Saving Grassroots Football

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Whilst participation in grassroots football is dwindling by the year, the quest to “Save Grassroots Football” is gathering pace to try and counteract the declining numbers. The cycle goes that as older players retire, have kids or just gradually lose interest as their bodies fail them, the younger generation steps in to replace them. However, this is clearly not happening, as today’s youngsters prefer to spend their weekends nursing a hangover or playing computer games. Or prefer not to have lumps kicked out of them by older blokes who see in them what they once saw in themselves. If you were lucky enough to have pace in your younger years, it can be a cruel realisation knowing it has gone and will never return and unfortunately a small minority of idiots out there will choose to take it out on the young upstarts. That’s not to tar everyone with the same brush, as there are some cracking characters out there who do a lot of good work with scant reward, but it’s the idiots that usually attract the attention.

There was a famous case last year about a Sunday League footballer who was jailed for 12 months for purposely injuring an opponent. The victim’s injuries were so bad that he required reconstructive surgery and as he was self-employed he was unable to support his young family. It’s improbable that his confidence, nor his physical capabilities, will ever return to the level required to play competitive football again. Saying that, would you if you had experienced that? I’m all for being competitive and playing hard, but football is not about hurting each other. Especially when you have to get up for work the next day. We don’t have the luxury that Premier League footballers have when they get injured. We don’t have an immediate operation in a private hospital, 24/7 care and rehabilitation. No, after spending all day in A & E we go on a 6-month waiting list and have to hobble around the office or building site on crutches. I broke my nose towards the end of my Sunday league career, in an accidental clash, and needed time off work. Luckily I’m employed and could use up sick days. Some people aren’t as fortunate and would have missed out on wages.

Apart from the desire to actually get out of bed and play the game, and the desire to avoid being injured by someone, there are also financial considerations. Most teams charge a signing on fee at the start of the season to pay for pitch hire or a new kit, and then weekly “subs” to pay for the ref and to wash the shiny new kit. When you consider what some people spend on gym memberships, or in the local generic coffee chain, the cost of playing grassroots football is pretty reasonable. However, pitch fees are rising as cash-strapped local councils look to squeeze every penny out of their budgets. Facilities and services used by their working-class constituents, such as libraries and playing fields, are sadly often the first to fall by the wayside. Never mind that cutting the use of playing fields may lead to a less active society and more stress on the already burdened NHS down the line, the rule of governance seems to be act now, worry later. With these extra pitch costs, you can easily see how already reluctant lads might be put off playing if their signing on fee goes up by ten or twenty quid, or if their subs go up a couple of quid per week. At the end of the 2014/15 season, a long-established Sunday league in my local area folded, forcing the teams that survived further afield to get a game. This will have a domino effect as the extra travel and inconvenience will put off even the keenest players.

However, it is all too easy to blame the government. Whenever there is talk about saving grassroots football it always approaches the topic from a “top-down” perspective, which usually boils down to “what can the Premier League clubs give us?” or “what can the government do to help us?” Yes, both could and should do more. The vast amounts of money frittered by both are a testament to that. George Osborne’s £3m gift to help Chinese grassroots football was a real kick in the teeth. Our tax payer’s money helping football in another country whilst our own playing fields stand empty due to costs was a disgrace. The same can be said for the Premier League, especially given the new TV deal and the riches that involves. That money should be redistributed down the pyramid, to ensure more clubs can survive and thrive at the lower level. 3G pitches should be offered to non-league clubs and local communities so fewer matches fall victim to the weather during the winter months. A nominal amount of money does trickle down, but it’s a drop in the ocean compared to the money frittered on transfers and transferred into the pockets of shady agents.

Umpteen petitions are banded about that are created with the aim of imploring the government and the Premier League for funding. Even if it feels like begging it is worth the 30 seconds or so it takes to complete them. However, sometimes in life, you have to stop blaming the authorities and focus on what can be achieved by yourself and those around you. Grassroots football is full of great lads. I’ve personally made some great friends and lifelong acquaintances through football so I don’t want this to be completely doom-and-gloom. But I have also met my fair share of dick heads who make the experience completely unsatisfying. The lads who turn up without their subs to increase the financial burden on the team and the teammates who actually bother to pay, but then have enough money for an all-day session in the pub afterwards. The lads who have money but always seem to forget to go to the cash point on the way to the ground. The lads who can never be arsed to help with the nets or corner flags. The lads who think they should be semi-pro and are doing the rest of the team a favour with their presence when really they’re just as unfit and error-prone as the rest of us.

We could all do more. If every player and every team looked in the mirror at what they could do to improve grassroots football, perhaps there would be something to save after all. So shake the ref’s hand and thank him, pay your subs on time, put those nets up and take your turn taking the kit to the launderette. If you don’t, and nobody else does, the game at this level will soon be extinct

First published in STAND #17. The landmark 25th issue is out now!

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