It has creeped its way into all aspects of living and taken root deeply, desecrating sectors like the arts and hospitality and sports. Clubs in the Premier League reported that accumulatively the Coronavirus had cost them £1bn. Nevertheless, these businesses – let’s call them what they are – will come out the other side. Probably quite easily with the assistance of bail-out packages and new investors.
The same cannot be said for the grassroots clubs who are cornerstones of their communities.
A harrowing statistic was released last week estimating that 12% of the 43,000 grassroots clubs in the UK are “inevitably” facing closure. 12 million people were playing football at grassroots level before the national lockdown. For these people, young and old, man and woman, boy and girl, grassroots sport offers a way to improve both mental and physical health. The FA estimated that in terms of monetary value, grassroots football is worth around £10bn for the positive effects it has on health.
John Patterson, the club secretary at Newcastle West End F.C, believes that one of the more dangerous side-effects of the Coronavirus is the social impact it has had on the junior members of the club. Without school and extracurricular activities like football, they aren’t seeing people face to face but rather spending their time on games like Fortnight and speaking to people through headsets on a console. He fears that this may have a lasting impact if the players interest in grassroots sport wanes, noting “as the lockdown has gone on, the coaches have seen less engagement with weekly challenges set through parents WhatsApp groups and over Zoom”.
As well as worries over player's engagement with football, the Coronavirus has had a significant financial impact on the club. It has been hit on all fronts. The club made the decision to stop taking payment from parents over lockdown when the players weren’t playing. Nevertheless, they had paid for winter training facilities upfront for all of its teams, along with the other fees to the FA and the league, payments for kit etc. and on top of all that the club faced another obstacle when the cutter, used for the maintenance of their own pitches was broken and another £800 had to be shelled out.
The fundraising events that they would usually be able to do to help subsidise the outgoing monies, such as their annual summer tournament, from which profits they would usually be able to cover all league fees, was not able to go ahead. Additionally, the activities which go hand in hand with being part of a grassroots team, like the supermarket bag packs and the raffles, have also not been able to happen. Businesses have also taken a hit over the past few months and may be less likely to offer the support of sponsorships as they have done previously. It is a grave situation.
John is aware of all this but has confidence in the sensible budgeting of the club over the years and the support of the club members. He does raise his concern for the smaller clubs, with fewer teams and less support, who will be hit harder by these unrelenting circumstances, stating “it isn’t fair, all around these clubs are a massive part of kids’ lives and through no fault of their own, they’re going to vanish and what will the kids do when they disappear?”.
I feel privileged to have seen first-hand how involvement in grassroots sport can impact a junior player. As a coach for an U10’s team through to U14’s, I watched as the girls I coached grew in confidence and became more resilient. Grassroots sport offers an environment quite unlike anything else, surrounded by teammates and coaches who support each other, for character to flourish and people to develop. These teams are built on mistakes and learning and perhaps most importantly offer somewhere where people who might not necessarily feel at home in other situations, like a classroom, to find their place and know their value.
Furthermore, sports clubs up and down the country offer a rare refuge for people to go and interact with each other, face to face and to find hobbies and passions they might not even know they had. Those at Newcastle West End are aware of this and they are in the process of applying for their charity status so that they can offer a wider range of sports to the members of the Cowgate community. They are always on the lookout for new volunteers and John is keen to get students involved. The motto is simple – the more you put in, the more you get out, with the club offering to fund Level 1 and Level 2 coaching badges.
Grassroots sport is in a dire situation. That is a fact which cannot be avoided. Even before the Coronavirus, the extortionate costs that come with running a club were slowly killing grassroots sport, Covid-19 has only exacerbated the situation. Without more funding and more support, small clubs that are so integral to their community are going to die. The way in which they enrich the lives of those involved cannot be questioned however and it is important that they are protected at all costs for the sake of current and future generations. It is also clear that the money is there to save them. A new strategy is needed to ensure that grassroots football benefits from the billions and billions of pounds kept at the top of the pyramid.