The start of the grassroots and junior football seasons in 2019 has seen some of the worst September weather in recent years, with grassroots football in the UK already decimated by a glut of postponed fixtures and training sessions. This debate is normally reserved for our reliably dismal winters, but with even the start of the season affected by an incessant and deeply depressing deluge of rain, is the case for junior football in the UK to be played in the spring and summer months stronger than ever?
Are attitudes changing?
The debate rears its head every year, but with every passing winter beset by pitch problems, there may be a gradual shift in attitudes that have, largely, been reluctant to change.
Relentless inclement weather is the biggest problem, but the grassroots game is of course 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
In 2018, the Climate Coalition 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.
Most winters bring frequent rain, turning grassroots pitches into bogs. Even when games do go ahead, kids are forced to play in arctic conditions on quagmires not at all conducive to good football. It is critical that young footballers are not put off for life, but offers of encouragement can prove difficult when conditions are so vile. 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 an eyewatering £211m to agents last season – enough to cover the cost of at least 350 new 4G pitches for local communities – but despite its continued protestations to the contrary, the Premier League appears apathetic, to say the least, about making a meaningful difference at grassroots level.
Spring/summer football isn’t an easy solution
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 a number of kids playing football in the winter and cricket in the summer. It would undoubtedly affect participation levels at a time, especially for the likes of cricket and athletics, when numbers are already falling. Clubs would be affected by withdrawals for family holidays, and pitches could even become too hard to be playable. That said, could it be any worse than at present?
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 with bemusement at how such a golden opportunity to transform grassroots sport in this country was wasted. What do you think?
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