Grassroots returns. How has the grassroots world been affected?

Junior and open age grassroots football has finally returned but to what affect has the lockdowns impacted the non-elite clubs across the country. Our reporter Kieran Toohey investigates.

Video of Dan Belfield and reporter Kieran Toohey briefly describing the story credit: Joe Whitham, Kieran Toohey

With the much-anticipated return of grassroots football across the country from kids at under 7 level on a Saturday to adults playing open age on Sunday, the return of football at a non-elite level has taken its time to come back after lockdown.

Grassroots football returned on the 29th March a week after the equivalent age groups for elite club’s academy returned which caused some distress amongst the non-elite game bringing up questions about what the difference between them actually is.

Lee Chadwick, a manager and club secretary at Littleborough said: “I would be interested to see what they say about what the difference between elite academies and non-elite football academies actually is.”

Littleborough playing fields. Home of Littleborough JFC credit: Kieran Toohey

What impacts on clubs are there?

Dan Belfield, chairman and a manager at Littleborough JFC, feels that after this latest lockdown that a lot of kids across the club at all age groups will walk away from junior football.

Mr Belfield said: “The major problem I’m seeing across the two teams I’m involved in is since the second lockdown is we have lost a lot of kids to gaming, they seem to have been there sitting on fortnight or FIFA and you hear it, the other week I was walking down to a game and I heard a player say I don’t want to be here I want to be at home on PlayStation and to me that’s not a great thing.”

The loss of players could be detrimental to these clubs because it could lead to a lot of clubs becoming disbanded or at the minimum the loss of teams within the club.

As well that Littleborough JFC have reduced their sub fees for the parents to pay for their kids to play at the club from £140 to £80. This is to benefit the parents who could be struggling following the pandemic with a loss of income during pandemic redundancies.

Mr Chadwick said: “We made the decision the last two seasons where it’s been impacted by covid and reduce the subs because clearly are out outgoings reduced and this year, they’ve been reduced considerable so we’ve asked the parents to pay the £80 of the usual £140 because of our outgoings you know as a club we look after the parents.”

Lockdown

During lockdown different teams had different ways of dealing with the country wide lockdowns

Some teams managed to keep training alive through zoom and other video messaging applications.

At Littleborough, Mr. Belfield’s team during the first lockdown had zoom training sessions to keep the players engaged as well as doing quizzes for enjoyment.

However, during the last lockdown, Mr Belfield was hesitant to start with the zoom training until he had a confirmed date of when football was returning.

When the date was finalised, Mr Belfield “Started hammering the zoom training sessions” to prepare his team for the return of football.

Sunday league game in action credit: Wikimedia, Keith Williamson

The new format

The return of grassroots football has had a slight modification in terms of its structure with leagues becoming null and void for a second season straight but this season the leagues have been replaced with mini cup competition for the returning teams.

The new cup competitions offer teams to play football again as well as offering a new form of competitive football for teams to play.

Mr Belfield’s under 11 side wasn’t playing league football competitively with the teams in the league not fighting for a high position to get promoted or to avoid being relegated.

With the new cup competition offering his team a more competitive return to football in which they have started really well winning three from three.

Mr Belfield said “When we got back [after lockdown] the lads were up for it and the results show.”

For Mr Chadwick’s team, they were struggling in the league before the latest lockdown.

This has meant that they had a reshuffle to their league which has meant that they have been able to play teams that are at a similar ability which has given them the confidence.

Mr Chadwick said “with the new confidence, it means that the players are happy to be back and happy that they are not getting beat every week.”

The main problem

With the season being null and voided again it brings up the question on what’s the difference between the league and cup that is now being played.

Well, the main reason I found is so that it limits the wider travel for teams meaning teams like Littleborough won’t have to travel all around the North Bury league to places on the other side of bury which can take up to 30mins in travel.

It allows the league to set up safe environments as well as limiting the amount of non-essential travel taking places between its teams across the leagues and play more local teams in the cup.