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My Grassroots Experience Of The Game's Return

It was the message we’d all been waiting for; football is back. In the first instance I was intrigued; what would social distanced training look like? A fleeting moment later, I didn’t care. It was just good to know it was back.

The last few weeks have pressed paused on all aspects of our lives. The ability to plan and look forward to something; going to a game, a gig, a holiday, all gone. To commit to something and be a part of something, like participating in football, gone.

In Australia football is returning at a slower pace than other major sporting codes. The NRL is back behind closed doors and AFL will soon follow. Football, arguably a little less sophisticated in its organisation is some time away, but most telling of all is the training restrictions.

Last night I took part in pre-season 2.0. Starting again is never easy, but far less painful than not playing at all. Groups are restricted to ten, sanitise on arrival, no hands on the balls, working in pairs for the most part. It is in and out, fifteen minutes between you and the next group showing up.

We’ll be at groups of twenty soon but it really is baking without scales, so much so committees are spread thinner than 1980’s corner shop bacon. Football in Australia has a significant migrant representation, whereby some players are only here for a year visiting their distant cousins. At my club, Elwood, being a seaside suburb, it attracts a large English contingent.

COVID didn’t just put peoples football plans on the chopping block, it altered their work and travel arrangements too, especially those on working or holiday visas.

As such, squads are decimated and sponsorship (whilst small businesses face uncertainty and have to prioritise other expenditure) is harder to come by than a Matt Hancock quote you can rely on.

As clubs wake up from their enforced hibernation, many have bowed out for the year due to the above. There will be no relegation, and only one team goes up in a shortened season (due to many clubs sharing public facilities with cricket clubs).

I’m sat here now with muscles aching in my legs that I forgot existed, but it’s worth it. Every twinge.

After weeks of being cooped up I really hope when things lift people see the clubs in their community as exactly this; community outlets that bring people together but also beacons of our local area’s identity. Places where our kids can be educated about our neighbourhoods and their history.

‘That year where COVID disrupted everything’ can become the season we rallied together, as players, as volunteers, as supporters and recreated the outlet we all need right now come the end of the work and school week.

Bring on the Thursday session, then Saturday, then let’s do it all again. Bring on the start of the season. Let’s hope it lasts, and my legs do too.

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