How England Seniors won the alternate World Cup

SJA associate member IAN NOCKOLDS has just returned from Thailand where England’s seniors were competing in the Seniors World Cup. This is his behind-the-scenes story of his time as press officer with the team.

As the world looked to Russia, eagerly anticipating the start of the largest football tournament on the planet, 28 intrepid souls started a 24 hour journey to Bangkok, in preparation for the slightly more modest Seniors World Cup.

Gathered together under the banner of the Harrogate Veterans, a group of ex-professional and semi-professional footballers travelled to Thailand to defend a title they had won on four occasions, including the last two competitions. Would they make it three in a row and if they did, would anyone back home ever know? That’s where I come in.

Literally a world away from community radio, the Toolstation Western League podcast and writing match reports for the Midsomer Norton and Radstock District Journal, I’d decided it would be a good idea to volunteer my services to the England Veterans, believing that if only the nation could hear the story of these footballing Wild Geese they would fall in love with them, just as I had. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but upon reflection I was decidedly undercooked for my first experience as bona fide press officer.

Far from the glamour of chartered flights and first-class travel, the process of getting the England Veterans kit onto the plane involved a “creative” approach to checking in our luggage, which included sacrificing my personal baggage allowance for the team’s physio table.

As I contemplated life for the next two weeks without my underpants, the stark realisation of the task ahead of me set in.

As I contemplated life for the next two weeks without my underpants, the stark realisation of the task ahead of me set in

In my defence, my preparation time had been severely limited by my own house move; save for one trip to Harrogate and two to Birmingham to snatch a few valuable minutes with the team’s long-serving manager, Paul Bell. For the 11 years England have been represented at the Seniors World Cup, Paul has been the manager. That is to say, he’s been the manager, travel agent, photographer, press officer and financier.

Paul welcomed the support I offered in terms of publicising the teams progress but it soon became apparent that his expectations for chronicling the team’s exploits were similar to a father supervising the photographer at his daughter’s wedding. Paul wasn’t so much handing over a job, rather he was removing a limb!

In fairness to Paul he’d already achieved a great deal in promoting England’s participation at the event, including securing the services of a television film crew to accompany the team on their first trip to Thailand. Given the links with the Harrogate Veterans, the team was very well publicised around Yorkshire, with the local papers and BBC Radio York taking an active interest.

In recent years it was the profile of the players that had driven wider interest, with the likes of former Swansea City star Lee Trundle, using social media to promote the tournament to a wider audience, including the national press.

I felt all the pieces were in place, it was just a case of putting the jigsaw together and what better time than a World Cup year. The nostalgia of former pros, like Peter Beagrie, enjoying one last hurrah as their footballing careers sailed into an Asian sunset. The genuine optimism that this England side might actually win a trophy.

The real key for me was that the English public needed to understand that this wasn’t just a glorified stag do, there was genuinely a human interest.

The Seniors World Cup began 13 years ago, in the wake of the tsunami when the Senior Football Association of Thailand started the competition as a way of promoting tourism. Hosted in a different province every year, the competition involves eight teams from around the World.

For me, and for many of the players, particularly on their first trip, the most inspiring experience was our visit to BorFai Municipal School in Hua Hin, the province where this year’s tournament was staged. Every year the teams are paired with a local school, in the expectation that the players will visit the school, do some coaching with the children and give them some kit.

The enthusiasm of the children was equalled only by the incredible volume of the chanting they brought on match day. The children never stopped singing, a feat that earned them a standing ovation from the players before they left the field at the end of our group game against New Zealand. The unbridled joy on the children’s faces is a memory that will live with me for the rest of my life.

When we visited the school it was Beagrie who stole the show (and the children’s hearts). Peter had so often been the star on the pitch, yet it was in the classroom he arguably had the greatest impact. His cheeky sense of humour that had done so much to keep spirits high in the camp was now unleashed in a Thai school, where order and structure were so clearly the watchwords and the children loved it! So much so that I genuinely feared we wouldn’t be able to get him out when we finally had to depart.

When I spoke to our goalkeeper, Steve Phillips, on the coach on the way back to the hotel, he told me how his time with the children had “energised” him. We left the children kit, footballs and a belief that if only for one day, anything is possible. That is why I came, because these moments deserve more than a tweet.

We didn’t have a dedicated Twitter feed before this tournament, which was a blessing and a curse. If I opened a new account, would anyone find us? Well with the help of some of our more notorious alumni, they did!

More pressing was the fact that the team still relied on the Harrogate Veterans’ Facebook page to promote the Seniors World Cup. Paul wasn’t keen on this, as he’d much prefer the England Veterans and Harrogate Seniors to have separate accounts.

We decided to run two Facebook pages in parallel, building a following for the England Veterans as we extracted ourselves from the social media shadow of the Harrogate Seniors. This process was made easier by the use of Buffer, which enabled me to post on both Facebook pages and our new Twitter account, all at the same time.

