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Squaddie goals: Playing football in the Army

The Army will give you unbelievable opportunities to realise your sporting potential. We spent time with the Royal Signals football team to find out more.

The changing room door bursts open, and the corridor is filled with thumping music and the unmistakable smell of Deep Heat. Soldiers from Royal Signals Corps team head out purposefully, but they’re not dressed in khaki. Today, they’re also footballers.

 We’re at Shrapnel Park in Larkhill – home of the Royal Artillery – for the penultimate game of the Corps’ football season. We’re here to find out how Army football works. And it soon becomes clear that Army football is no joke.

'We take it hugely seriously,' says centre back, Cpl. Rob ‘Farks’ Farkins who also plays for the Army and UK Armed Forces representative teams. 'It’s passion more than anything. It’s a sense of pride, too. Representing the Army, 85,000 people, there’s a sense of pride in that for most soldiers.'

Farks is not wrong. When you look at the staff involved, it’s clear that this is the real deal. There’s a Club President, a Club Secretary, a Chairman and so on – a proper club hierarchy. The whole set-up feels like a professional outfit. As the lads warm up, they are watched by staff who have flown in from Cyprus, for the game and to begin planning the club’s future. They even have a facilities manager to make sure all the kit is ready, and that the team has everything they need – not for this match though, because he’s currently in Afghanistan.

Footballers getting ready for a match
Army football is not without its quirks. And in case you’re wondering, each team has a proper kit with its own badge featuring the regimental insignia. There’s not a grubby bib in sight.

So how does it work?

Can you legit get paid to play football in the Army? Left back, Sgt. James ‘Cully’ Culliford explains: 'Obviously work commitments come first, you can’t be free for every game. There’s a core list of about 30 names. It’ll go out to the group, and everyone will reply to say whether or not they’re available.' That makes it sound rather simple. It isn’t. Army football is played at several levels. There’s Regiment level, then Corps (today’s game), then Army, and finally UK Armed Forces. Some players play all four levels as well as non-league civilian games on a Saturday!

To give you an idea of the hectic football schedule, today’s match is a Corps-level Division One league game, with teams competing for the Massey Trophy. But this is also ‘Quads week’ which means the game is also part of a tournament between REME (Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers), Royal Engineers, Royal Signals and the Royal Artillery. In simple terms, that means three games in five days. Ouch.

During the season, the lads can be regularly playing twice a week, sometimes more. In fact, during the most intense periods, they could spend a month or more doing nothing but football. So what about their soldiering duties? 'It’s tough going, but you have to make the decision to put the effort in when you’re at work,' says Farks, who is a Communications Transport Specialist. 'You do long hours and help your guys out. Because you work in small man teams; there’s four of us that work together – when I’m not there, there’s only three. So you need to ensure you put in the hours, because if you’re not putting the time into being a soldier, you’re not going to be allowed to go.'

Royal Signals football team in action

'You’ve definitely got to have that relationship with your work, you can’t just rely on playing football all the time, then go into work and do nothing. At the end of the day, football in the Army is a privilege. If you’re not willing to put the graft in at work, then you won’t play football, and rightly so, I think.'

A soldier first

Farks knows a thing or two about soldiering, too, having been to Iraq in 2007 when he was just 18, then to Afghanistan in 2010. 'It has definitely turned me into a bigger man – the experience I had out there,' he explains. 'Do I take that onto the pitch? Yeah I do, because we have lost people out there, and you still play for the people that have gone. It’s a sad situation, but you do always have that at the back of your mind at any level of the sport you play.'

Pads tells us that soldiers like Farks force them to up their game on the pitch. 'With people like Rob, you do get to play with people who have done tough tours and these people are big characters and big personalities. They bring their experience onto the pitch. You’ve got to tip your hat to these guys. They probably don’t even know it, but the way they are on the pitch, you’ve got to step up to the mark with them, you’ve got to be as good as them. Not just footballing ability, but mentally, and how determined they are. You’ve got to be with them. That’s a good experience for me.'

As we watch on from the sidelines, it’s clear that this is high-quality football, but one of the most noticeable things is the extraordinary discipline. There’s no diving, no rolling around on the floor, no getting up in the ref’s face. A nice change from the pro game. Oh, and two tanks drive past the pitch in the second half. After an exciting 90 minutes, the Signals win the game 4-1.

