I play Sunday league. And by play, I wake up on a Sunday morning, in various different stages of disarray throughout the season, get a bus to Hackney Marshes and run around for varying amounts of time between 45 minutes to 120. Depending on league or cup, of course.
Hackney Marshes, as everyone knows, is the spiritual home of amateur football. Or Sunday League. And parks football should be referred to as Sunday League no matter if you play on Saturday or Sunday. It’s just the rules. I didn’t make them. There’s something like 88 pitches at Hackney Marshes, spread across the North and South area. What’s the difference, I hear you cry? I don’t know. Some are just marked N1 and some are marked S1. That’s just it.
The marshes see upwards of 100 games a day over a weekend and is the home of the Camden Sunday League and the side I play for – Chalk Scratchings. A team of pure myth and legend, with the best motto on the marshes – You’ll Never Chalk Alone – the Scratchings occupy mid-table in the second division of the Camden Sunday League.
Myself? Well, I occupy one of the centre-half slots of this particular side. A parks football veteran, I started playing organised football when I was 8(ish) years old. As is always the case with centre halves, I started as a striker. Scoring on my debut, I was pretty prolific in youth football.
But as adulthood came, so did height and my pace, whatever I had of it, disappeared. During my first season of Lazarou League football in Cardiff, I scored two goals in two games as a striker, before being deployed at centre half. And I never looked back. Because good centre halves always allow the football to be played in front of them. Yeah?
My footballing style? Best described as lumbering. As someone who is 6ft 4, an undisclosed weight (put well-built; she’ll see me) and with the turning circle of an HGV in the desert, I’m an agricultural centre half. A ball in the air? I’ll head that. Does the ball need clearing? I’m kicking it. I take goal kicks and in my last appearance, I scored from 60 yards from a free kick. I have power. And with that power, comes great responsibility. I organise the defence. As best I can. Because when your 60 minutes in, and you’ve forgotten your water bottle again, your voice can be raspy.
Sunday league is where dreams go to die but carry on living. We all could have made it. We were all one missed shot away or one year too late to the party. And thus, we want to play the game as best we can. Years ago, most Sunday league players turned up dishevelled, hungover, and with boots they’d pulled out the bin on the way there.
Now? The standard is higher. Teams have training tops with their initials on them! Defenders try and pass it out. Hell, I’ve seen teams deploying midfielders who play more like centre backs collecting the ball and orchestrating play. The technology is catching up, too. Players are wearing tru-sox, top of the range boots, and under armour. Their are foam rollers and energy gels.
Amongst professional footballers, the prevailing trend in recent years has been smart technology – predominantly GPS tracking and analysis. If you don’t know what I’m going on about, you will have seen them on Cardiff City players in training. The PLAYR vests, by Catapult, track footballers movements on the pitch – from how far they have run, their heatmaps, and other vital stats. It’s sports science on steroids. But like, good steroids, not the bad ones.
As a self-confessed geek when it comes to stuff like this – my choice of reading when I was 16 was the Pro:Direct Boot Bible – I have always wanted to try one out. And since Cardiff City have struck up a deal with Catapult, there was no time like the present…
If you don’t know what I’m talking about, you probably have seen one of these vests on a Cardiff City player. Not unlike a sports bra, helpful for players like myself, the black vest is worn under or over the training gear or jersey. Within this vest, the PLAYR tracker is housed. A small black device, about the size of a really good pebble that you could skim nicely, fits into the back of the vest where magnetic wizardry takes place and the device goes to work. All this is linked to an app on your phone that logs your data and you can then analyse afterwards. Simple, effective, smart.
And as someone who doesn’t like wearing big shinpads – I wear XS children’s sized Sondico ones – I was sure the vest would leave me uncomfortable. But, I am delighted to say, you barely notice you are wearing it. In fact, it feels weird when I don’t wear it now.
Putting it to use.
I cannot stress this enough. When I thought about testing it out, I was sure as hell that I was going to have my misery compounded. As a centre half, getting past the halfway line is a big challenge unless I trot forward for a corner. Indeed, I can’t ever imagine describing me as dynamic. I was sure the device would show me that a) I move about 1km a game and that b) I’m slower than the aforementioned HGV. I wore the device over several games – mostly eleven-a-side on a Sunday, but I put it on whenever I played. What did I find?
