Participation dropping across Britain
16 September ~ The Seaweed Inn, a squat-looking pub nestled at the foot of some tower-blocks in Southampton, was a decidedly unremarkable boozer. It did, though, boast a formidable football team. With a line-up consisting of several ex-Portsmouth trainees, one player rumoured to have had a stint in Norwich City's reserves and the kind of old-style goalkeeper who still defied the trend for wearing gloves, they had won the Southampton City Commercial Houses Football League Division Two title at a canter.
Visit today and all you'll see on the site of the pub and its long asphalt ribbon car park is Seaweed Close, a wedge of new-build yellow-brick homes and miniature blocks of flats – the kind with paper thin walls which allow every sound to travel throughout the building. Along with many other pubs like it, the Seaweed was erased from the landscape by the shovel of a bulldozer while the name of the football team quietly vanished from the league tables.
According to the real ale group CAMRA, 26 pubs per week are closing. At the same time, participation in football, particularly 11-a-side, is sliding toward its own crisis. Figures from Sport England show that 238,600 fewer people played football at least once a month in April 2012 to April 2013 than for the period October 2007 to October 2008. As the figures do not differentiate between 11-a-side and the more buoyant five-a-side game, the real decline is likely to be much more marked.
Could it be that, as with the Seaweed, the decline of the pub and the decline in participation are linked? The pub provides a focal point for a football club; it is place to recruit players, to meet before a game and somewhere to visit after, to celebrate or commiserate, to analyse the game or to sip a pint while watching the big match on TV. The pub can also provide a team with other support through sponsorship, raffles or a venue to hold the Christmas do and the end-of-season presentation. The fate of pubs and their football teams are therefore intractably entwined.
Of those 26 pubs closing every week some will have football teams which will disappear along with them. Pub football may have been the butt of jokes about drunk centre-backs hoofing it into row Z, but it provides opportunities for many people to participate in the sport at grassroots level, opportunities which are now becoming increasingly more limited. Neil Cotton Row Z Football