February 28, 2016. Manchester United, a side stuttering under Louis van Gaal, were taking on Arsène Wenger’s Arsenal, who were hoping to mount a title challenge. Played amidst an enthusiastic Old Trafford crowd that was hoping to see their youthful team spring a surprise, having witnessed the first chapter of Marcus Rashford’s career two days prior, they were looking forward to more miracles.
Indeed, the surprise materialised. Rashford scored twice and, within a week, went from someone hardly anyone recognised to a local hero with four senior goals in two competitive starts. Stories of his career were everywhere: his upbringing in Wythenshawe, the fact that he had to go to school after the Arsenal game, his rise through the club’s academy, and how he was always a threat in front of goal. What was most ignored, though, was his junior club, Fletcher Moss Rangers, a grassroots outfit whose alumni have gone on to play for Manchester United and others.
Rashford’s two goals weren’t the only impact a member of the Fletcher Moss Rangers alumni had that day. Jesse Lingard provided the assist for Rashford and United’s second goal, whilst Danny Welbeck, a former United player himself, netted one for Arsenal.
That day was glorious for United and Fletcher Moss Rangers, but for 66-year-old David Horrocks, a coach who’s been involved with Fletcher Moss Rangers for 29 years, the pride was short-lived. Horrocks broke down in tears seeing so many players he’d coached at junior level having such an impact on one of the Premier League’s most popular fixtures – but he knew that his work had to go on.
In an exclusive interview with These Football Times, Horrocks spoke about sustaining the success of the club and ensuring there can be more stories such as those of Rashford: “It’s tremendous pride but it’s a sort of short-lived pride because when those boys are on those pitches, my thoughts go back to those boys and girls who come to us every Saturday morning for training. They are at the forefront of my thoughts of what we’re going to do to be able to maintain what we do because once they leave us and go to an academy, they forget us.
“The fact they [the professional players] are in that environment – yes I’m very proud of it and I will stand up and puff my chest out because can you imagine, the day that Manchester United played Arsenal, when Marcus [Rashford] scored two goals and Danny Welbeck scored a goal for Arsenal, how proud I was? I was in tears for that game.
“Coming home, I was thinking, ‘What am I going to do on Saturday morning?’ with the kids at the school. My thoughts go to those who need us at the club, and away from the kids who, like Rashford [and] Welbeck, no longer need us because they have a life now somewhere else.”
Fletcher Moss Rangers was founded in 1986 by a few dads who were casually kicking a ball around in a park. Two of them, Nigel Hanson and Howard Isaacs, encouraged more teams and players to join, as well as bringing in a few referees. Soon, this humble club got its name and, in a short span of time, became one of the most recognisable grassroots sides because of their playing style and ethos.
Wes Brown was the first prominent graduate from the team, going on to play 362 times for Manchester United. Horrocks, who was with Fletcher Moss Rangers at the time Brown signed for United, recalls how the defender kept his feet on the ground and showed an attitude that is appreciated across the game. “When Wes got signed, we said to him, ‘Well, you’ve made it now’, and he paused several times before he said anything. He was working out in his own mind when it was that he could actually say ‘I’ve made it’.
“When we had this conversation with Wes, we thought at the time – when he was 14-years-old – how mature is that for a 14-year-old to have that sort of attitude that he didn’t know at what stage in his career and future career he’d made it.”
Despite being with Fletcher Moss Rangers for nearly three decades, like other coaches, it is impossible for Horrocks to tell whether or not a young player is going to cut it at a more senior level. He recognises the changes players face when they go from grassroots to academy level, as well as the competition they face, as kids come up against hundreds of players who share a similar story and ambition. Horrocks says: “I don’t believe that a young age, like five or six, there’s such a thing to be able to see that this particular player will be a first-teamer at any level. When they are in a grassroots system and they go into the development centres or academies, I don’t think anybody can honestly say that this kid will be a first-team player.
“In the grand scheme of things, you can hold your breath, you can cross your fingers, you can wish them all the very best of luck, but, when you go into an academy system, it’s probably the toughest playground in the world.”
