The decline of local football: What has happened and is there time to save it?

Jono Way leads Hampsthwaite United
Jono Way leads Hampsthwaite United

Ed White investigates why numbers are dropping in our local football leagues and what can be done to tackle it

Football might still be the beautiful game, attracting millions of viewers each week, but at grassroots level, a feeling has emerged that the “genuine love of the game has gone.”

hsb  Kirk Deighton Rangers v Thirsk Falcons. Deighton number 3, Thirsk number 10.  (120317M3a)

hsb Kirk Deighton Rangers v Thirsk Falcons. Deighton number 3, Thirsk number 10. (120317M3a)

Whilst the top of the football pyramid has flourished into mega-deals, the weekly slog of touring nearby villages has been on an alarming slide.

Fewer players are strapping on their shin pads, lacing their boots and crossing the white line every Saturday.

In the last 20 years, participation in the Harrogate & District League has fallen by almost half.

More worrying still, in the last five years alone, that figure is another 25 per cent.

Bardsey's Lee Barraclough alongside assistant boss Gary Melia

Bardsey's Lee Barraclough alongside assistant boss Gary Melia

“The whole competition and the whole facility to play football, you can feel it shrinking every single week,” said Hampsthwaite United manager Jono Way, whose side are the last remaining club to play on the Harrogate Stray.

Since 1995, more than 30 teams have folded or left the Harrogate League. The number of second or third string sides has also fallen from 30 in the 1995/96 season to just 12 in the current campaign of 2013/14.

Many clubs have moved into the West Yorkshire Association leagues, while others have simply disbanded due to the crippling fees needed to survive.

In that 1995/6 season, there were 72 teams playing across five Harrogate & District Leagues. At the start of this season, the league made the bold, but enforced, decision to revert to just three leagues, with just 39 teams playing.

Since then, one more team has bitten the dust with AFC Hillside Reserves folding from Division Three.

The figures begged the question, why are less people playing football on a Saturday afternoon?

Whether it is finance, scheduling or culture what is stopping players joining a club and pulling on its shirt?

“There is a genuine shift away from people being interested in playing sport at the weekend,” suggested Way.

“The whole culture’s changed. The genuine love of the game has gone.

“We used to go out and all play football together. Now we sit on our own and play football online.

“People are slowly becoming futuristic couch potatoes where you can play against your mates without getting out of bed.

“The lifestyle that we lead now is killing football. Everything is so on demand.”

Approximately 1,000 are signed on to play in the Sunday morning Claro League. Across three divisions, that averages out at 37 players per side.

However, several clubs are frequently left scratching around for players even up to the morning of matches.

Lee Barraclough, manager of West Yorkshire Premier League champions Bardsey, backed up Way’s argument.

Barraclough has built the most successful spell at his village side, winning three of the last four titles, and his side are well on course for more glory this year.

But the frustrations of player availability and falling interest harbour strong.

“Football in general is in decline. I would not be surprised if in ten years time there would be half the leagues as there are now,” Barraclough said.

“Kids now have all their Xboxes and Playstations. Football is not the be all and end all anymore.

“Until you have got the hold on players, with paying them three to four hundred pound a week, it won’t change.”

While players might want to play, often the weather and the schedule can stop them.

More matches are being postponed, while the Harrogate League has reverted to organising fixtures less than two weeks before they take place to cope with schedule conflictions and cup competitions.

This season, Harrogate Premier side Kirk Deighton Rangers had nine league matches before February.

In December and January alone they played just one league clash, and one County Cup match. And the mix of free weekends and unplayable pitches has left manager Dan Marshall mortified.

He said: “The more it keeps going on like this, the more teams are going to want to leave, It’s just going to go downhill each year.”

And Way added: “It’s impossible to get a long term interest going, you can go through January and February without playing for eight weeks. People lose interest.”

While money has seen the Premier League soar, it’s the lack of it that has contributed to many troubles at local league level.

Beckwithshaw Saints footballer Mark Levine also remarked: “Money is a big issue. Running a club to compete in the Harrogate League is not cheap.

“If you consider that every one of our squad will pay around £5 per game in subs, you can see the kind of budgets that clubs operate on.”

Hampsthwaite require £2,000 each year to run three teams (with two Saturday sides and a Claro League outfit on a Sunday.

Pitches, training centres and referees are all costs that need covering. But Way said insurance was the harshest expense.

Financial incentives are handed out by the FA, but Way argued too much money was spent on new teams and not existing clubs.

The Football Foundation’s Grow the Game scheme provides grants of up to £1,500 towards new football teams.

However Way responded: “How about they offer incentives to the existing teams not to fold. Rather than add to a broken product, why not fix the existing product?”

But it is not only clubs fighting for money.

The local leagues are under pressure to secure sponsorship that will drive down the costs to the clubs.

Harrogate Claro League secretary Tony Pedel said, while leagues have every intention to keep fees low, more money needed to be filtered down the footballing pyramid.

He called on the FA to distribute wealth “more readily” as there are too many boundaries to football’s “lifeblood”.

“The monies generated by TV and advertising by FA needs better distribution to local clubs,” he said.

“You’ve only got to look at the disparity that is spent there against the non professional game to see the extent of the problem.

“There are three main boundaries clubs face: cost, facilities and support.

“The debate on how we improve participation at Grassroots 11-a-side’ football has to answer all those points for the situation to improve.

“Is there a willingness to do this? That is the key question.”

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