Why we chose summer football – The BBDFL

Bolton, Bury & District Football League chairman Warren Barlow tells Club Website about why his league have chosen to move all football from under-7s to under-14s to a summer season.

Young player takes corner

The debate over moving to a summer season has dominated much of the grassroots football agenda of late.

After another winter of disruption to the amateur football calendar which saw teams not playing for up to three months, people across the game have called for something to be done.

Two-thirds of Club Website members want to see all children’s football moved to a March to November season with a break for the school summer holidays, while almost half want to see the entire grassroots football calendar move away from the winter months.

One league that has decided to do something about it is the Bolton, Bury and District Football League (BBDFL), whose members voted for a move to a March to November season from 2017 – a proposal awaiting FA sanction.

Having done what many others in the grassroots community would like to do, we caught up with league chairman Warren Barlow to find out more about their move, their reasons for doing it and the challenges they faced.

Club Website: Why have the BBDFL decided to make the switch to summer football?

BBDJFL logoWarren Barlow: The rationale is year on year we have lost at the very least eight weeks of football due to the weather and this year has been the worst ever with 14 weeks of cancellations.

This not only has a demoralising effect on those involved, it also has a detrimental effect on the game as we have lost players, teams, coaches and referees due to long periods without a game and other activities. In some cases, that means a Saturday job has replaced the weekly involvement in football.

The BBDFL currently has 647 teams playing in a small nine mile radius from Bolton Town Hall and the numbers are growing at a phenomenal rate, rising from 534 teams last year to the current number.

Many of our pitches have mini soccer games played across them, then a couple of youth games and potentially an adult game in the afternoon. Add the weather, the over-use, number of teams and the standard of the facilities available and something has to change.

CW: Have you given summer football a try before now?

WB: In 2015, we organised a summer programme for under-7s through to under-12s to establish what the take up for summer football would be.

The programme ran over 12 consecutive Saturdays from May until mid-July, using just three venues provided by the local authority. 184 teams entered and each of them played multiple matches each weekend for the full 12-week event.

Not one weekend was lost to the weather, at the conclusion of the programme the facilities didn’t even look as though they had been used and the teams, players and the council all reported that the event had been a great success.

Diving header

CW: So after a successful trial, what was the next step?

WB: We then sought advice from our members, asking them what they wanted and the vast majority – 87 out of 89 clubs to respond to our request – said they wanted us to run a summer programme every year.

We didn’t want 12 month football as even committee members needed a break, so we decided to seek sanction to move our under-7s through to under-14s to a March to October season starting in 2017, leaving our under-15s to under-21s in a traditional winter programme.

We’ve asked the FA for a three-year pilot for the new programme. Currently this sanction request is with the FA and we await their decision. We expect to hear if it is successful around April when the next Sanctions and Regulations Board sits.

I’m hopeful they’ll put it through, although nothing would surprise me with the FA. If they don’t, it would be a massive mistake, because this is an opportunity for one of the biggest and most progressive leagues in the country to trial this.

It’s a three-year pilot so, if it all goes wrong, people can ‘we told you so’ and we’ve got the evidence that it won’t work. But if all goes well, potentially you’ve got a blueprint for many other leagues in the country.

CW: It’s quite a radical change and has no doubt ruffled a few feathers. How have you dealt with the challenges faced?

Young players celebrateWB: There have been many challenges, with criticism being thrown at us from some quarters and a reluctance to change by others, but the vast majority of our members want us to give this a try.

We’ve had a lot of criticism from the cricket fraternity, but the local cricket leagues – the Greater Manchester Cricket League and the Bolton Cricket League – are both supportive.

Through discussions, we found that juniors normally play cricket on Fridays and Sundays, whilst they sometimes train on Monday and Wednesday evenings.

So we’ll make a rule that they can only play football at the weekend on Saturdays, plus Tuesday and Thursday evenings. It’s about working together.

There are a lot of good partnerships going on. We have entered into dialogue with other sports providers, the local press and attended a radio discussion on Bolton FM with representatives from the local cricket clubs and league, the regional tennis providers and the Bolton News, who organised the event.

This discussion was very positive and hopefully we have made strides to bring all the sports providers together to mutually support each other.

There is an untapped resource out there of kids who don’t play sport at the moment and we should all be working to grow all sports together. Some people are too blinkered or insular and need to start looking at the bigger picture.

CW: What would be your advice to other leagues around the country who are considering a change, but are potentially put off by the challenges involved?

WB: There are challenges, but none of these are insurmountable and I suggest its no greater challenge than any other initiative, apart from some of the more aggressive people out there who are very protective of their own sport.

You need a thick skin. One or two cricket clubs have been vehemently opposed to the changes, so much so that I’ve taken lots of abuse on Twitter and been called some quite appalling names, but you must do what you believe is right for the game and the people who wish to be involved in it.

But since we decided to go for the summer option we have had 52 additional teams ask to join the league, so the numbers speak for themselves.

The momentum is there and it’s what the people in the grassroots game want to happen. You either go with that demand or ignore it at your peril.

This article appeared in The Clubhouse – the monthly newsletter from Club Website. To get the best grassroots news, offers and competitions straight to your inbox every month, sign up today!

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Dan Pope
Writer at Teamer
Freelance writer, editor and copywriter, with a passion for grassroots sport. A right back turned football writer, Dan is the former editor of Club Website and has been lucky enough to work in the field of grassroots and community sport for the last 10 years.

