One part of football still believes the game is about fun, not finance. Gavin Willacy celebrates the volunteers whose predecessors created the schools' FA 100 years ago

Despite the major upheavals in both professional football and the education system in this country over the past decade, the English Schools’ Football Association has survived to celebrate its centenary this season. In November 1904, encouraged by the National Union of Teachers, a group of local association secretaries met in Birmingham to form the ESFA. The founder members included the major football metropolises of London, Birmingham, Liverpool, Sheffield, Bolton, Bradford and Derby, along with Northampton, Herts and Luton, St Albans, Wordsley, Hickley and Aston Manor.

Appropriately, the ESFA will mark the occasion with an international match at Villa Park on May 8 between their Under-18 team and a Rest of the World XI, drawn from the members of SAFIB (a junior UEFA in which Europe’s top FAs deal with the homely ESFA rather than the money men of Soho Square).

It is that demarcation between the people who are in the game to make money and those who give their free time to it through voluntary coaching or administration that is at the heart of the ESFA. Their mantra is that they “provide football for boys (and girls), not boys for football”.

The irony is that many of today’s pro players and managers were set on their way to fame and fortune – or simply a career in football – by their teachers giving up their time to coach, administrate and referee for free. Terry Venables, David Pleat and Trevor Brooking all reached the pinnacle, playing for England Schoolboys, at the age of 14. So did Phil Neville, Scott Parker, Joe Cole, Nicky Butt and, of course, England Schoolboys’ record goalscorer, Michael Owen.

But when it all began, the ESFA were more interested in organising inter-town matches. Thus was born the ESFA Trophy, won in 1905 by London (before the city was split up) and competed for every year since, apart from during the Second World War. Maine Road was packed with 47,000 to see Manchester draw with Southampton and share the trophy in 1932, while 40,776 were at Anfield in 1948 to watch Liverpool and Stockport draw 3-3 on aggregate.

The success of the trophy saw it tagged “the FA Cup of schools football” as towns, without pro youth teams and the all-invasive media presence of the Premiership, took local youngsters to their hearts and followed their progress in the national cup with passion. That excitement has declined, but four-figure crowds are still commonplace at the latter stages. And it’s not just the big cities who dominate. Modest districts with a good coach, able to keep a close eye on the best players at a smaller number of schools, often prosper. For example, in 1989, England Schoolboys captain Ryan Wilson (soon to be Giggs) was the star as Salford romped to the final and won the first leg 2-1 at St Helens. Salford, littered with Man United trainees, were odds on to lift the trophy in the return leg at Old Trafford, but St Helens pulled off a 2-0 victory. I have never heard of any of their players again.

It was not until the late 1960s that the ESFA introduced national competitions for individual schools, followed by inter-county contests then primary school five-a-sides, six-a-sides, girls’ cups – the lot. There are now national competitions for both sexes in every age group at school, district or county level.

But the events that are fondest and best remembered by many players, coaches and referees are the festivals of football the ESFA have held every Easter for over 30 years. Staged at otherwise empty holiday camps from Tyneside to Jersey via Lowestoft and the Isle of Wight, the festivals enable young players to spend a week together. If John Terry and Paul Konchesky didn’t become mates after a week together with Barking and Dagenham SFA at the Jersey Festival in 1992, they never will, although they may just as easily be lifelong friends with the team-mates we will never know, such as Justin Ford or Sam Whitby. And I wonder if Blackheath’s Rio Ferdinand remembers having his hands full marking a lad from Sheffield on the Isle of Wight in 1993? He’s certainly had the better of Kevin Davies in most meetings since. I recognised the names of five other future pros from the programme of that festival alone, which gives some idea of the number of stars who have experienced schools football.

But they’re the exceptions. They may have been given a major leg up the ladder by their school coaches, but the rest of us just loved playing. Take away schools football – playground kickabouts, school matches, district games – in this country and there’s not a lot left, unless you’re wanted by a pro club’s academy.

The under-16 inter-county final was always the place to look for potential stars as county teams had the pick of the bunch, before some academies stopped their players taking part. Sub for Essex at under-14 level, David Beckham’s first taste of the big time came at Anfield when he played in the Essex under-16 side that lost to Merseyside – with a strike force of Robert Fowler and Dele Adebola – in the 1990 final. Three years later, when Essex won that competition, they fielded two England Schools internationals but the closest to becoming a well known name was Mani Omoyimni (the forgetful fella who cost West Ham a League Cup semi-final place a few years ago).

Schools football was hit drastically when Mrs Thatcher defeated the teachers’ unions – the NUT primarily among them – in the mid-1980s. Teachers, not unreasonably, decided that they would only do what they were actually paid for. So Saturday mornings (for most) and midweek evenings (for some) were off the fixture list. It’s Wednesday afternoons or bust for many teachers now. But enough have remained committed to the cause, mainly because they love it. Brian Clough put it superbly: “Just think how good I might have been if we had had a school team...”

From WSC 208 June 2004. What was happening this month

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