Is amateur football facing a bleak future?
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AMATEUR football is dying on Merseyside.
The region, once a hotbed of grass roots activity, is seeing shrinking leagues and empty football pitches.
In the 1970s and 80s, while Liverpool were sweeping all before them in the professional game, the amateur game was also dominated by Liverpool-based clubs.
Lobster, Fantail, Seymour, Dingle Rail, Almithak and Nicosia were all FA Sunday Cup winners – and they reflected a vibrant local football scene.
But that was when the National Cup received 1,600 requests for entry forms.
Now the FA receives around a hundred – and only a fraction are from Merseyside.
Twenty years ago there were three times as many amateur football leagues operating throughout the region, with almost five times the amount of teams playing regular football.
And it saddens the ECHO’s amateur football correspondent.
‘Corinthian’ has been the pen name for the ECHO’s amateur football writer for decades and Jim Davies, our current Corinthian, has amateur football in his blood.
“I can muster numerous words and passages about results and scorers,” he says. “The facts of who did what. But I cannot put into words how much I love the grass-roots game and the passion and utter joy I feel watching my own team and listening to others talk about theirs.
“It’s a passion deeply instilled in my psyche by a father who has lived and breathed the game himself since his teens. An infectious involvement that will never abate or see my enthusiasm dampened.
“That’s why it pains me to see some of the things going on in our beautiful game on a local level over the past few years.
“Me, I never played. I couldn’t kick a ball down Brownlow Hill.
“Nevertheless I’ll fulfil every other role needed to make the wheels turn. I’ll wash the balls, put up the nets, collect the dirty kit, drive players to and from every match, help contact the team, update the website in fact anything that helps those 11 men take to that pitch of a Saturday.
“I’ll do it not only to see them win or to keep our team flag flying but because the taking part, the winning and the alehouse post-mortems are what gives me the energy to keep going through the week.”
But Jim is a dying breed.
And this week he analyses what can be done to reverse a sad and worrying trend.
I SHOULD be writing a report about how a team overcame the odds against higher-placed opposition to make it through to the next round of a prestigious cup competition.
Or about how a team travelled away from home with 11 men, and even though they were beaten, still put up a fight and gave it their all.
Or maybe how a group of lads played their hearts out on a cold Saturday or Sunday morning, enjoying every minute even though it cost them money to play.
But I’m not.
I’m writing about a sport in decline.
The Liverpool Business Houses League once had 12 divisions on a Saturday and eight of a Sunday, as well as a midweek league in its heyday.
It’s now down to just four on a Sunday.
The Birkenhead & Wirral League went to the wall two seasons ago despite having five divisions at one time. And they are not isolated cases.
Each week this season has seen clubs folding. Last weekend another two teams went to the wall and a further 14 were unable to field a team.
This had nothing to do with the weather.
During the first weekend of Liverpool County Cup action one club was unable to field a team in the Premier Cup because most of the players went to the Liverpool v Man United game.
That weekend alone over 16 games went unplayed for one reason or another.
It’s a sad indictment on the modern local amateur game when the most enthusiastic conversations one has are about teams from yesteryear: Teams that inspired a generation and certainly inspired me as a boy.
You only have to look at the demise of clubs like St Dominic’s and St Aloysius, teams that had been around since the 1930s.
Where are all the Huyton clubs, the Speke and Kirkby clubs?
These are densely populated areas that now have less leagues and even less teams to represent them.
Leagues are having to merge or downsize just to continue and this isn’t something that is specific to our area either.
This week I have spoken to teams from Glasgow, Newcastle, London and Wales – and they all tell the same tale of woe.
At its peak the Liverpool & District Sunday League had 13 divisions. It now has three.
So what are the reasons for this?
I’m sure people will all have their own point of view, but after garnering opinion from around Merseyside it appears to be a permutation of many factors with the here on Merseyside the same reasons are raised over and over again.
First on most people’s list is finance. The football economy. Running a team is a costly business.
A kit can cost £500 minimum, pitch fees, league fees, competition entry, affiliation fees, player registration and this is all before a ball is kicked.
Then you have ongoing costs like weekly officials’ fees, fines, transport cost, kit cleaning, first aid – not to mention the ludicrous addition of having to purchase sock tape every week in a colour that matches the kit.
