To ‘park the bus’ or not ‘park the bus’. That is the question

Stuart Thomas Roar Guru

By , Stuart Thomas is a Roar Guru

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    Last Sunday, my under 14 girls faced a momentous task. With a squad of sixteen and running right on the brink of finals contention, we played the team directly above us on the ladder.

    During the week, we learned of some absences.

    Three of my top five players were unavailable and two other reliable performers were away on holidays.

    On game day, illness prevented another player from taking her place. Down to ten, we looked doomed.

    I woke at 4.37am and decided to ‘park the bus’. The courage to implement the strategy and the ability of my fledgling team to execute the tactic saw me unable to get back to sleep. I felt guilty, dirty and cheap.

    ‘Park the bus’ is one of my favourite sayings in football. It is so categorical.

    The notion of positioning a fortress in front of goal and blunting any attack is a romantic one. Perhaps negative, but still romantic.

    To stand resolute and stoic as attack after attack is thrust in your direction, refusing to allow your goal to be penetrated, is stuff of football folklore.

    Asking a group of fourteen year old girls to take on this challenge was madness.

    The pre-game warm up was varied, little hard running and a focus on fun before the girls were asked to follow the manager down to the creek adjacent to the pitch.

    A full explanation of the ‘bus parking’ that was about to occur was delivered. The players were instructed to launch the ball as far as possible when using their sideline and clearing.

    The ‘keeper was instructed to use every second available and the entire team made well aware that there was no hurry in gathering the ball and rushing to the sideline to get it back into play.

    Tactically, it was either brilliant or a completely disgraceful display of unsportsmanlike conduct that didn’t befit the beautiful game of football.

    Truthfully, I leaned toward the latter as the game unfolded.

    In the first half, we did it easy. The ‘Rovers’ had a couple of chances, but once we slipped into a defensive rhythm, repelling their attacks looked quite comfortable.

    Players strolled to the ball before taking throw-ins, the ‘keeper was in no hurry to launch the ball back into play and defenders followed the game plan perfectly by clearing the ball across the side-line and down the two metre slope.

    As the ball continuously trickled down the descent and the opposition parents chased it furiously, desperately sensing that their girls should be applying scoreboard pressure to an under resourced squad, the lure of the half time break had me believing that the task was not beyond the girls.

    Plenty of vitamin C and a few Natural Confectionary Company snakes saw the girls back in the driver’s seat of the bus. With only ten bodies and a consistent rotation from the opposition, fatigue would surely be an issue.

    As they took the field, they assured me they were fresh legged and were up to the challenge. The game did open up and their legs did fail somewhat.

    Close-up of Jose Mourinho

    Jose, a true bus parker. (Image via Tsutomu Takasu, Wikimedia Commons)

    Two excellent wingers started to make inroads down the flanks and the wide backs were under all sorts of pressure. Without a key forward blessed with the ability to finish in the box, many of the attacks were blunted by our excellent centre backs, who were instructed to clear the ball at all costs.

    While grappling with the ethics and sportspersonship of the tactic employed, it would be unfair to suggest that we didn’t find a few attacking opportunities of our own. In fact the best chance of the second half came our way.

    The coach felt far less daggers in his back whenever the team moved forward. He couldn’t help but feel the families cared little about the result and more about playing positively and in the spirit of the contest.

    Such negative tactics would surely draw the ire of the parents. Registration fees are high and sport is about participation and enjoyment, not about some sort of convoluted, professional strategy, designed to stifle rather than score.

    As we held on, longer and longer with tired legs beginning to hamper the effort, the task appeared within our reach. We surged forward late in the game yet failed to score and an enormous roar followed the final whistle.

    The girls trudged to the sideline utterly exhausted, not quite comprehending their amazing achievement. Some were unsure of the value of the point they had gained, which set them up for the last two weeks of the competition and their assault on the finals.

    To my astonishment the parents were all smiles. They claimed it was one of the girls’ best performances. The comments were universal, ‘what a great game’, ‘we could have won if we had just taken that chance.’

    In a game where I had asked the girls to do nothing more than focus on preventing the opposition from scoring and use every tactic possible to slow down the game, some opportunistic attacking chances had arisen.

    It all made me question the ‘parking of the bus’. Usually seen as such a defensive and negative tactic, designed to do nothing more that stifle, blunt and frustrate, the ‘bus’ had proven entertaining and inspiring.

    Ten young women had run themselves off their feet, created numerous chances and earned a point despite their limited resources.

    I told them after the game that they defended like Italians. Remembering the days of the miserly defensive efforts of the national and Serie A teams. The ‘great wall of Italia’ was alive and well.

    It wasn’t meant as an insult. The parking of the bus is a part of football to be celebrated and not denigrated.

    Many casual observers of the beautiful game might not quite grasp the elegance of the tactic and we probably would all prefer to see multiple goals in the average game of football.

    However, every now and then, in certain circumstances, a mighty big bus needs to be parked in front of goal and after all, a point is a point.