Grassroots split on summer football debate

Club Website poll reveals over half of grassroots football community want a summer season for kids' football, while one in three want a change across the amateur game.

Another winter, another debate about the amateur football season's position in the calendar.

With heavy rain and snow causing widespread fixture disruption across the country this winter, many in the grassroots football community have suffered the frustration that has become an all-too-familiar feeling at this time of the season.

A poll of over 1,600 Club Website members found that over half (51%) would like to see all kids' football played in a season that begins in March and ends in October or November, thus avoiding the worst winter weather from December to February.

Most of those people - 33% of the total number polled - would also prefer to see the whole of grassroots football switch to a season based around the same months.

49% of those polled were against a switch to a summer season, but most of those - 26% of all respondents - said they would like to see a winter break introduced.

This leaves less than one in four people (23%) happy with things exactly as they are, playing grassroots football without a winter break during the traditional September - May season.

The main argument for a change in season is fairly straightforward: Bad weather means bad pitches, which means more cancelled games and, for young footballers in particular, poorer conditions in which to develop their skills.

As the debate raged on our Facebook page, Alan McDonald summed up the problem:

“It’s a no brainer... lush grass, warm conditions. These are the conditions where kids will learn the basics, enhance their skills and enjoy themselves.

"The alternative, kids out all wrapped up, cold, dark, wet and matches called off because the pitches are flooded.”

Problems with facilities along with a clash with the cricket season and summer holidays are commonly cited as the main sticking points, a viewpoint supported by Lee Myers, who posted this on Facebook:

“You would struggle to put teams out due to players and their families going on holiday through the summer. It was hard just putting a training session together in the summer some weeks.”

In Scotland the switch to a summer season was made in 2011 with the introduction of the new Scottish National Player Pathway, with all children up to the under-12s age group now playing development football from March to November.

David Little, Chief Executive of the Scottish Youth Football Association (SYFA), told Club Website the reasons behind the change.

"It was to try and get the youngest players away from the periods when we shouldn’t be playing - the real cold weather, leading up to Christmas and in January,” he said.

"I think the argument should be about when not to play, as opposed to when to play. I think we should eradicate the bad months."

Little said that the change has worked out "fantastically well" for the younger age groups, but the line is drawn at under-12s, as at that age teams progress from small-sided development football to playing 11-a-side football in a competitive league structure.

“The subtle difference with non-competitive football is that if a game doesn’t take place for inclement weather, it just hasn’t taken place, whereby with competitive football you have to finish your competitions.

"You have a better chance of doing that in May than you do in November. It would be grossly unfair for young players to play all the way through a league season and then it comes to November and they can’t get that programme finished.

"To fail to finish competitions is letting down young football players."

The SYFA refers to the new summer season as a "development season", with good reason one could argue - "I can’t remember in the last few years actually having a summer!" said Little - and arranging it has not been without its challenges, most notably the availability of facilities and volunteers.

In an attempt to work around the problem of summer holidays, the development season has been broken down for many into three parts. From March to June and August to November matches are mandatory, while during July, when most families take their holidays, games are played subject to availability of coaches and players.

Whilst the English FA has made no official move towards a summer season, there is also nothing to stop leagues in England moving to a similar arrangement if circumstances allow. Indeed, in some parts of the country, such as Durham, some leagues have already made the switch to a summer season.

Nick Levett, the FA's National Development Manager for Youth Football, told Club Website: "What we’ve said to leagues is if they want to go to summer football – to March to November and have a break in July and August for school holidays - that’s no problem at all.”

"It’s there as an option, so if member clubs want to do it and they can find the facilities and the appropriate support locally, then great. Go for it!"

For the last few years, Levett has been leading a review of youth football in England which will, from the start of next season, see the phased implementation of a new player pathway - including new 5v5 and 9v9 formats - and a new 'child-friendly' approach to competitive football.

The possibility of summer football was discussed during the consultation period for the Youth Development Review and, although it was not seen as a priority when pushing forward with the changes, it did lead to some useful discussion around ways to overcome some common hurdles.

With many playing fields used for both cricket and football, there are obvious issues regarding pitch layout and allowing pitches to recover during the summer months, but Levett believes that with careful local planning these can be overcome.

"I’ve spoken to groundsmen who have said that if the designated kids’ pitches weren’t getting battered during the winter, they wouldn’t have to do as much re-seeding during the summer.

"They would be comfortable with it but it needs a sensible, strategic approach. You can’t play on pitches 365 days a year but, if it's planned locally, then it's certainly possible."

"The challenge on school sites where they pick up the posts and mark out the grass running track are still going to exist, but if clubs have got their own facilities then there’s no reason we can’t look at it."

As for the oft-quoted clash with the cricket season, Levett said: “We’ve got to do what’s right for football. There might be kids at the moment who want to play rugby and football but can’t because of the clash of seasons.

"But with clever planning around sunlight hours, there’s no reason why cricket and football can’t complement each other in the same season."

"Another challenge of course is you get rock hard pitches, blisters and sunburn, but perhaps I’d rather have that than be freezing cold. I don’t know."

Whilst the summer football debate was not viewed as a key element in the FA's previous consultation, it is one that could be revisited in the future but, according to Levett, would require a lot more conversation with all of the parties involved.

It is a debate that seems to resurface every winter, but perhaps one that is best revisited later in the year, when people aren't reacting immediately to the wintry weather outside and instead are able to consider the numerous issues and options available in the warm light of a summer's day.

Football is our national sport and traditionally a winter game. When traditions are challenged passions can often run high but, while overall opinion on summer football remains divided - as evidenced by our Club Website poll - it is clearly a debate worth having.

Dan Pope, Club Website editor

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CW Poll: Should the grassroots football season be changed to March - October to avoid the winter weather?

Yes 51.5%
- for ALL grassroots football 33.2%
- for KIDS football only 18.3%

No 48.5%
- but we should have a scheduled winter break 25.6%
- keep the season as it is 22.9%

Total votes cast: 1,670

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