I think he was a bit drunk when he called.
We’d worked together on a few things by then, so I was used to his enormous ideas. But what he said next threw me.
“I’ve just been watching beach soccer on the telly.”
“I think we should run an event.”
Four months later, we did.
In just a few weeks, we became the UK’s leading beach soccer experts. [It’s probably more accurate to say we were the UK’s only beach soccer ‘experts’ at that time!]
We figured out the rules, trained refs, had goalposts made, bought beach soccer balls, put together a cheerleading squad, had custom kits designed and made, organised the permits and insurance, collected sponsors, marketed and promoted our event, and convinced 300-odd footballers to take their boots off.
In June 2002, 32 teams from across the UK played in the inaugural IOW Beach Football Cup.
We later realised that our first event was the largest amateur beach soccer event in Europe. [At one point we considered competing with the record-breaking 256-team event in the USA – looking back, part of me wishes we’d gone for it…]
Deadlines matter. Without that immovable ‘First match kicks off at 10am on Saturday 8th June 2002’ we would never have done what we did.
But before we set the deadline, we made the decision. “We’re doing this.”
And that was the pivotal moment.
Type Two Fun
“I’m never doing this again. Whatever he says, I’m never doing this again.”
It’s a few hours into our first ever beach soccer event, and I’m talking to couple of our cheerleaders – friends who are doing me a huge favour by even being there.
My stress levels are through the roof. Refs haven’t shown up, players are complaining about delays, our big sponsor is due any minute … all I want to do is go home and leave this chaos behind.
Except I can’t. I’ve committed to it, so I take a deep breath and step back into the mayhem.
I survived that first event. And people loved it. So when a few days later my business partner suggested we start the UK’s first beach soccer league, I enthusiastically agreed – my words of the previous weekend already forgotten.
That summer, we established a league and ran another couple of tournaments. In the years that followed, we added a women’s event, school events, and took over the England team, creating a legacy that continues to this day.
Firstly, it’s almost never as bad as it seems. What is happening may feel disastrous – but if you can find a way to take a breath – to stop and think – then most of the time, you can continue.
And secondly – Type Two Fun. At the time, the beach soccer business wasn’t often enjoyable – but looking back, I see it differently. The most difficult things we do often give us our proudest memories.
How Much Do You Care?
As the sun beats down, former Liverpool and England footballer John Scales takes a short run up, then thumps his penalty … the ball flies over the crossbar … Behind him, the Isle of Wight team go berserk in their bright yellow kits – they’ve beaten ENGLAND!
John Scales just shrugs his shoulders.
August 2002, the end of our very first season of beach soccer, and we’ve convinced the England squad to come down for a relaxed, profile-raising exhibition game. They turn up, chat with our players, do a bit of press – the usual.
Then 3pm comes, and the match begins. A few hundred people are watching, making a bit of noise.
Out on the sand, something odd has happened: the IOW team have discovered that the national team aren’t actually particularly good. Realisation hits – they could win this match … they could beat England.
Before kickoff, we’d drilled the IOW players – “it’s a friendly, take it easy, just have a laugh” – and appointed a captain who we thought could keep the team in check. But the second they sniffed a chance at victory, all that disappeared. It became an ugly game – not at all in the spirit of fair play that FIFA were encouraging.
As scores were tied at the end of regulation there was a sudden death penalty shootout. It ended with Scales’ sky-ball, and a win for the fledgling Isle of Wight beach soccer squad. They were ecstatic. England were bemused.
Expectations are important. England were expecting a friendly – but that’s not what they got. The IOW were expecting to be thoroughly outclassed – but that’s not what happened. Differing expectations lead to tension.
Also – that IOW team gave everything they had. They desperately wanted to win.
Never underestimate how hard people will work when they truly want something.
I was standing at the side of our beach soccer pitch taking pictures of the game. Just behind me, I could hear one of the team managers haranguing my business partner. He was talking loudly – and provocatively – about me, and it wasn’t complimentary. Most of his tirade was utter nonsense, but several other players were starting to pay attention.
I don’t like confrontation [does anyone?]. But sometimes it’s necessary.
I turned and said, “That simply isn’t true, and you know it,” then pointed out where he was lying. That particular player had a temper, so I expected a reaction – I expected him to fly into a rage. I was surprised when instead he awkwardly shuffled off without making any attempt to reply.
Some of the other players nodded at me as they drifted away. My business partner walked up and put his arm round my shoulder. “Nice one.”
I took a deep breath, and went back to taking pictures.
It’s never easy or fun, but sometimes you have to stick up for yourself.
Secondly – that guy wasn’t only an angry man with the record for most red cards received in a single season. Oddly, he was also our most organised team manager. His team always paid their subs on time, had immaculate kits, turned up when they were supposed to, and consequently he was awarded ‘Manager of the Year’ at our annual awards ceremony.
People are never just one thing. We all have good bits and bad bits, and it helps to remember that.
Finale 1/3 :: The Beginning Of The End :: August 2005
I can’t sleep. I’m lying awake, staring into the darkness, and I feel utterly helpless.
The numbers aren’t adding up. No matter which way I look at them, they don’t add up. I’m in debt – badly so – and it’s getting worse every month.
From the outside, by 2005 beach soccer looked like it was doing well – big name sponsors, hundreds of players, impressive events. But under the surface, it was a mess.
It was my fault. I never treated it as a business – there was no strategy to speak of, and I had no idea what was going on with our finances.
As I waited for the morning, one thing was clear to me.
I’d had enough.
If you’re running a business – treat it like one. That means doing the bits you don’t enjoy, not just the fun stuff.
Crucially, this means understanding the money. I absolutely do not believe that the only purpose of a business is to make as much money as possible. I don’t even think money should be your top priority. But if you’re not making money, you’re not running a business.
Secondly – I’ve been there. I know how lonely it can be.
Finale 2/3 :: When To Quit :: September 2005
I sat looking across at my business partner. We were in his garden, and I knew the time had come.
I don’t remember many details of the conversation – but it didn’t take long. In the end, quitting beach soccer was easier than I expected.
When it’s time for a difficult conversation, just get on with it.
Also – it’s OK to quit. The idea that ‘winners never quit’ is nonsense. The important thing is knowing when to quit.
Finale 3/3 :: It’s Always Both :: November 2005
I’m sat looking out across a beach – but this time, there are no goalposts in sight. I don’t have a single commitment or obligation in the entire world.
I paid back every single penny I owed. [Had to sell my home to do it – but hey.]
I don’t have anything in the diary.
It’s just me … and I’m free.
Free of the pressure and responsibility and expectation.
Free of the weight.
Beach soccer was an immense learning curve. Looking back, I can see how close I was to a breakdown, and I vividly remember what that feels like. But I wouldn’t change a thing – the lessons learnt were worth it.
Secondly – my sabbatical was a complete reset … body, mind, spirit … and I needed it. I needed that space after the chaos of the previous four years.
Space and chaos. The balance can be hard to find as the pendulum swings, but we need both.
It’s always both.