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Favoured by women, forgotten by men: the curious tale of Men’s Sunday League football.

By Pranav Shahaney

The last eighteen months may have been a devastating period for the grassroots game, but men’s amateur football has been on a steep decline for the past few decades. With lifestyle changes, a rise in the popularity of video games and the growing number of five- and seven-a-side all weather pitches, the beautiful game as we know it has been on the wane.

The Football Foundation is a charity that, over the past nineteen years, has planted the seeds to grow grassroots football. They have worked closely with passionate people in communities up and down the country to deliver sports projects worth over £1.5 billion. Their spokesperson Rory Carroll spoke with The Grassroots Post to discuss the challenges of Sunday League and the grassroots game.

“The last fifteen to twenty years has been a challenging period for traditional eleven-a-side Sunday League football. You’ve seen increasing popularity amongst formats like five-a-side and other football events played on smaller grounds. There’ve been a lot of informal kickabouts and Futsal matches, which has led to the declining interest in signing up for eleven-a-side Sunday League sides,” he said.

He also spoke about the busy lifestyles of people now compared to the last few decades. In his opinion, due to long days at work, men prefer going back to spend time with their families rather than committing to training a certain number of hours every week.

 “Earlier every factory had a football team. Now no factories, no football”

“Even committing to ninety minutes has now become a challenge for men’s players. Nowadays, we see a lot more friends just turning out and playing for an hour in a nearby open space rather than playing in leagues with high stakes,” said Carroll.

Paul Nilson is the founder of Team Oasis, a charity in Liverpool which offers juniors and seniors their first step into the amateur game. Their work off the field, especially throughout the pandemic, has been remarkable. Nilson’s charity provided food to the underprivileged and ensured that they had an enjoyable festive period. Having done this for several years, a number of the people they’ve helped have turned to the beautiful game and enjoyed success both at the amateur and the professional level.

In his view, another thing that’s held back the amateur game is the growing popularity of video games amongst the younger generation. As a player since the eighties, Nilson did not have these distractions to deal with and dedicated certain hours of each day to playing football outdoors.

“Simple things like FIFA, Football Manager, and other PlayStation games have had a massive impact on people in their early teenage years. They now prefer to play online with their friends rather than going out on a cold Saturday morning,” explained Nilson.

“Earlier, there were a number of Sunday League clubs founded based on their nearby pub. Almost every pub had their own team. I can only speak for South Liverpool but now less than ten percent of the pubs are functional and very few still have their team in place. Add to that, several youth clubs and academies began to shut, and that only led to the decline of footballing activities in a particular area.”

Based on a 2015 study commissioned by the FA, 2,360 grassroots teams had folded within a three year period spanning from 2012 to 2015. Nearly 200,000 players below the age of sixteen had dropped out of the game entirely. An independent researcher who has often been commissioned by the FA believes that the number now is close to 350,000. 

Nuneaton & District Sunday League has seen a fifty percent decline in the number of teams participating in the men’s game over the last fifteen years. In the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, there were six divisions in the NDSFL, and now that number has halved with fewer teams per division. 

The league secretary Glyn Watkins has acknowledged that it’s a massive problem and the pandemic is expected to make things worse, but he remains optimistic as there have been a couple of new teams enquiring to participate next season.

“Yes, Covid-19’s not been ideal for the game and definitely not at our level. But, there’s been a massive decline in the past few decades. I attribute it to the costs, pitches in certain places, and generally to people not having the time. Earlier every factory had a football team. Now no factories, no football,” said Watkins.

However, while the popularity among men has significantly reduced, there’s been a meteoric rise in the number of women getting involved in amateur football. It is the fastest-growing category in terms of grassroots sport, according to the Football Foundation. Watkins believes that there are a number of reasons for it, but believes that broadcasters have played a massive role in making the sport more accessible. 

“The rise in the women’s grassroots game has a lot to do with television. Now, with the Lionesses and WSL, there’s publicity. The women’s game has been there for a long time but has never been as popular. Schools are encouraging it more than they used to. 

“I also believe that the FA is doing a very good job promoting it at all levels. Women referees too, are now in the limelight and more of them are getting into not just the women’s game, but also the men’s.”

Football Foundation’s Carroll also explained how football is now being seen as a women’s and girl’s game too, rather than just something men play. Adding to that, the amount of money that’s being put into it has made it a viable career prospect for girls who love playing the sport.

Carroll said: “Another factor that must be considered is better changing room facilities. Rather than dressing up in the car park, they now have good dressing rooms, which makes things a lot better. The Football Foundation is making sure the quality and infrastructure are there to maintain this appetite for the national game. 

A scheme called Grow The Game has been started on behalf of the FA which provides £1500 for every new women’s or disability grassroots team to help them with the costs of assembling a team. They’re also helping individual players come together with like-minded women who want to get involved in the sport.

The FA has launched similar schemes to ensure that men’s grassroots football maintains its numbers, but it’s an uphill battle. The shoddy pitch conditions all over the United Kingdom have played a massive role in the declining popularity, so the Football Foundation has been investing in a new generation of natural grass pitches and providing support and advice to the main groundskeepers through initiatives such as Pitch Power and Football Foundation’s Groundskeepers Community.

“The idea behind these schemes is to root in the technical expertise of former players and current professionals, maintain the playing conditions and also create facilities that can make Sunday League more appealing to people in the modern world. We’re working towards giving them better experiences than high-powered gaming consoles or sophisticated attractive gyms would give,” said Carroll.

Team Oasis’ Nilson believes that the culture of Sunday League clubs needs to be changed. He believes that the idea of having clubs that served as second families is what led to the popularity of the grassroots game, and with everything available on devices, it is a massive challenge to tackle.

“Clubs need to be a bit more inspiring as teams and do more for their players. They must build a relationship, a family culture, between the players, parents and owners. They have to be a little adventurous and plan social gatherings rather than just meeting each other for training and matches,” he said. 

“It’s easy to, but you can’t always pass the buck to the FA. I think they’ve done a good job. Where they can come in is to conduct more local and national level tournaments. Maybe increase the prize money so players have an incentive to play and win.”

Covid-19 is another factor that has led to the dearth of the grassroots game. The pandemic hit grassroots football the hardest as the FA announced a staggering number of job losses to fill the £300m void caused by the lack of income over the summer and the 20/21 footballing season. 124 posts were reportedly made redundant, with fifteen of these being coaches that have yielded a generation of competitive national sides across all age groups in both the men’s and women’s game. 

Save Grassroots campaign group spokesperson Kenny Saunders spoke in no uncertain terms about the challenges facing the English game. “We’re in a fight for our life and I foresee decades of problems ahead of us,” he said. “Many of our sponsors were impacted by the pandemic and the growing lockdowns have led to us not being able to deliver the content we were committed to. It’s probably the biggest crisis in our history.”

FA spokesperson Chris Swoffer told The Grassroots Post that the association will invest approximately £45m into grassroots football during the 2020/21 season and also committed £1m towards either free or reduced affiliation costs for grassroots football clubs. 

Other grants have also been made available since the pandemic hit, but clubs at the bottom end of the pyramid are looking for more during these uncertain and gloomy times. It remains to be seen whether the grassroots scene changes once there’s more clarity in terms of a post-Covid-19 world.

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