‘Capable young people need to be involved and empowered’ says Rob Austin as Reading Sunday Social League comes to a close

Rob Austin, Hype Train and Ian Pulfer, Woodley Saints with the RSSL trophy. Photo: Sam Austin / hypetrainfc.com/photos
Rob Austin, Hype Train and Ian Pulfer, Woodley Saints with the RSSL trophy. Photo: Sam Austin / hypetrainfc.com/photos

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It was announced by the Reading & District Sunday League that the competition would not resume after the third lockdown in England.

That left a huge gap for the Sunday morning footballers of Reading and the surrounding area, a space that was quickly occupied by Paul Gutteridge at Twitter’s Caversham United and Rob Austin of Hype Train FC.

Abi Ticehurst sat down with the pair to discuss how the RSSL came about, what they’ve learned and what the future holds for the competition that came together quickly in a popular format and included ‘that’ trophy.

What prompted you to set up the Reading Sunday Social League (RSSL)?

Rob Austin (RA): The Reading & District Sunday League shutting its doors for the season set the wheels in motion to help fill the void caused by a lack of football in the area. We’ve also been looking to work with Caversham United for a while, as we were training neighbours last season and have a good off-field relationship with Paul Gutteridge and his team. 

So, we naturally asked about forming a league and it just built from scratch right there and it was a good relationship from the get-go. Paul was able to organise a lot of the teams, grounds, and the fixture list, we also bought in Ian Pulfer at Woodley Saints to help organise referees, whilst I did all the creative work in the background; creating the league logo, promotional artwork, blog posts, as well as organising the trophy with Awards FC.

The clear advantage, and why it was so easy, was the lack of competition freed up a lot of pitches and match officials – it was nice having the freedom of Reading to get this league organised without any real hitches, whilst also in the knowledge that the worst of the weather from winter was behind us, meaning we were all confident that the league would, as it ultimately did, would go off without a hitch.

Paul Gutteridge (PG): From our side, it was the decision of the Reading & District Sunday League to terminate the league season, leaving us with no organised football. The RSSL was designed to provide the teams involved with competitive football in an organised format, to reduce administrative burdens on those involved at the clubs.

What was the inspiration and the process behind the trophy?

RA: When I designed the RSSL league logo the first people I contacted was the team at Awards to see if they could create a bespoke trophy for the competition. Awards are a fantastic company that offer bespoke awards and trophies for your club and since we found them we haven’t looked anywhere else for our awards.

Little did we know, but their team had been working on a new concept trophy to go alongside their circular ‘Shield’ trophy. I was sent a concept of an octagonal plate that formed the basis of the league’s design and the eventual trophy that arrived in time for the final on June 20th 2021.

Woodley Saints lift the trophy in the Reading Sunday Social League Photo: Andrew Batt.
Woodley Saints lift the trophy in the Reading Sunday Social League Photo: Andrew Batt.

The trophy itself is an octagonal shape and 23 inches in diameter in each of its corners and weighs 4kg, meaning it is a weighted, huge trophy. There is a central plate for the custom RSSL champions league logo, reflective mirror panels that create a brilliant effect against grass in particular, and a golden trim that adds to the regal look of the award.

Andrew Spiers of Lens Digital, the RSSL’s main sponsor, called the RSSL a ‘unique league put together in unique circumstances’ and called the trophy a ‘work of art that reflected the spirit and great organisation of the league’. The finished product is like no other in grassroots football and a true intent of our ambition with this league structure moving forward into future events.

It’s been a pleasure working alongside the dedicated team at Awards in helping bring my vision for the league to life. Personally, I’m blown away with the feedback we have received about just how good the trophy looks – it’s been a highlight to make this league happen, with every aspect of the RSSL coming through at such a high level. 

PG: We’ve seen Awards FC doing great things on Twitter, and they have provided both clubs’ Player of the Match trophies. They seemed a logical choice, and then Rob devised the shield.

Southbank v Hype Train Photo: Sam Austin, https://www.hypetrainfc.com/photos
Southbank v Hype Train. Photo: Sam Austin / hypetrainfc.com/photos

Any competition highlights, either for yourself or other teams?

RA: As a team, Hype Train FC played our very first Sunday League matches and it was against seven teams we’ve never had the opportunity of playing before, so everything for us as a club was exciting and new.

Inward looking at our team, victories over Caversham United and Southbank were noteworthy, with our game against Caversham in particular an affair with a bounty of great goals and drama, whilst Callum Parr-Jones scored arguably the goal of the tournament against Woodley in our first game.

Southbank’s manager stepped in as referee against us after some car trouble for the original official, whilst we managed to finish as the top scorers.

PG: In general, it was great fun and played in good spirits. One of our highlights had to be using the ‘Wheel of Misfortune’ to choose positions for a game…. Club record goalscorer in goal, keeper at centre back and the most makeshift midfield the world has ever seen!

Best or favourite statistic from the competition?

RA: I actually finished compiling a list of the top scorers from the RSSL and the one statistic that jumps out at me is the fact that each game was averaging 4.5 goals-per-game, with a total of 131 goals scored across 29 matches. Each round of games offered something top-draw across the four games, which as a league organiser is something to put in the win column for sure.

