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Horsham Sparrows: 50 Years Setting the Standard

Bronwen Thomas training the Wildcats

Published on 1st August 2017

Horsham Sparrows is celebrating its 50th year in 2017. Founded shortly after England’s World Cup win in ‘66, the club has nurtured generations of young players in the town.

 Today, Sparrows is the only club in Horsham recognised with FA Standard Charter Community status, thanks to its development of girls’ and disability football.We met Secretary Simon King (a former Sparrows player and manager whose father George was Club President for many years), Life President Ian Morris, (former Sparrows manager) and Dave Owen (Chairman of the Horsham and District Youth Football League and Life Vice President of Sparrows.) Photos come from a Wildcats session in Horsham Park.

How it all began
When Bobby Moore lifted the Jules Rimet trophy in 1966, it inspired children to grab a ball and head to the park with jumpers for goalposts. At the time, matches between schools were often played on a Saturday morning and if you weren’t selected, there was no competitive alternative. That was until Laurie Taylor set up a team so that his son and his friends could play football. Ian said: “Laurie called the team Horsham Sparrows, because all the boys flocked together and had little knobbly knees!”

The League Forms
Hot on their heels, Roffey Robins, Horsham Tigers and Chesworth rounded up enough players for a team and in 1969, a mini-league was born. Before long, teams sprung up in Broadbridge Heath, Billingshurst and Southwater as the league grew, launching generations of friendly rivalries and playground bragging rights! Dave said: “At the time, these teams attracted boys who weren’t picked for their school team. If Forest Boys wanted you to play on a Saturday, you couldn’t turn them down and play for Sparrows instead. Schools took priority. “Gradually, school games started to be scheduled during the week and as a result the local leagues became more competitive. Now, school football matches are rarely held on Saturdays. Instead it is now professional academies that take the very best players at junior level.”

Getting Game Time
Whilst winning is important to Sparrows’ teams, the club tries to follow FA guidance and give every player at least half a game. Simon said: “We know that doesn't always happen and it can be difficult to manage a team when you’re chasing a result. But the girls and boys are there to play football and need a fair amount of time on the pitch. “On rare occasions, the club has  had to talk to a manager because substitutions haven’t played. Of course, winning is fantastic, but not at all costs. I have to say, the vast majority of our coaches appreciate that and balance their team very well.”

Developing Talent
Initially, the Horsham Mini Minor Football League (later changed to Horsham District Boys’ League and now Horsham & District Youth Football League) would jump up in two-year age bands. It was common to have a league for first teams and a separate league for the reserves, which typically nurtured the younger players. As the Horsham area grew in size and population, there was enough demand for a league in every individual year group.Dave said: “Sparrows in now represented in every age group, from the Under 8’s right through to under 16's, with two Under 12 teams. The Under 8’s play five-a-side, then it progresses to seven-a-side for the Under 9’s, nine-a-side at Under 11’s and full 11-a-side football from Under 13’s. “We play most games at Horsham Park or Greenway, as we brought the school’s Saturday teams under the Sparrows umbrella several years ago.” 

The Little Kickers
Children can join Sparrows from the age of four at the Little Kickers training sessions for 4 to 6-year-olds in Horsham Park on Thursday evenings. The Little Kickers is for girls and boys of all abilities. The training sessions focus on fun, although the children do learn basic passing and dribbling skills. Parents can bring their children for a free session to see if they like it and after that, it’s £60 for the whole year. Children then have their first taste of competitive matches at Under 8’s. As many of the children are only six or seven and lack the experience of the older children, the Under 8’s league has a two-game format, giving everyone a chance to play.Simon said: “The first game tends to include older children in their second year at Under 8’s, whilst the second game gives others an opportunity. “The format works well, particularly if you’re up against a like-minded manager who understands the importance of encouraging the younger players.”

