Little League Football – A History
By Martin Pettingell: President 1994-2002
The thing about Little League is that once hooked, you’re involved for life … if not longer. So this brief (?) history of Little League Football is not just to explain to new managers how it all came about, it’s also an unashamed wallow in nostalgia for the oldtimers. Reminiscences (and corrections!) will be most welcome.
The Bright Idea
“If it works so well in America, why can’t it be adapted to suit the kids in England?”
mused Frank Adey, one day in 1967. Frank is one of life’s enthusiasts and blessed withconsiderable energy, charm and most importantly, foresight: qualities that were to be used in full over the years to come. In his day, Frank played football at a high standard, as centre half for Epsom Town. Whilst spending some time in the States, Frank had become very impressed with the concept of Little League Baseball. A keen baseball player himself, Frank was an all-round sportsman and a regular in his works football teamback in England.
Little League Baseball had started in Pennsylvania in 1939 but because of the war, it took until 1946 for the 12th League to be set up. Then following Newsreel exposure came hundreds of enquiries and an explosion of interest. Within 10 years, Little League Baseball was in every US State. By the time Frank went to America, almost every sport-minded boy belonged to his local Little League.
Frank was well aware of the shortcomings of youth football in the 1960’s. For a start, there wasn’t much of it, apart from school football. So if a boy wasn’t in the school team, he might get to play occasionally for the Cubs or Scouts, but only if he was pretty good would he get into a Sunday team. Otherwise, he could have a kick-around with his friends in the street or park.
At that time, Frank ran the print shop at Watliff & Co, an engineering company on the trading estate at Merton, Surrey. Having been impressed with Little League Baseball, Frank often thought about the need for organised football for the youngsters who couldn’t get into a team, and he had some ideas on how it might work. But it was just a dream, until the day when one of his workmates burst into the print room. George Burdett had just been sacked from managing Merstham F.C. and had decided that he would start a boys’ team. Off went George, hotly pursued by Frank saying “George, don’t do anything until you hear from me!” The seed had been sown.
So Frank got thinking hard about what was wrong with youth soccer and how could his ideas, together with some of the ways of Little League Baseball be adapted to suit England’s national game. And after mulling it over, he came up with his concept of how youth football ought to be arranged.
“Football for children,” Frank declared, “should be child-centred.” At the time, that was quite a revolutionary proposal. “No longer would kids have to fit the adult way of playing the game,” he decided, “the game would be changed to fit the children.”
Some ideas were pretty obvious, like cutting down the size of pitches to suit the size of the players. No longer should small boys struggle on adult pitches, or goalies be beaten by lobbing the ball over their heads. Some ideas were very new, like limiting the numbers in a squad and making substitutions compulsory – Or telling children that once they were in a team, they wouldn’t be dropped if a better player came along.
Frank also wanted every kid to have the chance of playing. So there wouldn’t be fees and subs each week that could exclude boys from poorer families from playing. And playing all games at home meant that every Little League became a community organisation, with huge social advantages automatically built into every League.
Having thought it through, Frank then started discussions with others in his company football team, notably George Burdett, F. Judd and Ron Sexton. His concept of Little League Football created much enthusiasm and Frank signed up several of his colleagues to be the first team managers. Amongst those keen to be press-ganged was a youngster by name of Ronald Hobbs, who was to prove a valuable addition to the cause. And while he was at it, Frank recruited Watliff’s Managing Director, William E Arnold, C.Eng., F.C.G.I., F.I.E.E., F.I.Prod.E., F.B.I.M., known as Tom to his friends. Tom was happy to allow Frank to use the company premises and facilities and as Frank’s day job was in charge of he printing works, posters and leaflets were no problem and nor were goals and team benches.
Gradually the first Little League Football rulebook took shape and Frank was ready to take up the challenge of setting up the first League. He already had his first six team managers and persuading the local authority to provide a pitch of the right dimensions and a changing room was soon achieved. Finances would be required, of course. The new rule book suggested each team should have a sponsor so Frank gave a talk at the Morden Rotary Club luncheon in November, 1967. Both the lunch and the talk went down well, and by the time coffee was served, Frank had sponsors for all six teams. In addition, Ron and Joyce Hales, the owners of a sports shop in South Wimbledon agreed to give hefty discounts on the kit, plus a lengthy period of free credit.
Tom Arnold became the first President of Little League Football, a position he was to hold until his death, some 24 years later. A distinguished engineer, Tom was a world expert on long case clocks and had a considerable collection built up over the years, all in working order and busy chiming away the hours – but not necessarily all in sync. It seems that Tom and his wife Betty had great difficulty in ever persuading a piano tuner to come more than once.
Tom Arnold had already agreed to sponsor a team. The other five original sponsors, all members of the Morden Rotary Club, were R. Len Smart, the Rotary President, who ran a photography business called Remco, Arthur Footman, an aptly named supplier of chiropody equipment, Leo Mays, of L.V. Mays Transport, Ernest C. Micklewright of Elm Auto Sales and H John Locke of Switchgear Engineering
All this had taken place by the time of the inaugural meeting of Little League Football on 21st February, 1968 in the Watliff canteen. So all that was required were the boys and Frank now went on a recruiting drive. A thousand leaflets were distributed to advertise the trials and in addition, Frank started chatting up every likely lad in the area – until the local constabulary suggested that this might not be seen as such a good idea. 240 applications were received and Frank visited each one personally to outline his plans before the first trial on Saturday 24th August. That’s an awful lot of tea and biscuits!
The Grand Opening Day of Morden Little League Football took place on Saturday 5th October 1968 at King George’s Field, Tudor Drive, Morden, Surrey. Such was the enthusiasm of boys and adults, that one lad, Richard Hornsby, got out of his sick bed to attend, although he was not allowed to play. But Match Official Brian Hall went to hospital to have a painkilling injection for a back injury before coming to the ground to officiate.
The six teams paraded in front of 500 parents and supporters and in the absence of the Duke of Edinburgh, Alf Ramsey and Tommy Trinder, The Mayor of Merton, Alderman Norman S Clarke, J.P. gave a speech and formally opened the League. This was followed at 10.30 am by the first ever Little League Football match. The honour of scoring Little League Football’s first goal went to John O’Carroll of Watliff Dynamos.
The results of the very first morning’s play were: -
10.30 Watliff Dynamos 8 Elm Beetles 4
11.30 Footman Flyers 1 Remco Royals 2
12.30 Switchgear Flashes 2 Mays Lions 1
To continue reading the complete history of Little League Football please download the PDF version below.
This Article and information on the PDF was compiled and written by Martin Pettingell President 1994-2002