Summer football has "feel-good factor" says chairman of pilot league

Summer football has come to Lancashire this year, as the Bolton, Bury and District Football League (BBDFL) became the first grassroots league in England to officially try the switch to a summer season.

Last 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 of the 'change of season' programme - to use its official title.

Four months into the pilot, we thought it was good time for an update, so Teamer caught up with new BBDFL chairman Gary Russell, who took over the reigns last month after two years as general secretary, to find out how the move is going.

The new programme got underway on 15 March for all age groups from under-7s to under-11s and will run until October. There will be a break for the summer holidays, although any team wishing to continue playing will have fixtures provided.

In October, after a break of a week or two, teams will move indoors to play Futsal, protecting themselves from the wind, the rain and the muddy pitches that pre-empted the move to summer football in the first place.

Participation levels have been high, with the majority of the league's 280 teams from the relevant age brackets turning up to get involved, with more expected to follow.

"It's not just about numbers," said Russell, "but last week we had close on 200 teams playing summer football between under-7s and under-11s. I don’t see that reducing over the summer. In fact, we’ve had teams contact us from outside of our league, saying ‘Oh, I believe you play summer football. Can we join your league?"

Russell is hopeful that some of the 80 or so clubs who didn't join in the summer league this season will come back next year, once they pick up on the positive feedback that the new programme has been receiving.

"The feedback has been excellent," says Russell. "Social media isn’t always a great measure, but if you go on to our accounts, particularly Twitter, you can see the feedback has been brilliant.

"Lots of photos, lots of parents saying how good it is to go and watch football in warmer weather. You know as well as I do, it’s not always going to be dry, but it’s certainly not going to be minus five on a Saturday morning when the poor lads are in their shorts and t-shirts."

Of course, the British summer weather cannot always be relied upon but Russell is hopeful that, at the end of this first season, the numbers will speak for themselves.

"The big measure for us - and we’re not there yet - is when we get to October, how many weekends did we get postponed because of poor weather? We’ve not had any cancellations or postponements since we started in March.  The reality is we expect to lose two or three weeks this season because of torrential downpours and not being able to play on the pitches, but that’s compared to losing 10 on average in the winter."

The straw that broke the camel's back came in the 2015/16 season when the BBDFL lost 14 weeks to bad weather but, for Russell - who is also chairman of Bolton's Moss Bank JFC - the argument for making the change goes beyond simple arithmetic.

"You can’t underestimate the importance of the feel-good factor. A couple of weeks ago we had a particularly nice Saturday morning at my club and at one point we had 10 games being played at under-7s and under-8s, with other teams from the area joining us.

"The parents were sat on the touchline, having their picnic, so you’ve got the feel-good factor. That sometimes gets a bit lost in the debate about summer football.

"The reality is you’re creating a better football environment. It’s not just about a game of football. It’s a pleasant summer experience."

The BBDFL are the first league in the country to get sanctioned by the FA to run a summer football programme, so the governing body will be no doubt be following the success of the pilot with interest.

The early signs are good, but Russell is not getting carried away. He is aware that these are still early days for the pilot and that there remains plenty of work to be done to make it a success.

"We’ve got to make it work and that’s why I’m glad it’s a three year pilot. At the end of this year we might say ‘Do you know what? We didn’t get that right’ or ‘We could do that a bit different.’

"For example, is 15 March the right time to start a summer football programme? We’re still in winter for goodness sake. So we might put that back to April or May, when you’re into spring. We’ll make mistakes and we’ll learn from them. That’s why it’s a pilot."

The league's initial summer football plans were for under-7s to under-14s but the FA asked them to test the format out with just the non-competitive age groups to begin with - a decision that Russell backed, although his vision is to extend the format to under-14s in year two of the pilot.

Other hurdles have been overcome, in particular the opposition to the move from other sports. A year ago, local cricket leagues in particular were worried a clash with summer football would mean they would lose players but, as Russell points out, careful scheduling means that no such clash exists.