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  1. LCSYFL Gen Sec on March 23, 2016 at 5:21 pm

    This is an interesting idea to look at as a weather issue. The question is will it stop young people from playing cricket, tennis etc and will the long summer school brake be an issue if the league stops for 5/6 weeks.
    The other issues are pitches as most London Boroughs close their pitches at Easter; thus the private providers and 3G pitches are used at a very high cost to youth teams.
    Many clubs run summer small sided competitions to raise money to keep their clubs alive.
    The alternative is to have a Winter Brake
    The LCSYFL will watch with interest
    Yours Tony Pretty

  2. Kevin Stears on March 23, 2016 at 5:27 pm

    Some debate this one and Im not sure if it will be resolved. Most grass roots football is played on shared facilities and so I,m not surprised by the reaction of the cricket fraternity. the same would apply to the rugby clubs. Different leagues have different playing days and KO times and who has priority on pitches because of lack of facilities and so just getting them to talk let alone agree would be a task in itself.
    We use some school pitches. Schools lock up for 6 to eight weeks during the summer and we cant use them and the grass is not cut during that time.
    Summer is the time when clubs hold tournaments. The money raised at them ensures that clubs can survive through the season. Without this revenue the only options for some would be that clubs raise signing on fees and subs (a difficult enough task to get in in itself as it is) , or
    clubs are subsidized by the local or national FA (and there is fat chance of that ever happening , just look at what the FA charge coaches at St Georges DURING the season) or clubs fold
    Once again its back to grass roots football not being understood. I suspect this debate will roll on unless someone dictates it will be . Around here lack of facilities will be the biggest problem or because of the new high demand the prices charged would create a new problem.

  3. Gary Brooks on March 24, 2016 at 9:43 am

    My club plays in the Bolton & Bury League and I commend them for having the determination to do what’s best for their member clubs.

    If football was invented now, you’d never ask little kids to play over Winter or suggest playing conditions are better in January than June!

    We’ve blindly followed the established adult calendar for football for too long. Now’s an opportunity to be innovative and create a bespoke calendar for the junior game.

    Having seen first hand last seasons BBDFL summer trial, I know how successful this can be and the benefits of kids playing games in mild weather on good pitches with smiles on their faces.

    The FA must approve this 3 year trial and work with the BBDFL to use it as a benchmark for the future of summer football.

    I truely believe in 10 years time, most or all, junior football will be played from March to November and the game will have improved by leaps & bounds. At that point, I think many will look back & wonder why they ever doubted summer football would be an unmitigated success!

  4. Michelle Lakin on March 31, 2016 at 8:22 pm

    Its not a change in the playing season thats needed to change its the type of football played. Its ok agreeing days with other sports i.e cricket/ Rugby but what about if parents have other children or family days together.
    Leagues should have a period of futsal, so that those winter months they are still playing but indoor instead of out. This is obviously an expense but something the fa should consider

  5. Timothy Felkin on April 10, 2016 at 9:37 am

    The change has to happen. Over the years I have seen leagues,teams and managers having to squeeze 3 or sometimes 4 games in during a single week during April just to try to get a season completed. This has always been due to the great British weather decimating the November to February fixture list. The worst of it is some leagues and managers trying to force fixtures through when they patently should not be played. I have seen 8 year olds playing in conditions where the rain is coming in buckets on pitches where the ball hardly runs. I’ve seen kids in tears at half time because they are so cold and wet. Not surprisingly this disengages the kids and the parents. We don’t have to continue doing this, we have the choice, we must be brave enough to make it .
    An excellent point has been made that if we were starting football as a brand new sport in this country then why the heck wouldn’t we arrange the season to run through the most suitable months of the year. The only question should be is, is the current season schedule working? If not ,then from football’s perspective it has to change.
    In regards other sports? then yes there will be some clashes so some players may have to decide which one to choose. This may mean football losing some players to other sports or other sports losing some to football. Ultimately these kids will still be playing at least one sport rather than being sat in front of the TV,laptop or game console. The important thing is they will be playing sport of some sort.
    Isnt it also a valuable lesson that in life sometimes as an individual you cannot have everything or do everything that you want and that choices have to be made.
    Life lessons aside though The Big picture is that playing football at the most appropriate time will get many kids playing sport who otherwise would not.
    The winners will be the kids, with many more of them actually participating in sports, having fun and being active and getting fitter rather than turning into a couch potato pretending to be a sports star on some unrealistic sports simulation game.

  6. chris simpson on April 12, 2016 at 3:52 pm

    Would like to see the likes of Sunday League being played in the summer it’s hard enough with so many teams chewing up the few pitches we have through the winter months and the weather defeating us aswell 10 weeks without a game it’s hard keeping a team together with no sponsorship for a lot of adult teams fundraising for new kits etc and me paying towards the ref and pitch some weeks just to get games on my son and me put money in to get the kit we play in now I have a load of old red Darlo tops which we use as away kit bought shorts and socks but have only a few of of each left lads take them home never to be seen again getting changed in a field doesn’t help you don’t get the stuff back in the joys of running a team it’s hard work in the bad weather round of applause to all the other managers keeping football alive and kicking bit of funding would help

  7. Neil Doxey on April 12, 2016 at 10:51 pm

    Typical football, no regard for any other sport!!!!

  8. mike Nichols on November 11, 2016 at 12:11 am

    FAO Warren Barlow,

    Hi Warren,

    I’ve been given your details from a parent who believes you’re doing some great things at grass roots level. As you know nurturing kids and having parents and coaches on the same page is an essential ingredient to the success of any team.

    I too share these values and promote a unique package to ensure these values are integrated and sustained within teams and clubs who want to set the standard, attract the talent and grow numbers.

    I’d like to hear more about your vision and expectations for your league.

    Mike Nichols

  9. […] March we heard why the league chose summer football after consulting with its members and, soon after, the FA granted sanction for a three-year pilot […]

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