Grassroots game still boasts pull factor for players

Grassroots football. Blazing Rag v Tideswell. The Rag's changing facilities are somewhat basic
Grassroots football. Blazing Rag v Tideswell. The Rag's changing facilities are somewhat basic

Earlier this year the Football Association lost £1.6m of public funding for the amateur game in England after failing to reverse a sharp decline in the number of people regularly playing the sport.

Here, Ricky Charlesworth looks at how the grassroots game has affected a Derbyshire team.

The goalkeeper’s pre-match routine consists of a crafty fag while he dons his gloves.

The manager is busy putting up nets while shovelling dog muck off the pitch.

This is the scene at Blazing Rag’s Cote Heath Recreation Ground prior to their Hope Valley League, A Division clash against Tideswell Reserves.

It is a scenario that is replicated up and down the country - although not as much as it once was.

According to figures from Sport England, the number of adults playing football on a weekly basis has shrunk by just under 200,000 - a reduction of almost 10 per cent.

The knock-on effect of this was a £1.6m shortfall in funding to the FA.

The only real losers in this battle between the two sporting bodies is grassroots football itself, and the army of people who help keep it going.

Men like Paul Mansfield fall into this bracket.

Mansfield, the player-manager of Blazing Rag, is a veteran of the local footballing scene in Derbyshire having also played in the now-defunct Buxton Taverners Sunday League.

He believes many teams are left to fend for themselves - a tricky task given the expense involved in running clubs nowadays.

He said: “We paid £360 for the pitch this year.

“In winter the council won’t cut the pitch. It’s not an ideal playing surface, on long grass.

“It’s just us that plays here now but a couple of seasons ago there was four teams using the pitch.

“There was two on the Saturday and two on the Sunday so the pitches were a lot worse, especially during winter.

“The majority of clubs aren’t getting any help whatsoever.

“There’s only a certain few clubs that have got grants and that can apply for funding.

“We pay £120 a year for league affiliation.

“There’s FA affiliation and insurance which you have to have now, which I think is a good idea incase anybody gets hurt.

“That’s £120 a year.

“The average referee costs about £35 a game too.

“The players pay £4 subs if they start and £2 if they are on the bench.

“We also try organise the odd fundraising night.

“After the game, there’ll be food on in the pub and we get a football card going round.”

To say Rag’s pitch is basic would be an understatement.

The pitch is in the middle of a park, with dog-walkers and a children’s play area surrounding the perimeter.

The changing room facilities are modest to say the least.

The portakabin is separated into two rooms; one for either team.

Mansfield gives his team-talk in a cramped, dilapidated room that is cold and in urgent need of TLC.

As well as the obvious funding issue to contend with, the other major hurdle that grassroots has to contend with is player numbers.

Mansfield says that the numbers he has to choose from fluctuates on a weekly basis.

According to figures, 2,360 grassroots teams folded between 2009 and 2014.

Buxton has first-hand experience of this as the Taverners League folded two years ago due to dwlinding numbers.

Mansfield added: “We’ve found it hard to attract new players this season.

“A lot of people, because of the economic climate, have to work on a Saturday.

“Some weeks we’ll have 18 players available and the next we’ll be struggling and have to go and pick someone up just to make sure we’ve got 11 players.

“We’ve managed to get three subs today.”

And in typical grassroots style, one of those is running the line.