Horrocks continues: “You’ve got every boy that’s in there who wants to be in there – it’s a very, very hungry system and unless you have the right attitude to take you through that and be ruthless, you won’t make it. You have to have certain attributes. In the academy system, the players get passed on to a different set of coaching staff. For example, the nines and tens will get a particular set of coaches and they’ll get passed on to the 11s and 12s and then the 13s and 14s.
“Now, if a coach doesn’t fancy the players that are coming in, his [the players] days are numbered because they have a particular template of how a player of that particular age should be. If a player moves from one age group to the next and he’s not a part of that coach’s template, his days are numbered.”
There have been over 90 players who started at Fletcher Moss Rangers that have gone on to the professional ranks. The soccer school currently hosts 30 teams of boys and girls, as well as a Saturday community kickabout. A reason for their success is that they try to be innovative. For years, the school has used a variety of training methods that have helped developed Premier League players, and they let the children go through various exercises and activities that ensure parents continue to be attracted by the prospect of their child playing for Fletcher Moss Rangers.
When speaking about the club’s philosophy, Horrocks says: “Our ethos is that it has got to be fun. The kids have got to want to come back week after week, night after night. At the soccer school we have a curriculum where we will put on a different session each week. The sessions will be something like dribbling the ball, turning, running with it, shooting, passing. We don’t do heading because of the climate that we’re in yet – we’ve taken that out. But what we do is that we try to make all our sessions fun. We try to make them different. We try to make them game-specific.”
He describes a particular training exercise that the children find particularly enjoyable: “We have a session that’s called ABCs: Agility, Balance and Coordination. In one of my sessions, I had one of the parents on the touchline and I had a set of hoops on the floor where they would put one foot in either hoop and go through them on either side. The parents were saying to us: ‘Why are you doing that?’ I called the kids in, brought them to the parents and said: ‘Where would you step from side-to-side in a game?’. The kids said to me: ‘When we have to dodge past a player’. Brilliant.
“I said to the parent: ‘Do you see that? That’s the kids telling you why we do what we do.’ We don’t use the ball until the last stage of five different obstacle courses – they do all these things before the kids touch the ball and try to score a goal. We try to make things different and bring in different aspects of the game into sessions. What seems to happen is that kids come to us.”
Like every academy and soccer school, it’s not all rainbows and unicorns for the alumni of Fletcher Moss Rangers. For every budding star like Rashford there is a fleeting talent like Ravel Morrison, and for every injury-troubled career like Welbeck’s, there is one that is completely altered and going down a different route, as Horrocks states: “There’s a young man who, as an under-11, signed for United, and he actually got a squad shirt at 18. He got injured and off the back of his injury, he’s now a plumber. It’s heartbreaking because we talk about the likes of Marcus, Danny, Ravel, but nobody speaks about the young men who have talent but are unfortunate to get an injury.
“His family are close friends of mine and I was fortunate to be able to help him get his qualifications to be a plumber. To be able to mentor that young man, not just as a footballer, but in becoming a professional tradesman is a nice feeling.”
For Horrocks, grassroots football has been a key part of his life. Having been in the game for such a long period of time, it’s something he is greatly passionate about and wishes more was invested into it. The commercialisation of the Premier League and the clear disparity in financial class between the top and bottom of the pyramid in England has affected many, and that is something Horrocks is displeased about, seeing as grassroots football goes beyond just the sport itself.
“Grassroots football has been a big part of my life for a number of years now. Because of my passion, I feel that grassroots football is taken for granted. It’s not just grassroots football – grassroots sports, in general, are taken for granted. I think because of the amount of money at the top end, the investment always seems to be in the academy side of sports – and it makes no difference whether it’s cycling, football, rugby or cricket.
“[The investment] is always at the top end and never at the bottom. What seems to be forgotten is that these kids who are talented come from a place like grassroots football. They don’t just appear on the fields or in the academies.”