Where does FIFA think this money is coming from?
There is a misgiving in the modern game that is related to ‘The Trickle-Down theory’ whereby the unholy amounts of money invested in the higher echelons of the game should be passed on to those at the bottom of the pyramid.
It is quite evident that regardless of the continued investment from the local County FAs that this theory needs revisiting.
When the Liverpool County Combination and the Zingari League merged six years ago they had 49 member clubs. This is now down to 24.
So finance appears to be one of the main factors. Returning to a pub after the game to collect subs, sell tickets and go around with a spot-the-ball are one of the main methods a club has of raising funds and with the local economy in such a state these places are becoming fewer by the week.
This means no base to run from, and no sponsor.
There is also the individual’s cost of turning up and playing.
It will cost you at least £10 as a club member to attend a game. Subs, petrol and kit costs mean lads have to pay to play and with unemployment on the rise some people do not have this to give on a weekly basis.
Although some clubs are thriving, with upwards of eight teams, but this appears to be the exception rather than the rule.
I spoke to Tony Smith the ‘Get into Football’ officer for the Liverpool County FA and he indicated that there is a high turnover of teams each year.
Teams are packing in after a couple of seasons and new teams start up. There is no longevity and it is this that is needed to add to the very fibre and structure of the local football demographic to make it secure for the future.
Smith explained: "The Liverpool County FA have now got a system in place to support any new teams wishing to set up and this has been successful again this season with early signs showing affiliation figures are up slightly.
"Again, however, we are aware that sadly we are losing teams already. The challenge for us now is stop the regular turnover of teams."
Also on the radar is the lack of interest from young players and the attitude of those willing to have a go. Many younger players have too transient an attitude.
"I’ll sign for these, see what it’s like?", "I’m not being spoken to like that, I’ll go and sign for someone else!" Players get dropped because they never showed the week before and think "Sod that I’ll go and play with my mates, at least I’ll get picked every week." Partying and staying out all night has a different slant to what it had in the 1970s. It’s not just a case of having a hangover from a few pints anymore and this is having a detrimental effect on the game.
The Birkenhead & Wirral League went to the wall two seasons ago despite having five divisions at one time – and although there are some smaller Wirral leagues that are now defunct the West Cheshire League and the Wallasey & District League appear to be holding their club numbers.
Where is the ambition? People are saying there is no desire from the younger element to better themselves and no team mentality, and too many of them hold themselves in far too high regard.
You see, it’s all about wanting to play, not searching for an excuse not to – like going the match instead to watch the Reds or the Blues.
Numerous leagues have indicated that the change in kick-off times instigated by the satellite sports channels has an affect, with one team last Sunday unable to field a team in the LCFA Premier Cup because most of them had gone to the game!
And it’s not just about a lack of players either. Each team needs a dedicated backroom staff to make it work – a committee of at least six active members who make things happen: manager, assistant, coach, secretary, physio, treasurer and chairman.
How many clubs do you know where it is a one or two-man band? Where the committee consists of men in their sixties or seventies doing at least two of these roles with no sight of any young blood willing to shoulder this responsibility going forward.
I know at least three clubs who have folded in the past because there was no-one ready to fill these shoes. No committee, no club.
Again it’s all about the desire to be involved and stay involved. and even though there are many exceptions to the rule, and there will be parts of this article that teams and individuals will disagree with, the opinions raised herein have been discussed in depth over the last few years.
Is there any light at the end of the tunnel?
With the onset of the digital age clubs now have the opportunity to use social networking and the web as a tool to recruit new players and talk about the problems affecting the game.
Twitter has become a virtual ale-house, a digital meeting pace for footballers to engage in pre- and post-match banter which engenders a camaraderie and spirit amongst the fraternity.
Veterans’ Leagues are thriving with new teams starting up each season.
Some clubs actually have Youth and Veterans’ teams, yet no open-age XI!
But will talking help us? Will it encourage people to give up their precious weekend to go and play the game we all love at a personal cost?
At the very least I hope this article will act as a catalyst for debate between all concerned, because if we don’t start finding the answers then things could get worse before they get better.
Then what would we all do of a weekend?
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