By Andy Carmichael
Thanks, nice knowing you, was he on a retainer from a housing developer…I think I should swiftly qualify the title of this article before I am ejected from the Football Collective and henceforth blacklisted from every football discussion held.
There are around 40,000 football pitches in England. Of these the FA estimates 80% are owned by either local authorities or education bodies, in the region in which I live and work it is nearly 90%. There are roughly 29,000 football clubs, but a distinction has to be drawn between a club that may effectively be one team, the Dog and Duck FC who will play anywhere, any when, and a club that might run twenty or more junior sides across one large site, or multiple smaller facilities. The split of pitches is not far off 50/50 in terms of adult size and junior/mini soccer ones, around 21,000 for 11 versus 11 and approximately 19,000 pitches for children’s football. Too many.
Why so? We all accept that football is a force for good. There are great social benefits in playing the game, an important community role for clubs, the regular exercise and health aspect, particularly for children. And, of course, we want greater opportunities for children to play the sport. But that does not mean more pitches, in fact it means fewer.
To explain this logic, I need you to indulge my weakness for turf. Firstly, what is a pitch? Let us ignore 3G surfaces (I have particularly strong views on 3G due to the highly selective interpretations of data by certain sections of the media but that is for another time). So, our ‘pitch’ is natural turf, ‘grassed pitches’ Sport England calls them; “a grass that is marked out for at least part of the year as a pitch for a particular sport, upon which a match could be played”. And that is it, that is the definition when counting pitches. It is not sufficient for the discussion.
Football pitches display many different features which ultimately render them as different as a golf green is to a cricket wicket. The first is the topography; does the pitch lie at the bottom of a slope, is it near a water course, is it exposed to high winds and cold (if you have ever stood on a terrace at Boundary Park in January you will know how relevant this is to any form of activity). Then there is the construction, is it simply an area of native soil marked out for play, has the profile been altered, is it a new construction built purely to host football? Does it have drainage, does that drainage work, what is the soil type, how is it structured, which grasses is it supporting? And crucially, is there someone to maintain it. At one end of the scale is something like the pitch at the Etihad, a Desso reinforced fibre surface that is maintained to the very highest standards and completely replaced at the end of every season. At the other is a soil pitch, with no drains and a maintenance regime that consists of being cut and marked out for a match. The latter can support no more than two hours of adult use per week.
One football match on these low-level pitches per week, and then they begin to be damaged. The soil will become compacted, any natural drainage will worsen, and the grass will start to die. Cancellations will follow. So, invest in them, put drainage in, get someone to look after them! Well, as I identified, 80% of these sites are in public ownership and even if we believe claims to the end of austerity, we are still in a dire situation for local government funding. Local authorities are just not going to be able to support thousands of grassed fields given the cost of their statutory duties. Their playing pitch statements make this clear.
Someone is investing in them though, the Grounds and Natural Turf Improvement Programme is funded by the Grounds Management Association (GMA), the Football Foundation, FA and ECB with the remit of improving natural turf playing surfaces. Clubs apply to their local FA, receive a visit from a pitch advisor who then makes recommendations that can be utilised towards Football Foundation grants. There are different funds according to tenure and it is working really well (disclaimer, I am one of the extended network who advises on pitches, standing in a field digging holes is not a lucrative sideline). But there is only so much money and there have to be criteria for awards, this is where some clubs can miss out if they are without a regular home or have to rent on an ad hoc basis.
It is a wealthy game, funnel more money down the pyramid! Well, yes this would always be welcome but there is another problem, that of pitch maintenance. There is a huge shortage of grounds management volunteers to care for all kinds of sports surfaces. According to the GMA, there are currently around 7,900 grounds volunteers in football, and almost 1500 doing the work on a paid basis. The majority of volunteers are older and the work they have to do is often greatly underestimated both in terms of time and cost. For example, my own club has seven pitches. We spend thousands of pounds on sand, fertiliser and grass seed. A machine to relieve the compaction of the pitch costs much more, and of course there needs to be a tractor to pull it. A volunteer in his seventies manages them, and we work on the assumption that he will continue for another twenty years. The income from football just does not cover the costs, we have to look for funding and be incredibly creative in involving local businesses. Think very carefully if ever you are interested in asset transfer.
It is an expensive, time consuming business with different starting points of ‘pitch’. There really is no value in installing tens of thousands of pounds worth of artificial drainage in one soil pitch with a high-water table and a problem with rabbits that has nobody to maintain it. The cancellations they have always suffered will continue. Years ago, I saw £80,000 worth of drainage rendered useless within two years as no-one knew how to inspect and manage the system of pipes. That should never happen under the new arrangements. A pitch improvement programme is trying to bring some poorer surfaces back into greater use but choices need to be made. I appreciate there is a strong sense of place about a football pitch and the feeling of powerlessness in clubs is very real, but the reality is that more football, and more teams playing the sport, can be supported on higher quality, well managed pitches with a capacity for more games per week. Some of the thousands of single pitch sites that may be less than a mile from the next facility simply have to be dropped, and if necessary, take the Section 106 money and use it wisely. What we need is not more but fewer, as long as they are better.