While the rest of the team sunned themselves by our roof top pool in Bangkok, I started the process of putting the pieces of our social media jigsaw together, all in time for our pre-tournament friendly with a Thailand representative side.

To confuse Paul Bell’s England Veterans with Gareth Southgate’s England senior team could land me in significantly hotter water

When we arrived at Rattana Bundit University for our game, few of us belived any football could actually take place, One of the draw backs of playing the tournament during Thailand’s rainy season. Few players ventured out of the dressing room for fear of contracting trench foot. I’d never been so wet in all my life. Yet we still managed to play 20 minutes each way, score four goals and make it back to the hotel in time for the other England’s pre-World Cup warm up game against Nigeria.

In terms of media and publicity, the impending World Cup in Russia presented me with something of a problem. Back in my community radio days I regularly found my Sports Show on Somer Valley FM confused for far more worthy offerings on American television networks. As amusing as that was, to confuse Paul Bell’s England Veterans with Gareth Southgate’s England senior team could land me in significantly hotter water.

Going in to the tournament in Hua Hin, everything was in place for me to publicise our progress. We had a Twitter account and two Facebook pages. I had Paul’s video camera and my iPhone. The tournament organisers were streaming most of the games on YouTube and they had their own photographer at every event.

More importantly, I had the contact details of each player’s local newspaper. A few words in a national publication would be welcome, but I hoped we could build coverage of our games across the country by targeting the local press.

I’ve never considered myself to be a social media expert and I don’t consider myself to be one now, but I do know our Twitter account earned 375k impressions during the tournament, while our England Veterans’ Facebook page reached 9,556 people. Interestingly, the plan to run both Facebook pages in parallel was clearly the right one, as the older Harrogate Veterans’ site reached more than 22k people.

Our social media success was helped significantly by the continued support of players past and present, who used their own social networks to promote interest in the team. The likes of Jamie Cureton and Lee Trundle, who’d been so influential in promoting interest in the last tournament, were joined by prolific re-tweeters, Steve Phillips and Nicky Southall.

My strategy of using the players own local papers to build interest at home met with varying success, but when it worked, it really worked. I joked with Steve Thompson, the manager of Dorchester Town, that if he ever wanted to run for public office, we should have a chat.

The Dorset Echo had completely bought in to Steve’s involvement with the tournament and by the end of the week they were publishing stories faster than I was producing them

The Dorset Echo had completely bought in to Steve’s involvement with the tournament and by the end of the week they were publishing stories faster than I was producing them! The Harrogate press were great and we also had success in Liverpool, Bristol and London, giving the squad a truly national feel.

Given my community radio background, I was keen to use audio to augment our coverage. My theory was to publish a regular stream of audio interviews that could be picked up by local radio, community stations in particular. Sadly this was not a strategy I was able to develop, as the daily routine of video and picture editing, social media and press releases kicked in. That said, I am grateful to BCfm, Somer Valley FM and Glastonbury FM for the interest and support they showed during the tournament, suggesting that, among community broadcasters in particular, there is a place for content sharing.

What was most interesting to me was to see the varying impact of video and audio interviews. In addition to the radio style interviews, published on Soundcloud, I produced regular YouTube videos, showing interviews with players and the management. I wasn’t wild about this approach at first as it felt a bit “home-made”, but the viewing figures show that the fans engaged more with video than the audio. Lesson learned.

Originally, my ambition for attending had been to commentate on the World Cup final, but my kind of radio style commentary was never going to compete with the opportunity for fans to watch live footage, streamed on YouTube. Twitter was as good as it was going to get for me and it was all going so well until five minutes from full time when Twitter suspended our account for “unusual behaviour”. I appreciate that England don’t win many World Cups, but unusual behaviour is a bit much.

We were 4-0 up at the time and cruising to the final whistle. The bench had rung the changes, to give as many of the players as possible a chance to experience playing in a World Cup final. I had only one job left to do and that was to post the final score, informing the universe that England had won the 2018 Seniors World Cup, but that was a tweet that I was unable to send for 48 hours, until we’d landed back in England. I could have cried (in fact I did).

I consider myself to be incredibly fortunate to have enjoyed such a phenomenal experience, spending the time I did with such a wonderful group of people. As with all my broadcasting experiences, I’ve come away from my time in Thailand with nothing but a huge amount of respect for the people who do what I did for a fortnight, for a living.

Media and press officers, particularly in the lower reaches of the game, have to master so many disciplines. At times I found it difficult to sleep, so many press releases to write, so many photos to edit, so many tweets to send. Imagine doing this over an entire football season!

Did I enjoy myself? I’m not sure I had the time to do that, but as personal growth experiences go, this has to be up there with the best of them.