One of the historic issues of grassroots football has been the deluge of postponements over the winter months and the effect that winter has on pitches. Though a break in the winter could see improvements in this area, that also means we lose the physical and mental benefits at a time when we may need them the most. There are also the issues of a conflict with the cricket season, the scale of the undertaking in moving the season to align with the semi-professional game and the clash with the summer holidays. We asked some of our local clubs, leagues and The FA: SHOULD THE GRASSROOTS CALENDAR BE MOVED? And if not, what are the solutions?
We are always considering options to improve the football experience – however, changing the season is a complex topic and there is a need to consider conflicts with other sports, in addition to alignment with school holidays, facility availability and alignment with the professional game.
The more immediate challenge for us to address is investment in facilities where we know there is more work to be done.
That’s why we’ve identified facilities and enhanced access to good-quality pitches across grassroots football, specifically in our four-year grassroots strategy, and have set ourselves an ambitious target as we know that 2/3 are below the expected standard.
By 2024 we want to see 5,000 good-quality pitches added to the current number. With the Football Foundation, we will prioritise the areas and communities where these new pitches are most needed. We want to make the playing experience enjoyable for everyone that plays the game and improving the playing surfaces is fundamental to that aspiration.
Graham Rodber, Chairman of SSSFL
Our league is in a good place to comment on this as we started our season on Sunday 15th August 2021 and were the first and only league in London to do so.
From previous experience, we know that our council pitches are badly hit in December and January with bad weather so therefore it made sense to play games whilst the pitches were playable and the sun was shining. Historically, we know that our pitch capacity goes down by around 70% after Easter Sunday and with the Covid-19 situation uncertain, we strongly encouraged clubs to prioritise league games over friendly matches and get the season started.
The decision looks to be a sensible one; many clubs have already played over 50% of their league programme and the cups are making reasonable progress too. A good number of teams have been able to play county cup fixtures and make good progress in these cups without causing too much disruption to league and league cup games.
I would like to see pitches opened at grounds in August where other sports such as cricket do not take place. In addition, I would like to see the FA show some flexibility and allow the season to carry on until the end of June where necessary to accommodate end-of-season games such as cup semi-finals and finals.
Gavin Hoare, Chairman, and Brian Smith, Fixtures Secretary of the Kent County Football League
In the 19/20 season, prior to the pandemic, we had a significant amount of games postponed. In relation to last season, we never actually got to the winter. So far this season we are doing well, with only really one weekend (last weekend) significantly impacted due to the weather.
Managing the winter months has been a challenge, in part, when the weather has been extreme. However, we must also look at the size of divisions and the amount of cup games played or to be played. Clubs who are successful in cup competitions generally struggle more with fixture congestion. We have to monitor the size of divisions and plan for the maximum number of Saturdays available.
With the cricket season, grounds would not be available, and also refs and players play cricket as well. The league management team also need a break at times. In addition, many groundspersons want the summer period to do planned work on their grounds. Most clubs at the current time do not want to play much beyond mid-May.
As a feeder league to a high level, there would be some very big challenges here with finishing the season later as currently we have to finish on a date set by the FA to ensure promotion and relegation can be handled. The Premier and Division One fixtures have to be completed on these dates set whereas Divisions Two and Three can run on until June 1st. Also at present all players not under any contract are free agents from June 1st.
The move to a summer competition has been spoken about many times but it has as many problems there as it would in its current form. It’s more about managing size and ensuring that there are enough weeks available for the size of the competition. In truth, clubs do not seem to want a long winter break and if they did, when would you have it? If you do it over Christmas and the weather is bad in February then you have gained nothing. It’s down to the leagues to manage their fixture schedules in a workable scenario.
Club Committee, Aylesford FC
The biggest challenge for us as a club with regards to fixtures is the number of teams that we have sharing pitches, and limited opportunities for expansion in current facilities or use of other facilities. This is an issue throughout the season and is not limited to the winter months.
However, this issue is more prominent in the winter months as the inclement weather coupled with back-to-back games on the same pitch means pitch condition can deteriorate very quickly, and sometimes leave them unplayable for some time after. Last weekend, 15th/16th January 2022, was a prime example. There had been a lot of rain, and we had six 11v11 fixtures to try and schedule across only three 11v11 pitches. One of those pitches was already out of use due to it being played on the week before in heavy rain, and therefore left only two pitches for six fixtures, which unfortunately but inevitably lead to a couple of fixtures needing to be postponed.
