Grassroots football under threat warns league secretary as pandemic makes it a 'soulless experience'

By Simon StoneBBC Sport
Grassroots football
"Without the volunteers these clubs won't survive," says South West Peninsula League secretary Phil Hiscox

A leading figure in grassroots football says the game had become a "soulless experience" even before the current national lockdown was imposed and is concerned for its existence if volunteers lose interest.

Phil Hiscox is secretary of the South West Peninsula League, at step six of the non-league pyramid.

As its 40 clubs are from Devon and Cornwall, the SWPL has been affected far less than most of its counterparts across the country.

However, Hiscox has seen the issues developing, and has described community-focused clubs as being at their "lowest ebb".

"Before Christmas, when we were in tier three, I watched a game in Devon at a historic club that has been going for over 100 years in various formats," said Hiscox.

"The home team were using the clubhouse as one dressing room, the away team were using the two dressing rooms. The tea hut was closed. The club house was closed. The 80-year-old secretary of the club had not been to a game all season because he is shielding. It is basically a soulless experience.

"You speak to the volunteers and several of them say it just isn't what we want for local sport. If you are a volunteer you are not enjoying it. If you are a spectator it is not the same.

"In my experience, there are one or two people at each of these clubs who keep them alive. Without the volunteers these clubs won't survive and some of them are vulnerable and frightened."

The SWPL is reasonably advanced in its season, with most clubs well into double figures in terms of number of games played.

That picture contrasts sharply with the North West Counties League First Division, also in step six, where the most matches any team has played is nine, eight clubs have played four or fewer and the Isle of Man have not even started.

"It is the fact we are ahead of the curve that gives us the credibility to turn round and say for the wider good of the game, football needs to take second fiddle to the current crisis," said Hiscox.

"Listening to some of the leagues in the north that have had restrictions for far longer than us, they are brow-beaten by the sheer length of it. It is difficult to see a way out of the woods for them. They are well aware now that this third lockdown has to be the final straw. If you have only played five, six or seven games in a season that would normally start in August and will be lucky to restart in March, you cannot reasonably expect to play 30-odd more games."

According to Hiscox, the answer is to declare a second null-and-void season now and plan for a restart that would allow grassroots clubs from the same geographical area, regardless of what league they are in, to form mini competitions that could raise funds before an August start for the official 2021-22 campaign.

However, with the threat of further restrictions being in place next winter, Hiscox feels that in order to sustain interest schedules should be doctored to create the potential for leagues to be cut in half if, as looks inevitable this season, the full fixture list cannot be completed.

"I am worried people will forget what real grassroots football is about and the country would be a sadder place without local community football."

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