Horrocks recalls an incident with Sir Trevor Brooking at an FA Football For All forum several years ago, where Sir Trevor, the face of grassroots football at the time, was asked by Horrocks what his definition of grassroots football was. Almost offended by the response he received, Horrocks gave the former West Ham legend a piece of his mind, and kept the ethos of Fletcher Moss Rangers alive while doing so.
“I said to him: ‘Grassroots football is the dad who plays football in the back garden, [or] the kid and his dad at the park, meeting up with a couple of other kids that they may or may not know, kicking a ball about. They’re dodging around potholes and broken glass and perhaps the odd broken goalpost. Then they happen to meet a couple of nights a week or a Saturday morning and one of the parents decides we should run a team. That’s grassroots football.’ He glazed over, looked right past me and walked by.”
Like much of England, Fletcher Moss Rangers have been deeply connected with the women’s game. They’ve contributed several players who’ve gone on to play professionally, and despite some struggles, they’ve wanted to ensure the game is open to all, regardless of race, gender or class. It’s something they pride themselves upon, and it has been reflected in their success.
“We’ve been involved with women’s and girls’ football for many years. We went through a stage some years ago when we had a tremendously successful women’s section – so successful that each season we played, we had three teams: an under-13s and two ladies’ teams, the firsts and reserves. We got the promoted two divisions each time and, at the final set of promotions, we went up to the North West Women’s League.
“Unfortunately, our facilities weren’t conducive to the regulations because they wanted certain changing rooms. We tried to find different venues to keep them under our umbrella but it was so difficult. We tried to get venues that were a better standard for our ladies to play at but ended up losing the teams to Cheadle Heath Nomads because they had the facilities.”
Despite the setback, they didn’t want to stop helping the game grow. They’ve recognised how football makes a difference to lives, how sport can change humans – especially young ones – and how giving an equal opportunity is invaluable in today. Fletcher Moss Rangers, like their boys’ divisions, are continuing to provide. Horrocks says: “Girls’ football, whether or not it’s a part of us in team football, will always be a part of our club and we don’t feel as though it’s anything special – we feel it’s a part of the club. We always have. We give our girls exactly the same consideration that we give the boys.”
Despite the success of their alumni, Horrocks still takes most joy in seeing his former players keeping their head down and giving back to the community. Rashford, since his debut in 2016, has played starring roles for club and country whilst Lingard has enjoyed a stellar spell at United, too. Brown was part of the club’s most successful teams and other former graduates like Morrison and Welbeck are currently at Premier League outfits.
What Horrocks most enjoys is when these locals give back. When Rashford recently pledged to give boxes filled with essentials to the homeless in Manchester over the Christmas period, Horrocks was delighted: “Just recently, Marcus endorsed helping out homeless people over the winter. [I had] tremendous pride that this young man, who has got far more than a lot of people, wants to help. That gave more pride to me than anything else.”
Given their track record, it’s almost inevitable that there will be more players coming through Fletcher Moss Rangers who go on to play for clubs like Manchester United, as well as represent England. For Horrocks, though, the job goes on, and that feeling of togetherness and the notion of being part of something bigger than the individual pulls strong. Fletcher Moss Rangers alumni can boast Premier League and Champions League titles but, ultimately, it’s the smile on children’s faces that is the real prize for this humble school.
“When you get the kids shake hands with you, saying: ‘Thanks for today, Dave’, and you hear the kids say to the parents: ‘How many sleeps have I got until the next soccer school?’ it’s a nice, warm feeling that you get. What I do with any new kids that come to us on a Saturday morning, I send the parent a text saying, ‘Thanks for coming to the soccer school, really appreciate it. Hope you and your child enjoyed what we did, and I hope to see you again next week.’ And the text that I get back is: ‘Absolutely enjoyed it – he can’t wait until next week’. It’s a fantastic, warm feeling over what we’re doing.”
Football is for everyone, regardless of background, something Fletcher Moss Rangers epitomise. They have been around for 33 years and have provided players of both quality and decency. A shining light in their community, Dave Horrocks and his team should be proud of their achievements, ones they’re continuing to better as time passes.
By Karan Tejwani @karan_tejwani26