It’s five weeks since no.1 son last played a football match. Three waterlogged pitches (and there’s another for this weekend taking on water as I write) and one frozen ground have halted his games either side of Christmas. No.2 son has been slightly more fortunate, but has also lost games and outdoor practices to mud and frost.
With the winter comes rain and cold. With the rain and cold come sodden, or frozen pitches. With unplayable pitches come match cancellations. And with cancellations come calls for football to be played in the summer.
The thought of football in the summer, as I stamp my feet on the touchline, bury my fingers deeper in my pockets, pull my hood back over my head against the wind, is so alluring. Instead of wallowing in mud, I could be lying back on the grass, absorbing the heat of the sun. Shorts and sandals, not thermal underwear and walking boots.
And the house wouldn’t get clogged with piles of muddy kit and we wouldn’t have to step around sodden, soiled football boots to get out the front door. There would be a few sweaty shirts, socks and shorts after each game, easily whisked in and out of the washing machine.
But I’m running away with myself. Junior football isn’t played for my convenience and entertainment. How would the players benefit?
There’s nothing better than running about in the sun. The pitches would be firm and true. Even time spent as a substitute would be pleasant. Keep them hydrated, but don’t worry about hypothermia.
And isn’t the weather synonymous with England’s kick and run style that we’ve not managed to shake for generations? Rather than blame the players and coaches, maybe we should recognise that all that inelegant effort is a survival technique on damp, wind-blasted recreation grounds in the depths of winter. Let them play in warm, still conditions and players may put their feet on the ball, lift their heads and ease the ball around the park. When the weather gets warm, it’s better the ball does the running, not the players’ feet.
There would be no cancellations. Seasons would be finished on time. Pitches could recover, rather than be wrecked, during the winter months, ready to grow lush and green for the summer season.
It’s a win-win proposition, isn’t it? When can we start?
Never, I hope, never.
There are few things I would go to the wall over, but football’s migration to the summer would be one. I am amazed, given how football’s hegemonic reign in England has progressed, that it hasn’t already annexed the summer. It’s hardly absent from the season of long days and heat hazes: international tournaments dominate alternate Junes and the professional league season starts in time for the August holidays. These encroachments need to be resisted rather than surrendering more of our summer days.
Football thrives because it’s a simple game, that’s fast, exciting, adaptable and unpredictable. But it’s a sport without humility. It devours time and space. And it is just one sport amongst many pastimes. The summer is a time when other activities can gain a little traction. Tennis, cricket and athletics struggle to maintain a profile and attract participants. They each offer pleasure for players and followers that differs from bulldozer football. But if football isn’t fenced off, with fields left free for these sports, it will trample them, absorbing their players and airtime.
The public seems to have an inexhaustible appetite for football, so perhaps this should be indulged and let other sports battle for what’s left over. There is evidence, though, that this would harm our youngsters. Over-specialisation in a single sport has been shown to create injuries and burn-out. Better footballers (better sports players) come from children playing a variety of sports, which develop different aspects of their physical and mental capabilities.
Football is a sport for all seasons, but would be less interesting were it to be played in all seasons. In community, grassroots football, the winter weather does takes a heavy toll of its pitches, interrupting the season and leaving youngster idle. There is an alternative solution to shifting the game to the summer. There’s a campaign by the Save Grassroots Football movement to ensure more of the wealth of the Premier League is devoted to grassroots playing facilities. The movement has an e-petition that anyone involved or interested in football in the UK should sign – it asks for 7.5% of the broadcasting revenue earned by the FA to be used to fund grassroots football.
My sons have missed some matches, but have still played football weekly this winter. That’s because they have the good fortune to practice on a 3G surface or indoors. The Save Grassroots Football campaign would secure that advantage for many, many more local and junior football teams.