The scheduling of fixtures from a club perspective is not too much of a strain, as overall the leagues are very good in obtaining pitch sharing information from the clubs prior to the start of the season, and schedule fixtures accordingly. Very rarely do we have more than one team from an age group scheduled a home fixture on the same day which is very much appreciated and really helps with us scheduling the fixtures on the pitches that we hire. Our teams do, however, request the use of pitches for friendlies if they do not have a scheduled league/cup fixture, and these are becoming more difficult to manage as we want to be able to provide opportunities for as much football as we can.
However, with limited pitch space available and increased use, the pitches struggle to cope with the usage. Over the past couple of seasons, with help from grants from the Football Foundation’s pitch improvement funds which we are extremely grateful for, we have been able to significantly improve our pitches with regular draining maintenance and better-quality materials like sports sand. This has significantly helped the pitches, and in the summer months the pitches can handle back-to-back games no problem at all.
In our view, there are currently too many obstacles that, if not considered, could significantly decrease participation numbers within grassroots football. For example, for those who participate in a summer sport, for example cricket, this could force those participants to choose between sports. Some facilities that grassroots clubs use, for example schools, are closed for a period of time in the summer and therefore those clubs would not have a venue to use during that time. A winter break would most likely be beneficial for pitch conditions to have a number of weeks without any fixtures being played and the opportunity to carry out any pitch repairs, but the weather is the key factor. A four-week winter break could be scheduled for all of December, for example, and the weather for all those four weeks could be dry. There could then be heavy rain for two weeks in the middle of January when fixtures resume, resulting in postponements, so this results in fixture congestion anyway.
Perhaps a longer time frame for the season to be completed in, i.e. for the season to start three weeks prior and three weeks after the current start and end dates may be more beneficial. This then gives the leagues more leeway to schedule fixtures which could mean teams not playing every week two or three times during the season, which would then allow time for pitch maintenance, etc.
Jon Eager, Barnet Sunday Football League
In previous years, postponements have been a massive problem but if you’ve got a good fixtures secretary, chances are it’s going to run smoothly. The knock-on effect of county cup postponements is an issue; normally you’d be able to get some league games on but if it’s a county cup week and that gets called off because of the weather, you can’t play a league fixture, and if this is ongoing you could lose two-to-three weeks of football.
We’ve tried to look at the historic issues and be a lot more organised in keeping on top of the fixtures and having the cups on one day. If the home team’s pitch is unavailable, it switches. If the away team’s pitch isn’t available then the home team has to book a pitch. Simple as that. Whereas in years gone by, the fixture has moved to a league week causing a congestion as every other team is in league action but you that week. It’s just about being savvy and being organised. One thing that’s benefitted us is the quality of our council pitches, which a lot of leagues and areas don’t have.
I would definitely be an advocate for starting the league in August. Again, we’re fortunate with the councils. They will leave our pitches up until May or June for us, so we have the option to move games from home pitches to there to get them completed. We’ve got quite a flexible group in our league. I don’t necessarily think we need a winter break, we just need to get games on. Teams need to want to play football and be flexible. I also think a lot of teams have cancelled because of Covid with forty players signed on. We’ve been quite harsh. You need to prove that thirty players can’t play or it’s forfeited. It gives teams an excuse to get their best sides out. Let’s not forget also that these pitches had a good year throughout the pandemic of not being played on. The pitches have had plenty of time to recover.
We have a few teams that play on private pitches so due to the cricket season would suffer from the season finishing later, but they would just have to finish on council or league pitches. We would all love to play on our own or a great surface week in, week out. I just think people need to be flexible. I think a lot of teams try and get out of playing matches because of injuries etc. We had so long without football, I think people just need to get a game on, whether it’s perfect or not. You still get to play 80% of your games on your own pitch but you get to get your games on.
Solutions to the problem for me are afternoon kick-offs, playing midweek fixtures, teams working with the league to get games on, and not just having the mentality of we are playing Sunday morning at home or nothing. Be flexible and want to play. Leagues potentially bulk-booking 3G pitches to allocate them. Semi-finals and Cup Finals to play midweek. Get games on in Easter and in between Christmas and New Year. Any opportunity to play, just get it on and make it happen!
Across the board, it appears that none of those we spoke to are in favour of a winter break, but as with most things the answer lies in flexibility and collaboration. Between councils, The FA and the County FAs and the leagues, but in terms of flexibility it also lies considerably with the teams and the players themselves. We all want to play football. And if this means it has to take place on a different pitch than what we’re used to, or without a full squad, or at a slightly different time, we all need to ensure fixtures get played.