Sunday League soldiers on '“ but it is a struggle
Rumours of the Chichester & West Sussex League's demise are premature, writes league secretary Colin Davis.
The league will be in operation for the 2017-18 season – albeit in a greatly-reduced format.
Currently just seven teams have affiliated to the league. However, such is the history of these teams, and the esteem in which they are held, that the league management committee found it a simple process to vote unanimously to carry on at its recent meeting.
The door remains wide open for any clubs and teams, new or existing, to join in for the coming season and this will remain the case well into August.
So just why does the league find itself in this position with its membership plunging? It’s a trend that, looking back, has been slowly affecting the league since its halcyon days of the 1990s when almost 60 teams were operating in six divisions.
Some will no doubt point to the washout 2001 season where almost no football was played for more than three months because of the continuous rainfall and waterlogged pitches. Perhaps players got into the habit of not turning out for their teams regularly? Even more importantly perhaps their partners got into the habit of their football-loving husbands and boyfriends being available for family time at weekends.
When the pitches eventually dried and play resumed maybe the two-day weekend commitments proved too much for some. Around the same time, there was a rise in popularity of small-sided football offerings in the shape of Pitch Invasion and others.
Many footballers were finding their football fix at other days and times: an evening kickabout with mates and a swift beer afterwards.
But there has to be more to this demise than that. A league survey of member clubs this past season saw them cite player commitment as the biggest threat to grassroots football. Players just seem to be falling out of love with actually pulling on their boots and crossing the white line.
It seems that perhaps so much live TV football compounded with the virtual reality of FIFA17 and Football Manager games on their tablets and laptops seem to provide some of those we previously relied upon at grassroots with a different type of excitement, but surely that alone can’t replace the real thing?
Two years ago, the league and member clubs were brave enough to embrace the opportunity to use ‘rolling subs’. Teams could nominate up to five substitutes before the game and any or all of them could play as much or little of the match as they saw fit.
This quickly afforded the opportunity of dads now playing in the same team as their sons without having to promise a full 90. Players coming back from injury could use this new policy to break back into the team. And let’s not forget those lesser blessed players that each team have and who only get five or so minutes at the end of game.
This development allows the sensible team manager many extra opportunities. How about those times when teams can only muster one substitute and have to really pick their moment to use him? The ‘rolling subs’ initiative completely removed that problem.
Feedback since its inception has been positive with all clubs, even those originally against the idea, embracing it.
Finances are also something of a concern at the foot of the football pyramid. There is so much wealth at the top, but so little filtering its way right down the line.
We hear of 3G football hubs being built at inner-city sites but just what does that do for clubs and leagues in our locality? Perhaps funds should be directed towards supporting the other agencies, like district and parish councils, together with clubs running their own facilities with a view to reducing the ever-increasing costs for pitch and maintenance which can seem at times to be prohibitive.
That said, some agencies could help themselves with the product they provide. It has been very disappointing this past season to have visited teams who hire their facilities from certain local authorities and witness pitches not having been cut to a realistic length and the markings either not being bold enough to see or the actual dimensions being way off the mark.
At one pitch in the Chichester area, upon arrival it was obvious to even the naked eye that something was amiss. A simple ‘pacing out’ exercise very quickly confirmed that the six-yard line was in fact more than nine yards from the goal line. Errors such as this cannot be put down to a simple mistake, but amount to negligence – yet councils still expect payment in full for pitches, despite challenges from the clubs concerned.
Other basic financial burdens placed annually upon clubs include affiliation fees to the Sussex FA and mandatory insurances. This can add up to more than £300 before even a ball is kicked and before the cost of kit and equipment is included.
This is surely another area where central funds could be used to assist at grassroots level. In order to offset some of the costs, and as part of the league’s jubilee celebrations, the league did not charge affiliation or cup entry fees for the 2016-17 season.
It was welcomed by the clubs but it’s not one that can continue as leagues, just like clubs, have their own fees for Sussex FA and insurance premiums to pay. Maybe there is a case for more central funding to be available to the league themselves.
In another deliberate step by the league to reduce the financial burden on clubs a number of procedural changes were made to simplify the administration process with the aim of significantly reducing the large amount of unnecessary fines being imposed upon clubs.
With the introduction of online player registrations and web-based match result reporting together with much simpler procedures for reporting any postponements, the amount raised in fines for such has almost disappeared completely. Now the phrase ‘it’s been a good year for fines’ means we’ve hardly had any to collect – a far cry from the days of fines being the financial lifeblood of any league.
The C&WSSFL have been pro-active these past few seasons with various other initiatives regarding recruitment and retention but with limited success.
Active contact with many local clubs operating in other leagues on different days, encouraging them to form another team, haven’t borne sufficient fruit.
We’ve actively approached youth set-ups with the question of just what happens to their players as they turn from boys to men? Not all go on to county football although some do go along the under-21 route which then only forms the question what happens at 22?
Surely we can’t be losing all these young footballers simply because they find beer, girls and jobs. Other existing Saturday sides who initially respond positively to the idea of Sunday football then seem to find it impossible to actually form a squad robust enough to actually deliver throughout the season or they withdraw before kicking a ball in anger.
Finally, and maybe most controversially, is what appears to be the increasing culture of ‘if we can’t win that division or cup we don’t want to play in it’.
Winning is, of course, a delight, but surely those victories have to be earned. Clubs turning up at league interviews expecting to be put into the lowest divisions so they could smash it do nothing for the competitive nature of a successful league.
Surely you should only aspire to put a trophy on your mantelpiece that has been hard fought for and represents success.
We have witnessed clubs withdraw in past seasons just at the point where it becomes obvious they will no longer be able to win their respective division and are no longer involved in any cup competitions.
Perhaps, and this is controversial, the culture in our schools where ‘everyone’s a winner’ and all the little Janet and Johns come home with medals around their necks has much to answer for.
Those of us of a certain vintage can remember the times when, if we came last in a race on sports day, we were swiftly enlightened that more effort on our part over the next 12 months may just turn that result around. Achievements in any fields were earned, not just handed out like sweets.
So just where do we go from here? It is a credit to them all that every league officer and the committee have decided to stand for re-election at the forthcoming annual meeting, so there is no lack of commitment there.
They will continue to run a league for as long as we are needed, but we need you, and you and you. There is currently no adult, male 11-a-side football on Sundays in Sussex east of Lewes.
The Sussex Sunday Football League and the Worthing & Horsham Sunday Football League are also seeing a worrying decline in their numbers.
We will only survive with the help of those prepared to step forward and help. Without them, the great tradition of grassroots football will undoubtedly die, leading us to that most unsavoury of questions ... just what is our national game now?
We look forward to hearing from you as we fight on.
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