Glenn Moore: Flexi-football is the answer to those without a team or a game: just turn up – and help reverse falling levels of participation

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They came on their own, with friends, or in teams; male and female, young and old, the keen and the curious. They came, to a school on the outskirts of Cambridge, to open a new front in the fight to save grassroots football.

Not that the footballers who turned up at The Netherhall School on Sunday knew that. They had just come for a game of football, flexi-football. And they got one, for £2 a head, or £10 a team. Next month, at Witchford Village College, near Ely, they can get another. And for some, that monthly match will be enough.

Flexi-leagues are the brainchild of the Cambridgeshire Football Association. Every month the county will provide a decent pitch and a referees, and organise matches, at various age-groups and for both sexes,  for anyone who turns up. Team sizes,  pitch sizes, all can be decided on the day, with teams even tweaked mid-match if there is an imbalance, just like a kickabout on the park.

This is Cambridgeshire FA’s response to the decline in adult grassroots football highlighted by The Independent earlier this month. In the last decade 200,000 male players have quit, in the last five years 2,360 teams have given up the weekly struggle to find 11 players and a playable pitch.

“We are trying to take the barriers out of the way in terms of cost and facilities,” said Chris Pringle, Cambridgeshire FA’s chief executive. “The county FAs, and the FA, have got to take people’s needs on board, or watch the game dwindle in front of us.”

The Football Association is listening. On Thursday, at Surrey FA’s biennial conference, Ross Antrobus, the FA’s Head of Customer Insight, outlined the challenge. The average squad size for a parks team has gone from 18 players to 24 in three years because there are fewer players prepared to turn out weekly. But this means there will not be a place for some players when they are available, so they drift away. As Antrobus said, “once you break a habit it becomes hard to find that time again”.

There is a huge drop in participation from 16-year-olds, 66 per cent of whom play regularly, to adult, less than 20 per cent of whom do so. The focus now, said Antrobus, is on “providing football on the players’  terms: smaller leagues, fewer matches, more flexible kick-off times, a winter break”.

For example, in Crewe a league is being run for the benefit of car-manufacturing workers whose shift finishes at 1pm. Afternoon matches enable employees to clock off then play, using pitches that are otherwise empty, then go home.

However, as Antrobus pointed out, this flexibility has to be combined with better facilities as players now seek “value”. Which was the cue for Steve Daley to address this elephant in the room: funding.

Daley is captain of England’s partially-sighted futsal team, but spoke as he is also head of sport and leisure for Preston City Council. As Daley outlined the scale of the local government cuts that have taken place, and those still to come, it became clear that grassroots football, already suffering from budget cuts in facilities maintenance and rising pitch-hire costs, will be feeling the squeeze for some years.

Most choices are difficult. As he said, “if you increase charges you may get more income, but you may lose people”. He added one sports hall was being converted to incorporate a climbing wall as that brought in more money than five-a-side football as too few people played the latter.

Preston’s response to their funding crisis is a series of partnerships with local educational establishments, Lancashire FA, Lancashire County Council, and Preston North End. Imaginative as some are, it is hard to see how this widespread slashing of local authority leisure budgets, enforced by national government, squares with reports such as those issued by the NHS and Public Health England (PHE) this week, which both indicated the healthcare focus should move towards prevention, with obesity one of the areas in most need of attention.

 The report by PHE said “the national physical inactivity epidemic [is] responsible for one in six deaths and [is] costing the country an estimated £7.4 billion a year.” One partial solution is to make local authority provision of leisure facilities statutory, rather than discretionary, though without funding to match that just moves the problem to another aspect of society.

Another solution is better use of what we have. Preston City Council are trying to persuade schools to open up their often under-used facilities to clubs. Sometimes there is leverage to do so. The Netherhall 3G pitch was built with Football Foundation funding, with the application backed by Cambridgeshire FA, which means the county can hire the facility cut-price. 

That makes the scheme viable as it grows. Pringle made the point that flexi-football cannot be too successful, as that would mean it is taking players away from the traditional 11-a-side leagues. The intention is to draw people back into the game. To that end Sunday’s session, though only moderately attended, was a promising start.  Among those who pitched up at Netherhall was a team of friends from the Kurdish community. Other groups came from a five-a-side league and a BAME (Black And Minority Ethnic) futsal league.

Pringle has big dreams for flexi-football. Antrobus said football is competing not with other team sports, which are also in decline, but individual activities like cycling and running. Not only are they easy to arrange – “you just step out of the door” – they also meet the modern demand for performances to be measured, with people comparing their stats online. 

This is obviously difficult in football, though the technology is improving and coming down in price. In the meantime Pringle ponders a fantasy-football style points system for individual players in flexi-leagues. “I’m thinking out loud,” he admits, “none of this is policy yet.” It is that sort of imaginative thinking, however, that parks football needs if it is to adapt and thrive. As Surrey FA chairman Les Pharo said, “tradition is important, but should not be a bar to progress”.

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