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Are the Glory Days of the Alphabet Game Over?

by Neil Rollings

The 1990s were the peak of the Alphabet Game in school sport.  This reflected pressure from parents who all wanted their children to be in a school team, and heralded an unprecedented era of inclusivity.  There was an exponential growth in the number of teams which schools operated in every principal sport.  It became a badge of honour, and an accepted metric of a successful programme, to have B,C and D teams.  Large schools delved further into the alphabet.  Every Saturday required a massive exercise in logistics to move these armies of teams around the country.  Bus companies thrived, as did the providers of the ingredients for the standard match tea of sausage and chips.

It wasn’t always like that.  Originally, schools had only internal matches, usually between Houses.  When games were first codified, and schools had teams which played “foreign” matches against rival establishments, there was only one team.  In some schools it is still called “The XI” or “The XV”.  It was a bunch of gladiatorial athletes, who “represented” the school, defending its honour on the proxy field of battle. Between the late 19th, and the late 20th centuries, everything changed.  Meritocracy gave way to democracy, and there were teams and opportunities for everyone.  Mass participation was a defining feature of school sport.  It was widely adopted.  It looked like it would last for ever.

Only 25 years later, much has changed.  There are fewer pupils in UK schools playing traditional team sports than ever before.  The alphabet game has maintained some currency with the youngest years.  However, every year that goes by sees a reduction in teenage teams.  Sixth form matches, especially on a Saturday, are at a low not seen before.  The flagship games of the industry, Rugby Football and Cricket, are the most vulnerable.  Saturday 2nd teams in both sports are disappearing in many schools, especially in the day sector.  The proportion of girls playing Saturday matches in the summer term is tiny.  The alphabet is eroding: the D went first, the C has followed.  B is under threat, especially at Under 16.

The reasons are plural.  The honour of selection no longer has the currency it did, parental commitment has become more flimsy and the workforce of classroom teachers who willingly managed weekend sports teams has faded in the face of increased exam pressure and eroded generosity of time.  The appetite of schools for the battle to pressgang a team to take the field against another’s school’s reluctant conscripts has waned. 

Ironically, there are now more specialist sports coaches in schools than ever before.  The independent sector has become a career route for former professional players.  Coaching has never been more intensive, or technical.  Fewer pupils play than ever before, but the ones who do are at a better standard than ever.  The impact of the high profile coaches is on a smaller games playing population.  It’s a bigger investment for a smaller return.  In the inverted economics of school sport, the pupils who benefit most often contribute least in fee income, as they mostly enjoy discounts through sports awards.

The gulf between theory and reality has also widened.  Some fixture cards, once tablets of stone, could now be nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for Outstanding Works of Fiction.  The new reality is that there is less disgrace attached to the call of shame cancelling the B team on Friday.  Actually, it isn’t a call any more.  It has become a peremptory text message.  And a sad faced emoji.  Fixtures made six months before, and proudly published, are a basis for negotiation.  And the negotiation is always downwards, sometimes dramatically so. Teenage whim determines how many become reality.  The bus companies are accustoming themselves to the late cancellation.  The sausages are thrown away.

What’s the future?  The week by week uncertainty, the desperate attempt to maintain the fiction that nothing has changed, will have to end.  It will replaced by a rationalisation of what is realistically achievable.  It will not be the end.  Maybe the Alphabet Game was always too ambitious and unsustainable.  Perhaps it is settling down to a sustainable future. There will always be a proportion of the school population which readily engages with team games, and for whom the Saturday fixture is the high point of the week.  And some staff who believe in the value of sport, and match their commitment.  But there just won’t be as many of either as there used to be.

Neil Rollings, December 2019