Here Come the Girls
Horsham Sparrows has set the standard locally when it comes to supporting girls’ football. Twenty years ago, girls were not allowed to continue into Under 11’s football. Now, they have far better opportunities.Dave said: “It really wasn’t long ago that the FA was very restrictive and clubs had to say to its girls: ‘Thanks for your loyalty, but we have to say goodbye.’ “There was a big debate and a girl called Niamh McKevitt played a major role in forcing the grey jackets at the FA to amend its outdated rules. Sparrows had an increasing number of girls who wanted to continue to Under 11’s football. One girl’s parents approached us in 2003 as their daughter wanted to continue playing. So, they decided to set up a girls’ team. They considered calling them Sparrowettes, but the Sussex FA said they could remain Horsham Sparrows and play in a girls’ league. They were entered into a Sussex league, as other girls’ teams were few and far between. However, the number of girl players has increased dramatically and we could soon become a 50-50 club.”

Inspired by Faye
Today, the Sussex County Women and Girls Football League has a division for every year from Under 10’s Development through to Under 16’s. Sparrows has been one of its most successful clubs with a team at every age level except Under 13’s, as well as a Senior team in Women's Division One. Ian said: “One reason why our girls’ teams were successful is the support of Faye White. Faye is a local girl who played for Arsenal and England. “She was good friends with the Skinner family, who founded our first girls’ team, and Faye would support them at games and events. The girls looked up to her as she was a superstar. She even invited the girls to the Women’s FA Cup Final and let them touch the trophy during the parade!”

 Welcoming Wildcats
The Wildcats is another way that Sparrows support girls’ football. Wildcats is an FA-initiative set up to encourage more girls to play. Sparrows run the 16-week course in the Horsham District on the FA’s behalf and have already surpassed the target of attracting 32 girls. Simon said: “It’s a nice alternative to Little Kickers as boys can be boisterous, so this is a better, safer environment for girls who are new to the game. We now have these girls being introduced to football and they could be future Sparrows players too.”

Sparrows Stars
Sparrows continue to produce talented players in both boys’ and girls’ leagues. Several have gone on to play for Horsham FC, most notably Gary Charman, a prolific Sparrows striker who went on to play 550 matches for his home-town club. Several girls may also reach a high standard. Goalkeeper Hannah Gardner has been picked for England youth squads, whilst Bronwen Thomas plays for Brighton and Hove Albion. She was named Women’s Young Player of the Year 2016 by the FA of Wales, receiving her award alongside fellow winners including Sophie Ingle and a promising lad called Gareth Bale.Dave said: “Bronwen is following in the footsteps of Faye White, in terms of talent and her support for grassroots football. “Like Faye used to support her team, Bronwen supports young Sparrows teams and is one of several girls that helps coach at Wildcats sessions.”

Sparrows Day
Sparrows Day is an end-of-season event for all its players. It used to be held at Horsham's Queen Street ground, where teams would play the next age group before awards were handed out. But with 18 Sparrows teams, that cannot be done on one pitch.Ian said: “As 2017 marked our 50th year, each team invited a rival team to play against, so we had matches across two pitches at Tanbridge School. “The awards were given out in the sports hall. We try to restrict the awards to players’ player, manager's player, and club man or club girl. This has become a popular award as it recognises somebody who always trains and has the right attitude.”

Community Status
Sparrows is the only club in Horsham to have gained FA Standard Charter Community Status. To fulfill the criteria, all volunteers must be CRB checked and managers need to pass the FA Level 1 Coaching Course. The club also needs to make a commitment to mini soccer (Under 10’s) and promote equal opportunities. This has been achieved in partnership with Brighton & Hove Albion’s official charity, Albion in the Community, which holds free football sessions for people with disabilities. Ian said: “We have a wide range of players, including amputees and people who are partially sighted. Albion provide qualified coaches, whilst we promote the sessions at the Holbrook Club. “We hope in future there might be enough players to establish a league. Sessions only started last year and we didn't know how many people would turn up. As it happened, 16 people were there to play and it was quite emotional. “In some cases, this initiative has had a profound and positive impact on lives.”