An unhealthy sign of the times for one of Portsmouth’s longest-serving parks football managers
For one of the longest-serving managers in local parks football, it was a sign of the times. But not a healthy one; certainly not compared to the ones he can clearly remember without having to wander too far down memory lane.
Once upon a time, a large patch of grass just north of the M27 would have welcomed over 200 amateur footballers on a Saturday afternoon and a fair smattering of friends to watch them.
For Paul Critchettt, who has managed Wymering for two decades, that was then and this is now.
‘We were down Cosham (King George V fields) last weekend,’ he remarked of his side’s Hampshire Vase tie with Botley. ‘There’s about eight or nine pitches there and we were the only game going on - that’s how bad it’s got.
‘I find it really sad.
‘A few years ago you’d have games on all the pitches and a crowd of people watching every game - there were pub teams and the players’ mates would be there all watching.
‘Now it’s hard enough to get anyone to play, let alone turn up and watch.’
Last Friday, The News carried a big interview with Mid-Solent League official Rob England on how they were aiming to arrest a long decline in the number of adult teams playing Saturday afternoon football.
Part of the problem, England said, was that society had changed from the days he can remember, and which Critchett can easily recall as well.
‘When I was at school I used to play football with my mates down the fields. You drive past Cosham now and there’s no-one there,’ he said.
‘That’s a sad state of affairs.
‘Kids are a bit lazier these days.
‘Also, nowadays they have youth leagues at under-18s, under-19s.
‘In my day you went through to under-16s in the Portsmouth Lads League and after that you were playing men’s football!
‘It seems people now want to play midweek five-a-side and that’s their main football for the week.
‘When I was young, five-a-side was just something to play as a laugh.
‘Now a lot of people play five-a-side in midweek because they work on a Saturday. A Saturday now is just like any other day of the week for many people who work.’
As well as a decline in the numbers of Saturday afternoon teams, Critchett has also seen the playing standards drop.
‘It can be shocking,’ he remarked when asked for his views on the subject.
‘There are some good teams, but some of the teams at the bottom are getting spanked by double-figure scores.
‘They get some results when they play each other, but when they play the top teams like Harvest and Strawberry they’re conceding 14, 15 goals.
‘We put 17 past one team - that shouldn’t be happening.’
That’s true enough, but it is - and such thrashings don’t reflect well on the MSL.
The two new teams to the league this season, for example, have had some fearful batterings.
Cowplain shipped a staggering 48 goals in just three games at one point - losing 14-1 and 17-1 to FC Strawberry in league and cup matches before crashing 17-5 to Wymering.
And Rowner Rovers - still to bag a point after 11 straight defeats - have conceded double figures four times.
They have lost two games 10-0 and others by 14-1 and 15-1. In addition, they have twice failed to raise a side for matches.
Despite that, they are still aiming to be playing in the MSL in 2020/21.
‘It is what it is. You can only play what’s put in front of you,’ Critchett continued.
‘And fair play to the teams getting spanked for carrying on.
‘I remember when you had more divisions some teams would be losing by five or six most weeks and they’d jack it all in mid-season.
‘I’m impressed with the attitude of some of these new teams for still playing.
‘What the league needs is to attract nine more teams and then we could have two divisions of 10 teams.
‘That way, the teams who are getting spanked now would have more realistic games to play.’
Under Critchett’s guidance, Wymering won the Portsmouth Saturday League in 2005/06, 2006/07 and 2008/09.
Recently, they were runners-up in 2016/17 prior to joining the Mid-Solent Youth League in 2018 with a view to ensuring a regular supply of junior sides progressing into adult football.
Wymering are enjoying a good season - when they actually play.
They have only managed six league games so far, so have to shoehorn their remaining 14 into the next few months. In addition, they have also reached the quarter finals of the Hampshire Vase and Len Day Cup.
In the Vase, they have an attractive home tie against Mid-Solent League rivals Harvest Home on February 1.
‘It’s pretty much the same squad as last season,’ said Critchett.
‘I’ve just signed Dan Aubin, who used to play for Portchester and Baffins.
‘He’s only played one game so far - I think he’s only available when Pompey are away.
‘Leigh Cooper says he’s returning next month. He first played for me when he was 15 and he must be 35 now. One season in the early 2000s we did the double and he scored over 60 goals.
‘He did his cruciate last year but he keeps on telling our WhatsApp group that he’ll see us in February!’
Wymering bolstered their squad two years ago when Horndean Hawks folded after winning the Portsmouth League title in 2015/16 and 2016/17.
The Hawks player-manager Dan Morton subsequently joined Wymering, bringing over players Laurie McIntosh, Brad White and goalkeeper Callum Madden.
‘Horndean Hawks were our big rivals for a few years,’ Critchett recalled. ‘We used to try and kick lumps out of them, but they were too good for us.
‘Laurie McIntosh used to score exceptional goals against us, but recently he couldn’t hit a barn door!’
Asked what would be a good season for Wymering, he replied: ‘Beat Harvest in the county cup. That would do me.
‘If we could knock them out we should have a good chance of winning the trophy.
‘It would be nice if we could be the team that put a ‘one’ in their loss column.
‘But that depends if we turn up on the day. Everyone should be up for it - I should have five subs that day
‘They will be out for revenge because we were the only team to beat them in the league last season.
‘They’ve improved this year as well as they’re preparing to go up to the Hampshire League - they’ve got some good players.’