The recent news that Leigh Sports Village will stage games in next summer’s Women’s Euro 2021 tournament is bigger news for the North West of England than many may think.
With fans still locked out of football stadiums it feels academic when venues for major tournaments are announced, but no part of the country (according to a recent report in The Guardian) has suffered more when it comes to public pitch closures. As the women’s game continues to grow, the North West can be a huge benefactor when the Euro’s head to town next year.
Starved of football with no firm date in sight for when stadiums will be full again, the public may flock to next summer’s tournament in droves if allowed, further raising the interest in female football. Such interest in the women’s game wouldn’t be unexpected if the rising demand for pitch hire and media content after the 2019 World Cup is anything to go by.
The question is can the supply of facilities meet this demand and what facilities are truly needed? Men have always found urinating in to the wind hard, and one can only imagine the additional challenges it must bring their female counterparts when it comes to football. When you look at the true trends of participation it suggests this is exactly the situation the female game is in.
One club raising awareness of the challenges that can be faced, when it comes to getting their fair share of facilities, is Islington based Goal Diggers FC. Recently the team celebrated securing 11-a-side training facilities. It’s gobsmacking to think a team that competes in such a format couldn’t train in a similar way. It would be like entering a baking contest that sees the winner present the best cake from their oven, but only letting them practice beforehand with a microwave.
Goal Diggers, in particular their founder Fleur Cousens, has been a huge advocate of a fairer system, which should further align with the message the FA seemingly wants to promote; football amongst females is growing.
Around a fifth of participants in the UK are female, yet a club the size of Goal Diggers (with over 200 members) still seems to struggle for a place to play. Interestingly on the club website you can find other local womens teams, odd as it may seem for a club to promote rivals. It’s clear what the Goal Diggers’ mission is; get woman playing wherever you may be. You can’t help but get a sense of the collective fight they are having for all females looking to, and perhaps struggling to participate. It’s easy to read in to it as ‘us versus them,’ and women standing together - and if it is, you can’t really argue.
Up until the Islington based outfit were granted training facilities the best they could get was a Friday 10pm slot. Many a bloke’s teams are in the pub come this time of the week, and so it doesn’t indicate a fair supply to the demand the FA’s own stats display. If a women’s team (with such a following as Goal Diggers) could up until recently only get a twilight training spot, does it suggest they aren’t getting their relative 20% of training or match day slots?
If it is indeed more a question of supply, then The Guardian article in 2019 (which unearthed over 700 football pitches had been sold by the UK government since 2010) brings home the national dilemma of austerity versus public wellbeing.
The 710 pitches sold doesn’t seem a lot, but let’s crunch the numbers. There are around 40,000 pitches in the UK and 11 million players. Those pitches would see around 200,000 less people per year playing. It’s less than 2% of the playing population, but in reality it’s no small number; when compared to the population of say, Newcastle.
In 2012 The Women’s Sport Foundation published a report that noted football as the ninth most popular/participated in physical activity amongst women and football as the 10th most in demand sport with many others (swimming, cycling, tennis, netball) needing bigger national investments themselves to improve participation.
By 2015 just over two million adult women were playing football, and as coverage both on the TV and through social media has increased, so has interest in the game. Fan numbers have since increased 60% between 2017-2019.
This brings us back to the question of supply and demand, particularly if women look to expand beyond social play and in to more formal competition. In a country where playing area is being reduced and the game is played in the wet winter, how can this be achieved?
Andy Carmichael argued in The Football Collective earlier this year there are too many pitches rather than too few. Statistics aren’t available on postponements due to poor weather, but we’ve all been there; traipsing half way across town chucking in a quid or two for petrol, only to find the ref isn’t content the ball can roll well enough through a puddle, before pulling the pin half an hour before kick off. Back in the car you go. Wasted petrol, wasted afternoon.
Better pitch management and drainage, that can me managed in an ongoing way, doesn’t feature in the debate often enough. As Carmichael points out in his article, laying such infrastructure is one thing, but its maintenance is key.
Better results might be achieved with something in the middle and both grassroots and local councils potentially taking a different path. For a sport that’s been in codified existence for over 150 years, it’s relatively new that the top level of the game performs on pitches as flat as mill ponds, yet the non-elite level continues trying to mimic the peak of the pyramid on lower budgets, with less people.
The financial gap between the Premier League and the other 72 is widening, forget non-league and below. Consider Accrington Stanley, ran on one of the lowest budgets in League One. Their pitch is their biggest asset - no game, no gate, no revenue.
Before TV money flooded the top flight of the game, clubs figured the importance of pitch condition and the gate out (and to this day still maximise match day opportunities - the new Tottenham Hotspur stadium is case in point. It is every part hospitality venue as it is football ground and the closure of the ground as a result of social distancing led them to explore the furlough scheme and a deserved PR disaster). Premier League pitches became central to financial success, but before they did our Dad’s played on the same quagmires as the pros.
Granted those surfaces were hardly fit for purpose then, and they shouldn’t be considered so now, but striving for 40,000 Wembley’s up and down the nation is unrealistic. Councils, nor private amateur clubs, can financially support or maintain with their limited resources, playing surfaces that mirror the professional level.
The point is, do they need to? Whilst we shouldn’t settle for mud baths that are ripe for leg breaks and dislocations, safe turf playing surfaces that can be used without regular postponement, water logging and cancellation aren’t financially viable or they must be accompanied by state of the art, complex and consuming drainage systems every time.
Is the key the government and FA investing in a way to reduce the cost of hybrid pitches? A Desso Grassmaster can cost north of $500k. In professional (top level) pitches this can see as little as 3% of artificial grass injected in to the surface, but such pitches are used only a couple dozen times per year.
Is the solution something in between, that sees a higher blend of synthetics without pushing the grassroots game for both men and women on to 3-5G pitches? The fact is the funding at an FA or government level isn’t there, leading to high demand for facilities that can often fail.
Almost a quarter of those pitches closed since 2010 were in the North West, and whilst six of the ten host stadiums for next year’s Euro’s are within an hour or so of Manchester, it’s a great opportunity for the region to get closer to the game, but if the pitch problem isn’t solved we’ll sadly see the future Goal Diggers of the North West in the same boat as the Islington outfit are today.