The following day is a rest day as there’s another game the day after. So, the Signals lads start their day with swimming and a gym session. But they quickly move on to team bonding. 'This is our last [non-match] day together so we’re going to have a bit of volleyball, a bit of head tennis and a big barbecue with the 25 of us,' says Farks. 'Just have a laugh and chill out. That’s a good experience.'

Corps football - Royal Signals player
'Team bonding is huge within the military, everything to do with team bonding is always encouraged. Not always through drink, but sometimes a few beers and a night out can break the ice with teams and players. Not everyone drinks of course, and that’s absolutely fine. But, a night out can bring out personalities and let you get to know people better.'

A soldier first

During the inter-services period – when the Army representative team takes on its Navy and RAF counterparts – the Army team will do nearly everything together – breakfast, lunch and dinner. The team believes that if you know each other off the pitch, you know each other on the pitch, and those small margins make the difference between winning and losing. There’s an opportunity for team building then, but that’s just the start.

'We’re lucky enough to get on tours, which are always good, always eventful,' says Pads. 'Those kind of tours cement the team bonding, because you get to see who people really are.' He goes on to explain that these tours happen at every level of Army football, and they do sound incredible.

'The Army offers massive opportunities to be fair,' adds Farks. 'The past three or four years we’ve been to Washington DC, Germany, Ireland, Holland. We’ve had a good few trips to Cyprus, too. There’s a few Army camps out there. It’s good for a pre-season because you’ve got the heat for the fitness, but it’s also good for team bonding. We’re going to Paris and then back to Germany this year. It’s a massive opportunity for people to go away and play at a good level, and to be highly competitive.'

Playing at a ‘good level’ seems to be something of an understatement. This is great football. Army footballer Tom Broadbent (a Lance Bombardier with the Royal Artillery at the time) signed a professional contract with Bristol Rovers and now plays full time for the League 1 club. Thanks, in part, to the Army helping him take that next step.

The team taking 5
'The Corps team and the Army team went to Brazil. We had to make a little contribution each, but it was minimal. We stayed in a hotel right by the Copacabana beach. We met the England team and went to watch England v Brazil. When we get to go on these tours, it’s amazing. And for the price you pay… If you were a civvy you’d pay ten times that at least.'

Sports in the Army

Not only is there the opportunity to take your sport to the highest level, it is actively encouraged. In 2014, the Army began the Army Elite Sport Programme, which aims to make the most out of its talented sports stars. Through partnerships with the English Institute for Sport and the Talented Athletes Scholarship Scheme, the Army is giving its best sportsmen and women access to strength and conditioning coaching, physiotherapy, nutrition advice and coaching for their sport. So you can expect to see even more medal-winning Army athletes at Tokyo 2020.

The focus on helping athletes achieve their sporting goals is remarkable, but it begs the question, what happens when you can no longer compete? 'There’s definitely support if you do want to stay in the game,' says Pads. 'Our current Corps manager played for the team for 15 years. The Army even puts money towards your coaching badge if you’re going to commit to it that much. When you finish playing, it’s not the end.'

'There’s also refereeing too; refereeing is becoming big in the Army,' adds Farks. 'There are opportunities to take whatever path you like. Some walk away. But for me I definitely want to get on the coaching roles as quick as I can.'

Indeed, when you take a look around an Army gym, almost every wall has posters advertising Army sports courses – boxing coaching, football coaching, swimming. Sport is clearly a huge deal around here.

Like most people, LCpl. Antony ‘Deansy’ Deans had no idea that the Army was so dedicated to pushing people in sport. 'I doubt people even realise that you can get these sorts of opportunities,' he says. 'I didn’t. A couple of months ago we stayed in St George’s Park [the England team’s training complex] for three days with the Army team, and we did a few training sessions there. It was unbelievable. Being in the Army and realising how good the sport is, I wish I’d found out before: I probably would have joined earlier.' With that, the lads return to play volleyball as the barbecued meat begins to sizzle in the early summer sun.


With thanks to the Royal Signals Corps football team.
Royal Signals football team relaxing with a game of volleyball
It’s hard to ignore how many times the Signals players talked about ‘opportunity.’ And that’s what really stood out during our visit. If you’re keen on sport, it’s clear that the Army will give you every opportunity to fulfill your potential.
DATE: 30 September 2019
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