The first thing I was shocked by was how much I ground I actually cover. I’m my own biggest critic and in my head, I really don’t move that much during games. I have my little area and I try my best to clear it out and get the ball to players who can do something with it. So I was expecting a few km a game. But I was pleasantly surprised.
And the most pleasant part was that over the course of a few games, I was improving my distance covered. Knowing how much ground you are covering, how hard you are working, and having something hold you accountable means you want to push yourself more. The following screenshots show the change in distance covered over a number of games. The last game I covered 6.9km. I remember running a 10k once and thinking it was the worst thing in the world. But covering nearly 7km during a football match felt good and knowing how far I had run really gave me a sense of achievement after games.
Again, I’m slow. I can’t hammer this home enough. I’m forever the centre back who’s clipping ankles because a nippy striker has got round me. PLAYR defines a sprint distance as anything 5 m/s or above. Metres, not miles. Miles would be mental. At once, 5 m/s doesn’t sound like much or it sounds like a lot. To me, it’s the latter. And I couldn’t envisage me making much sprint distance.
But, and it’s a good but, I did. In my first game, it wasn’t much but over games, it improved. I was becoming cleverer with how I was pushing myself. Sunday League is often full of players who chase after balls, players, with no actual hope of making it. I was pushing myself at the right times and when players didn’t need to be chased, I was holding back.
One of the biggest confidence boosts I got from PLAYR was the comparison it gives to pro players. On the surface, it may feel like window-dressing but it gets you into the mindset that you actually are doing something right. You want to play the game in the right way, you want to at least have the impression that you are doing something right, and coming off the pitch to a little notification that says You matched with a pro is such a boon.
The little maps below show what this translates to. Now I’m not saying that I’m as good as Connor Coady or Timori but when an app used by pros and pro football clubs across the world is then it’s my belief that I can still make it to the ranks of professional football even at the age of [REDACTED].
I touched on it above but the heatmaps. THE HEATMAPS. Being able to see the areas you covered, broken down by half, broken down by how hard you worked in that area, is incredible. Football is a simple game and maybe that impacts how we view ourselves playing it. I’m a centre half, I spend my time in a small radius inside my own half. But being able to see when I covered for the left or right back or where I broke forward. Or even in one of these images, when we all sprinted to celebrate a 90th minute winner. It’s just a brilliantly simple innovation.
While FitBits and all that have become increasingly common, stuff like PLAYR will likely stay the reserve of serious footballing outfits. But if you are relatively serious about playing football, and want to understand your game a bit more, you should be digging out the cash to buy one of these. It’s cheaper than most decent boots!
In a bid to be sincere, I’ve been back playing Sunday league after some time out for a year and a half and at the start of this season, I almost completely walked away after a particularly drab performance where, in the words of Gary Lineker, my head went. I persevered but every game was wracked with doubt.
This PLAYR device has pushed me to improve. We’ve got our shit together as a team and we’ve gone four wins in a row – three on the pitch, one we did them on the admin – and it culminated in a clean sheet in our final game before Christmas. And while us pushing each other has led to four brilliant performances, on a personal level the PLAYR device has given me a bit more impetus.
I want come off the pitch knowing that I did all I could for my team – and the last few games I’ve felt that – but also that I’ve added some distance per game or that I sprinted a bit more than I did in the game before. I’ve never been the fittest player. I’ve always valued Saturday night pints more than Sunday morning wake up calls but knowing that I put in a decent amount of mileage or that my heatmap was similar to a lad who’s been called up to the England squad just pushes me a little bit further. We don’t have analytics teams at Sunday league but my teammates ask about how far I’ve gone and the space covered.
With things like recovery and game management more important than ever in football, I can totally see why Cardiff City have signed up with Catapult. Quantifying who’s working at what level but also being able to understand why their performance may have dropped off or indicating things like fatigue is crucial.
For me? I’ll keep wearing it. It’s become a key part of my routine on a Sunday. That routine is wake up, play football, check stats. But even at [REDACTED] years of age, it’s giving me reason to improve and push my football to the next level.