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

Stuart Thomas Columnist

By Stuart Thomas, Stuart Thomas is a Roar Expert


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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.

    Stuart Thomas
    Stuart Thomas

    Stuart Thomas is a sports writer and educator who made the jump from Roar Guru to Expert in 2017. An ex-trainee professional golfer, his sporting passions are broad with particular interests in football, AFL and rugby league. His love of sport is only matched by his passion for gardening and self-sustainability. Follow him on Twitter @stuartthomas72.

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    The Crowd Says (34)

    • July 12th 2017 @ 5:58am
      RBBAnonymous said | July 12th 2017 @ 5:58am | ! Report

      I personally wouldn’t have played that way Stewart but you are well within your rights. I have said it before and I will say it again, there is no right or wrong way to play football. In the circumstances of having 10 players you have even more right to play that way. An ugly result in more ways than one, especially going by your own beliefs but I think we can forgive you for this one.

    • July 12th 2017 @ 6:43am
      Waz said | July 12th 2017 @ 6:43am | ! Report

      I hope you can sleep at night Stuart, I hope you can sleep at night …… ?

      • Columnist

        July 12th 2017 @ 9:21am
        Stuart Thomas said | July 12th 2017 @ 9:21am | ! Report

        Restless. Pleased with a point. Part of me thought you players should be encouraged to play not just sit, but I think they also learned something about closing a game down when needed. If they learn anything I guess that is good.

    • July 12th 2017 @ 7:23am
      Onside said | July 12th 2017 @ 7:23am | ! Report

      Just say 20 matches in season : if you ‘park the bus’ for 1 match, it represents just 5% of season.

      Thats OK, especially when the season was on the line.

      The job of the players involved , was to protect the positions of their mates who were unavailable.

      • Columnist

        July 12th 2017 @ 9:22am
        Stuart Thomas said | July 12th 2017 @ 9:22am | ! Report

        Nice take on it. I feel better. It was a fun day. Humans love being up against the odds.

    • July 12th 2017 @ 7:46am
      Caltex Ten & SBS support Australian Football said | July 12th 2017 @ 7:46am | ! Report

      Stuart – under those circumstances, I say fair enough; I would have done the same thing. In fact, being involved in similar circumstances as a player and as a manager, you did right—a great result for the gals. As you have pointed out, a point is a point won, not lost.

      • Columnist

        July 12th 2017 @ 9:24am
        Stuart Thomas said | July 12th 2017 @ 9:24am | ! Report

        Need to win one of the last two to make it. Might be tricky. I wish I had the game on tape, wonderful example of unity in the face of adversity and achieving a common cause.

        • July 12th 2017 @ 9:41am
          Caltex Ten & SBS support Australian Football said | July 12th 2017 @ 9:41am | ! Report

          Stuart – In the teams I played “parking the bus” we played with a sweeper behind a back four. 1-4-3-2 against a team that were favourites to win the title, and we forced two draws against them on both occasions (home and away). How did you set out your gals?

          • July 12th 2017 @ 9:55am
            Caltex Ten & SBS support Australian Football said | July 12th 2017 @ 9:55am | ! Report

            Just to add, if you were down a man (10) I’d play it like this 1-4-3-1 playing with one striker and a sweeper.

          • Columnist

            July 12th 2017 @ 10:19am
            Stuart Thomas said | July 12th 2017 @ 10:19am | ! Report

            I played with my absolute beginner up front. Kept my back four solid. One of my centre backs is probably as good as any in the competition so I wasn’t tempted to switch to five. Played four mids with one sitting in front of back four and the other sitting higher like a true mid. That created a chain through two competent centre backs, a def mid sitting just in front and a more natural mid. I played two on the flanks and had them chase hard and try and lock the ball in the corners when we managed to push forward. This created opportunities from a square ball after a throw in and a quick shot from the top of the box. Unfortunately, a quick turn-over and we were in trouble. The opposition didn’t stretch us. They should have played wider and got in behind. It was probably a 4-1-3-1

    • Roar Guru

      July 12th 2017 @ 8:33am
      Griffo said | July 12th 2017 @ 8:33am | ! Report

      Well if you want to take a development slant to it, the girls showed for one game that they could mentally and physically control the game under pressure and come away with a desired result. Those who weren’t there wish they could have been.

      That’s got to be valuable to them and you as a coach. When the finals arrive and you deliver the next master tactical plan five minutes before the game, you know you’ll have the full attention of ten players at least.

      Now Stuart, did you sleep well that night, or lie awake reliving the game? 😎

      • Columnist

        July 12th 2017 @ 9:26am
        Stuart Thomas said | July 12th 2017 @ 9:26am | ! Report

        Always lie awake as a coach, my hubristic. Let’s just say emotional detachment from the game is not easily achieved. Takes at least 45 mins for the heart rate to come down. Lucky I’m such a fit athlete. ?

        • Columnist

          July 12th 2017 @ 9:34am
          Stuart Thomas said | July 12th 2017 @ 9:34am | ! Report

          Not sure how hubris became hubristic? Thanks iPad?

    • July 12th 2017 @ 8:39am
      Buddy said | July 12th 2017 @ 8:39am | ! Report

      A slightly wicked dichotomy! Lack of players and substitution options often motivates junior sides into playing at a different level with real drive and desire to win everything going and having star performers missing often brings out qualities in other players that have been hidden away. If league position and play off places are the goal then we tend to do whatever it takes that the players can produce as long as we own up to it in public irrespective of the result. I had the the opposite experience last weekend in under 14’s where 2 silly goals were conceded but the team looked capable if they could get more players forward so I switched to 3 at the back and quickly conceded another 2 as the midfielders did not properly understand their defensive roles. My post match chat began with “mia culpa” and followed the theme of sometimes a score doesn’t truly reflect a game but there are lessons to be learnt by all of us………. depends what the overall objective is I suppose.

      • Columnist

        July 12th 2017 @ 9:31am
        Stuart Thomas said | July 12th 2017 @ 9:31am | ! Report

        The notion of midfielders not understanding their defensive roles is a constant struggle for beginners. Sometimes they feel that the back four/three is out there to defend and everyone else is searching for goals. Getting them to track back every time is so important.