Competitive grassroots football has resumed in Suffolk after the coronavirus crisis stopped play for six months. It was sorely missed and the lengthy interruption has made people realise that football’s importance goes far beyond the game on the pitch.
Legendary football manager Bill Shankly once famously said: “Some people believe football is a matter of life and death. I can assure you, it is much more important than that.”
It is a wonderful quote, one that neatly sums up the deep-rooted meaning of football to folk worldwide, including those who play, watch and organise the Beautiful Game in Suffolk. Its significance goes beyond 22 players on a pitch kicking a pig’s bladder about. Arguably more than any other sport, football is about expression, freedom, friendship and community – fundamentals that have been severely tested during this year of lockdowns and emergency measures.
Competitive grassroots football stopped in Suffolk on March 16 – leaving cup and league competitions unfinished – and did not start up again until September. During those extraordinary months of limbo, it was sorely missed as an outlet for people of all ages, abilities and sexes; as an enabler of physical and mental well-being and a reason for people to get out of their homes, to meet and enjoy the company of others.
And while football has returned to our county, clubs continue to battle against a backdrop of tight health guidelines and reduced finances. Play may have resumed but with the future uncertain, the sport’s biggest challenges may still be yet to come.
Flexibility and survival
“For all administrators and people behind the scenes at football clubs, this has been the most difficult and stressful period that we have ever experienced – flexibility and survival are the words of this season,” says Richard Neal, Chief Executive Officer at the Suffolk Football Association (FA), which oversees 30,000 people playing football in Suffolk.
Mr Neal and his team have been at the sharp end of co-ordinating the actions required for clubs to get football back up and running in the county after lockdown.
To comply, amongst a suite of measures every club has had to complete a detailed risk assessment, put a track and trace system in place and appoint a COVID officer to lead on making football as safe as possible for spectators and players alike.
While at the time of writing Suffolk’s top football club, Ipswich Town, could still not let fans through the turnstiles, spectators have been allowed back to all other games in the county, albeit with some caveats. For leading teams, playing higher up the footballing pyramid – teams such as Leiston, Needham Market, Lowestoft, AFC Sudbury, Ipswich Wanderers and Haverhill Borough – there has been a cap on spectator numbers, equivalent to around 30 per cent of their ground’s capacity.
Some clubs have introduced pre-match ticket sales for the first time while all have had to takes steps to make hand sanitiser available and encourage spectators to spread out and support their team while social distancing.
Once you start getting into the implications of organising a football match in the age of coronavirus, you realise how much has to be taken into consideration. With the Rule of Six in play, changing rooms must be kept safe; showers are often out of bounds; physios must take extra precautions; goal posts, balls and corner flags have to be sanitised.
Even across the white line, on the pitch, the impact of the pandemic can be felt. Teams have been encouraged to take corners and free kicks quickly to minimise the time players spend jostling for position at close quarters; goal celebrations should be muted; the traditional post-match handshakes replaced by fist pumps and elbow touching.
And if you want to stay on after the final whistle, enjoy a pint and discuss the game, it is crucial to remember that all social clubs and club houses must follow the COVID guidelines laid out for pubs and clubs.
Mr Neal continued: “At every club, there has so been much work going on to ensure they comply with the guidelines. But people realise that the benefits of getting football back for both players and spectators far outweighs the work that needs to be done.”
The importance of what a football club means to local people is on the mind of Andrew Long, chair of AFC Sudbury, which has seen revenues drop sharply since lockdown.
Because last season was cut short, and this season capacity is capped at 400 spectators – gate receipts are down and takings at the bar are a shadow of what they were. But it is not just matchday income that has nose-dived. Bookings for parties and weddings at the club’s function rooms have been cancelled; the on-site dance studios and 4G pitch are under-used. Some sponsors, who have backed the club for many years, are struggling to put money into the club at this difficult time.
“Because of the coronavirus, all our plans have gone out of the window and we’ve had to think again – there’s no roadmap, it’s new to everybody,” says Mr Long.
This has led to some tough decisions – bar staff have been laid off while some of the older players on higher wages have been replaced by younger recruits from the club’s academy. In the short term, results for the first team have suffered with Sudbury languishing near the foot of the North Division of the Isthmian League. But success currently, says Mr Long, is less about what happens on the pitch, and more about ensuring the club remains financially viable and survives into the future.
“Including the youth teams, we have 30-odd teams at Sudbury. First and foremost, we are here to provide a service to the community.”
And it is not just the players and spectators football touches. Like most grassroots clubs, Sudbury has a team of volunteers who help make the club tick but at the same time value the routine and the thought they are contributing.
Mr Long continues: “A football club is a centre for people to come together, to put the world to rights and meet up with friends. When we started up again after lockdown, people told me they hadn’t realised how important football was to them.
“The positive impact football can have on mental health is tremendous. If, for example, you are a retired person living on your own – going to the football a couple of times a week may be the only time you get to see people.”
This sentiment is echoed by Jon Fuller, Chair of Bungay Town Football Club in the north of the county, which has received grants from Sport England and the Sports Foundation to help it through these tough times but has still had to cut back in areas like ground maintenance.
And just as football clubs are important to communities, so the community has rallied to ensure Bungay Town continues to operate during the pandemic. Parents of youth players have continued to pay yearly subscriptions despite the season being shortened; while volunteers have ensured everything gets done.
Mr Fuller says: “You do wonder how long this [the coronavirus crisis] will keep going but I know we will get through it – our players, supporters and parents have all been good to us.”
Kids doing what they love
Over at the Cornard Dynamos Youth Football Club, Saturday morning training is underway at the club’s ground at Blackhouse Lane, in Great Cornard. Children as young as five and six are learning the basics of shooting and dribbling, while nearby the Under 16s team practises corners.
Around 200 young people, including several girls’ teams and a disability team, play under the banner of Cornard Dynamos, demonstrating the importance of the game to the physical and social development of young people in this area of south Suffolk.
Chair Jon Bale says after he received an e-mail to say grassroots football could start up again it took two weeks of Zoom meetings every evening after work to get all the health measures in place. The sight of football being played at Blackhouse Lane again, he says, was “amazing”.
Mr Bale adds: “I had a real sense of pride that I’m sure I share with the other committee members that we had helped these children play again, especially as youngsters had missed out on so much with the schools being closed and rules preventing them from seeing their friends.
“As a volunteer in a youth organisation, your reward is the happiness you see when kids are doing what they love.”
This article appeared in the November issue of the Suffolk Magazine