Amid lockdown against the Covid-19 Pandemic, the reality that many of us are failing to consider is that the ‘normal ’ we have been accustomed to, is something we will not see a return to for months, possibly years. Picture sport at all levels in January 2020 and where we find ourselves now.
Absent a mass vaccination programme, something many oppose including tennis star Novak Djokovic, who publicly said he would reject any vaccine. Or an official U-turn in the contagiousness and potency of the virus, it’s tough to see how we can return to the society we had before.
Putting aside the broader ramifications, what are the implications specifically for grassroots sports, and in particular football?
In football forums, the debate rages about the return of the Premier League and what should happen with the 2019/20 season. Outside these forums however, a growing number of people are suggesting that planning a return at this stage, when uncertainty still reigns around Covid-19, is nothing less than short-sighted, selfish, and possibly irresponsible.
While this discussion continues, along with that of the fate of non-league clubs, little has been said about grassroots sport and football. Those that await a return to ‘normality’, maybe subconsciously believe that amateur football will simply pick-up where it has left off. I’m not so sure…
As mentioned earlier, the debate regarding the return of elite football centres around the risks of playing games behind closed doors. If there are risks associated with elite football, that the authorities are currently finding it challenging to find solutions for, what hope for the grassroots game? Is it realistic to assume that in 2 to 3 months, we can see kids of all ages playing football as they did before the lockdown? This while the virus is still present in society in its current form? I certainly can’t. So again, where does that leave sport?
There can be little doubt that the financial implications of lockdown are going to be felt long after restrictions lift. Businesses of all sizes have already felt the impact, and this will no doubt continue. With disposable cash possibly being in short supply for many families, priorities may mean that the funds for parents to spend on weekly and annual football, particularly registration fees for club running costs, could be one of the things sacrificed.
For the future of amateur clubs and even leagues, this could be catastrophic. While some families will be ok to financially continue where they left off, what happens to already low-income families and the players that come from them and want to play?
Subsidies are going to be required, not just from the clubs, but possibly from the leagues they participate in, and by extension, the FA’s they belong to. This being the case, Central Government may again be required to step-in and provide packages that can be passed down in kind. Without this kind of financial support, how can clubs with reduced incomes be expected to pay for pitches, training facility hire, travel, referees and where required, kit and equipment? Without it, many amateur clubs will cease to exist.
There will have to be a reduction of costs around grassroots delivery, meaning FA’s, facilities and other current cost implications will have to look at how they can contribute to this with the support of National governing bodies via Central Government. The role elite sport plays in this support cannot also be overlooked, though, at present, the discussion around help from the Premier League seems to centre on what they can do to help clubs lower down the leagues.
With the genuine possibility of grassroots amateur football clubs being adversely affected in the long term, could this present an opportunity for the much-maligned school football system to be revamped and emerge as a far more significant player in the development of grassroots football? They have the facilities and could create the capacity, but unless specifically instructed and enabled, is there the will, staff and expertise required?
Is there even a really huge appetite for competitive, structured school sport? Surely a lack of this has contributed to the rise in amateur weekend football in the first place over the last 30 years.
Given where we currently find ourselves and what is yet to come, might there be an opportunity for schools to work far more closely with external football clubs to develop players, run competitive leagues and allow for young players to train and play consistently? Or again, to lean to the side of caution, will school sports also suffer as a result of the predicted economic downturn?
Out of adversity often comes resourcefulness and inspiration. There is no doubt that the chance to revamp the sports landscape at children’s grassroots level will be possible. Let’s face it; it’s far from perfect in its current form. While the focus is on the very top of the game, we need to make sure we’re not distracted away from the implications at our level. There are enormous challenges ahead; lets make sure we collectively start to consider those too.
As we face more weeks and months in lockdown, like everything else in society at present, there are far more questions than answers.