Not many people in grassroots football are as well placed as Graham Rodber to give us insight into how to run a league. While many Sunday leagues have struggled for a multitude of reasons, the Southern Sunday Football League operates successfully at ten divisions with 100 teams. We chatted to Graham about the challenges he has faced as League Chairman and General Secretary, how the SSFL have been able to meet their ambitions and which areas of grassroots football administration can be improved.
Hi Graham. Tell us about your role for the Southern Sunday Football League.
The two main roles that I hold are the role of league chairman and general secretary. Whilst the role of the chair is deemed a non-working role, it is vitally important that at the head of any organisation you have a strong and decisive leader and somebody that commands instant respect from their fellow committee members and member clubs. Over the last eighteen months leadership has been something lacking in both football and SoC and even if people don’t agree with your stance or your decision-making, as long as you command respect and you could explain your reasoning then generally most people will be happy.
What were the main challenges when you took on the position?
When I joined the league in 2009, I originally joined as the Referee Secretary but in 2011 I took over the role as League Secretary. One of the biggest barriers was the lack of any modern technology. For example, we did not use email, electronic match cards and we used a paper handbook which used to always get out of date because somebody was always changing their phone number! Times have definitely changed over the last ten years or so; we have really embraced technology and as such we are now a completely paperless league which is something we are proud of.
What do you feel are the most important elements of running a successful grassroots football league?
There are two things that stick out for me. Firstly, it’s all about communication. In 2021, with the use of technology, there is little or no excuse for anybody not to be able to appropriately communicate with others whom they are dealing with on a daily basis. If people are not given the correct information and they do not know what is going on this leads to a lack of transparency and a lack of trust in the leadership of any organisation.
Secondly, it is vitally important that leagues listen to feedback from their members and in particular disciplinary sanctions should be as strong as possible so that a small minority of badly behaved teams do not ruin it for the rest.
How important is it to adapt to the digital world?
As I mentioned, the use of technology is something which has helped in terms of the significant growth that the league has enjoyed over the past decade. A phone app for a handbook, submission of match statistics electronically, online player registrations and virtual meetings are a benefit to all involved. We are now able to showcase our product as a league to a wider audience via social media platforms such as Instagram and Twitter which help to attract new teams to the league year on year.
Which areas do you feel that the league, or general grassroots football administration, can improve to increase participation?
I believe that we need greater transparency, openness and support from both the FA and our County FAs. There is a significant overreliance on volunteers and whilst I am a relatively young volunteer, the workforce in this sector is clearly ageing. In particular, the County FAs need to be properly resourced in terms of meeting the additional demand placed upon us by the FA. For example, if we are to make the best use of technology then it is important that you have a good support network for when things are not running as they should!
What are your ambitions for the league moving forward?
When I joined the league in 2009, we had three divisions and thirty teams. I had a vision that within ten years we would have ten divisions and 100 teams, and nobody believed that this would ever be possible when so many leagues were folding and players were leaving the game. I am delighted to have fulfilled my ambition but moving forward I would like to focus on quality rather than quantity and make improvements to the product that we already have in order to make this league sustainable for many years in the future.