This winter has seen some of the worst weather in recent years, with grassroots football in the UK decimated by a glut of postponed fixtures. Is there now a case for junior football in the UK to be played in the spring and summer months?
Are attitudes changing?
The debate rears its head every year, but with every passing winter beset by pitch problems – surely none worse than this season which has seen many teams go months without a game – there may be a gradual shift in attitudes that have, in the main, been reluctant to embrace change.
Relentless bad weather is the biggest problem, but the grassroots game is suffering from years of inadequate investment along with poor maintenance of existing pitches – coupled with a dearth of new pitches – by under-funded local authorities that have had their budgets continually slashed by the Government.
Countless fixtures lost
The Financial Times recently reported grassroots clubs are losing around five weeks per season on average due to bad weather and waterlogged pitches, while more than a third have lost two to three months of games.
And so, after months of incessant freezing rain, most grassroots pitches have turned into bogs. Even when games do go ahead, kids are forced to play in arctic conditions on dismal mudbaths not remotely conducive to good football. It is vital that young footballers are not put off for life, but it can be difficult to keep encouraging them to turn out when conditions are so grim. So what is the answer?
The Premier League Could Do so much more
The first and most obvious point is more investment from the top of the game. The Football Association is investing millions in installing artificial all-weather pitches across the country, but is it enough? More 4G pitches would mean games can go ahead on always-excellent surfaces that encourage good football – but it would still mean children playing in freezing, howling conditions. Furthermore, the hiring of 4G pitches is relatively expensive for football clubs that are all running on tight budgets.
Mind-boggling sums of money continue to slosh around the game at elite level. But, as ever, the grassroots game is left to struggle. Premier League clubs gave £174 million to agents last season – enough to cover the cost of 350 new 4G pitches for local communities – but despite its continued protestations to the contrary, the Premier League appears uninterested in making a meaningful difference at grassroots level.
Spring/summer football would not be without its problems
While the idea of kids playing in the sunshine undoubtedly appeals to children and parents alike, moving the youth grassroots football calendar from, say, March to October would not be without its difficulties. It would clash with, and surely have a detrimental effect on, other summer sports such as cricket, with many playing football in the winter and cricket in the summer. It would undoubtedly affect participation levels at a time, especially for cricket, when numbers are already falling. Clubs would be affected by withdrawals for family holidays, and pitches could even become too hard to be playable.
It is difficult to know what the answer is, but the feeling around the game at grassroots level is increasingly despondent, and that something needs to be done. Meanwhile, we are helpless, plodding on every weekend and hoping the rain stops and the swamps we call pitches somehow dry out. Maybe one day, when the elite football bubble inevitably bursts, we’ll look back in bewilderment at how such a golden opportunity to transform grassroots sport in this country was wasted. What do you think?
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