult team playing in leagues mainly across Oxfordshire. “It’s gone from a small village club to a really big club,” says Hayley, another parent.
The club is keen to boost participation. With this in mind, the U8s always play two matches: the first is a league match, the second is a development match. Everyone is given the same amount of pitch time – it doesn’t matter about their ability.
The club works hard to promote high standards – on and off the field. With the behaviour of some parents at matches across the country a growing concern, the club took part in Silent Sidelines, a national initiative to stop shouting and other types of disruptive behaviour from the sidelines.
“There was clearly an atmosphere of respect,” says Leo, “there was a clear focus on children playing together, improving their skills, listening and discipline.”
The club also takes the welfare of its youth players seriously, with slide tackles banned and heading discouraged for the younger age group teams, such as the U8s.The emphasis is on learning and on developing players. This is aided by the club’s coaches staying with their team as they progress through the various age groups.
Although the club received a grant of around £30k from the Football Association, fundraising is always a concern. And while the annual membership fee pays for things like pitches and equipment, and the club holds fundraising events, the teams themselves are expected to play their part. Each team has to have at least one kit to play in – some need two, one for home and one for away, although some use their training tops as their away strip. Kitting out a team doesn’t come cheap. “Courtiers sponsorship of the U8s kit is so massive for us,” says Ian.
The next objective for the U8s group is to raise enough funds to pay for bench covers to protect the substitutes from the worst of the elements.
After his morning at the club, what impression was Leo left with? First, he remarks how many parents came up to him to thank Courtiers for sponsoring the U8s kit.
Overall, it’s fair to say he was impressed by the club, its values and the role it plays in the local community. “It’s a truly community-spirited club and atmosphere that spans across generations,” he says. He was also struck by how Courtiers shares such values.
As to the game, after a 4-0 win, you could say that the Ducklington Yellows U8s have taken to their new kit likes ducks to water.