Get any Liverpool taxi or meet any new person in the city and the inevitable question will soon rear its head. Red or Blue?
Visit any other major city in the UK and the question would not be so simple but for those west of the Mersey there doesn’t seem to be a more appropriate cliché come derby day than the inevitable ‘Blue/Red half of the city is celebrating tonight’ intro to local TV and radio sports sections.
While the rivalry has intensified in recent years to one tainted with an unpleasant undertone, there has always been one thing which unites Red and Blue in the city – actually playing the game.
But recent council cuts now threaten an entire generation of local football players, not to mention their effect on cricket, rugby, bowls and even allotment space in the area.
From next summer the cost to rent a council pitch for an amateur football club in Sefton will double. Over 50 adult teams and several more children’s and women’s teams will have to pay up to £800 per season compared to around £350 this year, according to Liverpool FA figures.
On top of this, grass cutting, pitch markings, ground repair, and water and electricity bills will all need to be paid for by the clubs who play on the pitches, pushing the figure up to somewhere in the region of £2,000.
If they don’t, and it looks increasingly likely the Southport & District Amateur League will be the first to back out, the pitches will be turned back into park land. This then leaves the inevitable question – when the next set of council cuts come, will they be sold off entirely to developers?
A more urgent worry is the effect on the local grassroots game. The Southport & District Amateur League boasts five divisions and is the only league in its area for youngsters over the age of 16 to step up to mixed age 11-a-side football.
What the area is now faced with is a generation of young footballers simply giving up the game entirely and, as the league notes on its website, the inherent health issues that brings to young men and women in the area.
In total 20 pitches are under threat and despite meetings, the league says it is ‘well aware of the cost constraints’ facing clubs. A final decision will need to be made by 16th January and it is looking increasingly unlikely the league will be able to continue.
A league spokesperson said: “The League are extremely concerned over the proposed increases in pitch rents and the impact it will have on clubs in continuing to provide footballing opportunities to players.
“We are to meet with Sefton in the near future to discuss the possibility of clubs folding and the impact on the on-going fitness of males in the borough who do not have an opportunity to play in the future and for those juniors who also wish to move up to open age football once they have turned 16.”
According to a Liverpool County FA spokesperson, who did not wish to be named, the plans to push up rent threatens a four-year plan which has seen Liverpool outperform much of the country in terms of the grassroots game in recent years.
There are currently 750 adult male teams in Liverpool, 34 women’s teams and 1,700 youth and mini soccer teams, nearly 400 more teams than four years ago.
A freedom of information request to Liverpool Council shows there hasn’t been a single pitch closure in the past five years in the area. There are now 140 pitches in Liverpool, costing the council £750,000 per year to maintain.
But if nearby Sefton Council goes ahead with the cuts, the hard work put in by Liverpool Council and the Liverpool FA will be instantly lost.
“We smashed our targets in year three and have done well to retain close to what we had for that year,” he continued. “I think it will be a matter of trying to retain what we have got now as there is not much room for growth especially as we seem to be losing pitches.”
But are amateur league pitches even necessary? Most would argue yes. Not only for the communities they provide for in terms of health benefits and giving youngsters things to do in the city but for the future of the game in the city.
Thousands of people play the game at an amateur level across Merseyside every weekend. Not only is Liverpool the only city outside London to boast two women’s teams in the nation’s top league, the Women’s Super League, but it also boasts representatives in England’s deaf and cerebral palsy teams.
It will also affect teams further up the football pyramid. A quick glance at some of Liverpool’s biggest non league clubs such as Southport, Marine and Bootle show squads full of players plucked from the amateur leagues.
These clubs are FA Charter Standard clubs – an incredibly difficult title to achieve and one bestowed only on those with a particular focus on work in the local community and with those with disabilities, and youth development in the form of soccer schools and coaching sessions.
If their supply of willing players dries up, they will struggle to compete and with it will not be able to provide these facilities for the local community.
And it isn’t just football which is threatened. The Southport & District Amateur Cricket League has described the news as amounting to ‘wiping out amateur sport in jurisdiction of Sefton’ while everything from bowls teams to allotments are threatened by the cuts.
In November, Sefton Council announced the area will be on the official Olympic torch route in 2012. Leader of Sefton Council, Cllr Peter Dowd declared it an ‘honour’ and added: “Sefton has so much to offer.”
It seems in the case of local amateur sports, this couldn’t be further from the truth.
Image by Matthew Wilkinson, Flickr