“This can be a complex area, but let me try and make it simple. For the age groups we’re talking about - under-7s right up to under-14s eventually - there is no junior cricket played anywhere in the Bolton and Bury area on Saturday mornings. Junior cricket is played on Sunday mornings.

"We don’t want to interfere with cricket and we genuinely believe that the kids can enjoy both in the summer, because they play on different days. I’ve got two lads in my under-13s team who are playing summer football tournaments on a Saturday morning and playing cricket for their local club on a Sunday morning. Therefore, you’re increasing participation across all sports.”

The league has encouraged member clubs to move their football training to another night in the event of a clash with players’ cricket training. Far from wanting to make football the only game in town, Russell says they are firmly behind kids playing multiple sports.

So much so, that the league has a vision to build a multi-sport facility in Bolton - incorporating everything from football to indoor cricket to badminton - and discussions with the FA and the local council are already underway.

“We are big supporters of all sports. We’re not trying to take over the world and we’re not saying we want to play football 12 months of the year, because that’s not healthy either. It’s about getting that balance right and I think that's what we're going to do.”

Another big concern 12 months ago was the availability of facilities for both football and cricket, but Russell says that this is “not an issue”. Cricket squares can exist alongside small-sided football pitches and are still available to use when required, with portable goals meaning there are no obstacles in the outfield.

The league's biggest challenge has been looking after those teams who usually play football at schools, which shut for the summer. These teams are being offered the chance to play at a central venue, with plenty of options meaning that facilities should not be a barrier to participation.

So far so good then. The league chairman’s half-term report for year one is that things have gone “better than expected” and, whilst he can understand why other leagues might currently "sit back and see how get on", he expects some of them to follow suit in due course.

“I think some of the other leagues - particularly our local leagues - might come under pressure from players and parents who say: ‘Why is it my mate plays on a Saturday morning in the nice sunshine and I’m not playing?’”

Russell appreciates that some people will never be won over - “Summer football is not for everybody, just like winter football is not for everybody” - and he understands the need to prove the move was the right one. Central to that is collating feedback from everyone involved in the game this summer.

“We can’t just sit here and say we think it’s a success. Let’s go and talk to the people involved in it. What do the parents think? What do the coaches think? What do the kids think?

"Are the parents happy on a Saturday morning when it’s a really nice day and they might want to go out for the day, but they’ve got a football match? All of those are in the mix for me and that’s the important thing."

With over 700 teams across all age groups, the BBDFL is one of the largest grassroots football leagues in the country and, having worked in the league for eight years, Russell believes that the league has previously been guilty of focusing on size over quality.

“It’s not for me about how many teams we have; it’s about our teams - however many there are - having a quality environment to go and play football in. For me that’s the biggest culture change this league has to go through. We’ve been obsessed with being the biggest. Now we want to be the best. There’s a big difference.”

The BBDFL don't issue fines as punishments to any player, team or club within the league - the only league in the country to do this, according to their chairman.

To be the best, Russell believes, the league must continue to challenge the norm at be at the forefront of any innovations in grassroots football.

They have applied to be part of the FA’s sin bin trial - “the best thing they’ve done, much better than a booking and a £10 fine” - and have also asked for permission to trial referee body-cams in a bid to combat abuse towards their youngest officials, who demonstrate the largest dropout.

Those plans may be around the corner but the move to summer football is already making the BBDFL stand out from the crowd. At the halfway point in the first year of the pilot, the chairman is aware there is still much work to be done, but remains convinced that the league has made the right move.

“We genuinely believe it is the right way to go. What we don’t know yet, is whether it is the right way to go. It will be a long process but we’ll be sitting down with the FA formally next spring and show them what’s worked and what hasn’t.

“As the chairman of the league, I’m pretty confident now we’ve got a product that is groundbreaking in grassroots football.”

Images courtesy of Moss Bank JFC.

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