PG: Caversham United played in two games that were filmed for YouTube, lost both and conceded 8 goals in the process. We are NOT a YouTube team!

What have you learnt from having set up the RSSL?

RA: I am on a league Committee and have played in the East Berks, Thames Valley and Reading Sunday pyramids, and am aware of the complexities and politics involved in getting grassroots football played. A lot of volunteers that care deeply about football at this level do their best to see that thousands of players and clubs can get on the turf, though I truly believe that sometimes league structures, particularly ones that only meet at quarterly Committee meetings to discuss issues, can be slow and ineffective at identifying the needs and wants of clubs in the area. This can create rifts and divides between clubs, leagues and County FA’s.

I’m under the earnest belief that more capable young people need to be involved and empowered in league committees’ as well as given a bigger input on how league’s should be run. Not only are young managers, coaches and players in the league at games every weekend, they have invaluable and current experiences that can be relayed and learnt from, that all too often currently go to waste.

Currently, I see all too often people that run the show on all types of Committee’s don’t go to games, they don’t know the ability of their own clubs, the struggles we all go through, and most importantly, all of the good that we do as clubs to help improve any given league, which is not seen or fully understood. I don’t think you can stand on principle in football, it’s ever-evolving and you need to act quickly and communicate this in a proper manner, otherwise everything becomes political and dragged out.

The RSSL naturally adopted this model of having younger people involved at the very top – the RSSL simply wouldn’t have happened in contentious circumstances. Not only did this allow for a fresh outlook on how a grassroots football league could be reimagined, but there are no archaic barriers holding anyone back from innovating to create something unique. Just look at the end result, from the beautiful RSSL trophy, to the quality of social media adopted, the genuine enthusiasm from teams and coaches, to the reporting, modern sponsors and the eyeballs on the league in general.

The real key to the league was inviting good people and good teams that wouldn’t create any drama and hassle. Having eight teams is also a relatively easy task to manage if any issues arise. Just like with anything in life, you should want to surround yourself with good people and want to operate at a high standard, and that’s exactly what the RSSL did. The presentation, preparation, execution and hype of the league was excellent and panned out exactly how we envisioned.

Caversham United player/manager Paul Gutteridge. Photo: Andrew Batt.

PG: There’s a certain number of administrative tasks that need to be done to ensure everyone involved is suitably covered etc. That took time and effort. However, I learnt that there’s a lot of like-minded people in the area at grassroots level and it’s been really insightful to share ideas and learn from each other.

Post-match thoughts having competed in the final:

RA: The final between my Hype Train FC and Woodley Saints was worthy of the showpiece event. The match was played to a high standard, with two committed, determined teams that played out all the nervous tropes of a nervy cup final. My team may have been beaten on the day, though we have nothing to be ashamed about – the game could have swung either way and we missed some criminal chances.

Well done to Ian Pulfer and everyone at Woodley for a first trophy. It was great seeing the beautiful trophy finding a worthy home and I wish them nothing but the best until we meet them down the line!

PG: Don’t ask me!

What does the future of the RSSL look like?

RA: The Reading Sunday Social League has been a huge success. Every game was played, and more to the point played in the right competitive spirit. We only had one referee fail to turn up to a game, whilst the teams that we got on board have been nothing but helpful and supportive – it’s not often in grassroots football you find a complete constitution that is happy, but luckily we found that with everyone involved.

We have been able to form and grow a great relationship with sponsors, Lens Digital, as well as with a lot of people involved in grassroots football in the area, and the feedback has been nothing but glowing. Andrew Spiers has already expressed his desire to back the league again and we already have some early steps in motion to expand and grow the competition in future events.

Personally, I’m keen to continue to grow and develop grassroots football in any way I can, so this will be the first of many RSSL events to bookmark in your calendar.

Caversham United's Jack Tapscott and Sam Foster. Photo: Sam Austin / hypetrainfc.com/photos
Caversham United’s Jack Tapscott and Sam Foster. Photo: Sam Austin / hypetrainfc.com/photos

PG: It’s a blank canvas right now. The idea has legs to go again though!

Final thoughts

RA: Football is nothing without people, an adage that the Premier League and the large football pyramid should never forget. The base of any platform is built on the amazing volunteers at grassroots level that inspire players, clubs and coaches of all ages. 

I’d like to thank everyone who made the RSSL a reality – to all the players, coaches, sponsors and volunteers at Soutbank FC, Caversham United, Woodley Saints, Tilehurst Titans, New England, Rose & Thistle FC, Thames Valley Railway, or the team here at Hype Train FC – as well as the family, friends, spectators and groundsman who have been heavily involved from the sidelines – it’s been a great experience and we can’t wait to roll out the second instalment of the competition in the near future.

Social Media

RA: You can find the team across all major social media platforms – Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube. We also have a dedicated club website, HypeTrainFC.com, that houses all of our efforts and content as a club.

Twitter: RealHypeTrain, HypeTrainRob, HypeTrainFC
Instagram: hypetrainfc
Facebook: hypetrainfc
YouTube: Hype Train Football Club
Website thehypetrain.co.uk

PG: There’s no League social account YET, but @CavershamUnited on Twitter for that good stuff.

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