Every footballing journey begins at the grassroots level.
The Lionesses offered a poignant reminder of this fact ahead of the 2023 World Cup, paying homage to the clubs who shaped stars like Lucy Bronze and Mary Earps.
Bronze (left) and Earps (right) began their journeys at Alnwick Town and West Bridgford Colts
There is not only immense value in the grassroots game, but beauty too. Whether your first touch is Mahrez-esque, or about as deft as a battering ram, you can expect competition and camaraderie.
Despite rounding out his career at the storied stadium, Adebayo Akinfenwa insists: “wherever you play, that’s your Wembley.”
The last of Akinfenwa’s 744 appearances came at Wembley in the 2022 League One play-off final
My Wembley, and yours too, are under threat as the climate crisis deepens.
The increased incidence of extreme weather is taking its toll on grassroots grounds across the UK, while an array of environmental issues threaten player safety.
To understand the state of play, the Sports Gazette spoke to those tackling these dilemmas and shaping a sustainable game.
Freddie Daley is a researcher at the University of Sussex who runs the Cool Down Sport and Climate Network.
“I’d struggle to find an area of sport that won’t be affected,” he tells the Sports Gazette.
More than half of previous Winter Olympics hosts would not be able to stage the games again in 2050
Though the effects of the climate crisis will extend to elite sport, they will be most punishing at the grassroots level. The increasing incidence and intensity of rainfall is already causing problems. Six of the seven wettest years in UK history have come since 2000.
The latest FA data tallies 150,000 annual postponements relating to pitch condition across grassroots football. It is unknown how many of these relate to weather and flooding, but anecdotal evidence points to a large proportion.
“I have been a league member for many years, and I have definitely seen an increase in call offs earlier in the season, due to waterlogged pitches,” says Annette Champion, secretary for the Norfolk Women and Girls’ League.
Richard Lindsay, sustainability and insights manager at the Birmingham County FA, is working to ascertain an exact figure. Still, he assures “it’s a considerable number.”
With lesser resources and lower-quality pitches, grassroots clubs may struggle to stay above water.
Gareth Cattermole’s photography series “Sunday’s Off” was shot in Bishop’s Stortford
While rainfall threatens to sink pitches, extreme heat jeopardises player safety.
At 33 degrees, “memory, eye hand coordination, and concentration all start suffering, then there are the heat cramps, the heat exhaustion, and the heat stroke,” David Goldblatt writes.
Such conditions also harden pitches, which can increase the strain on athlete’s bodies.
“No one really focuses on the dry spells that we have.
“But you’re still playing on pitches that are potentially dangerous because the ground becomes so hard,” says Lindsay.
In climates hotter than the UK, the problem is even more severe. Daley warns that extreme heat may paralyse sporting development.
“If there’s a country that’s facing extreme heat for prolonged periods of time throughout the year, then young people are not going to be able to play sport, so it’s going to damage the longevity of talent coming from specific countries.”
Air quality is another issue that global sports must contend with.
“The 2020 Australian Tennis Open was played with air quality so poor that players were struggling to breathe on court,” writes Goldblatt.
Steve O’Keefe, playing cricket in Sydney at the time, compared his playing experience to “smoking 80 cigarettes a day.”
The grassroots game is also in the midst of an air quality crisis.
Only one-half of Birmingham County FA venues have air quality that exceeds World Health Organization safe guidelines, according to Lindsay.
He fears that it may impede the newest generation of footballing talent.
“When you start talking about the health of youngsters and children, then it starts to resonate with people.”
Tackling the Issue
The long-term viability of grassroots football will depend on mitigation strategies, as well as meaningful climate action on a global scale.
The FA has outlined its plan for the next five years in its Playing for the Future strategy.
“Across grassroots football, our ambition is to transform grass pitch quality in England to improve player experience and withstand adverse weather conditions,” an FA spokesperson tells the Sports Gazette.
The Football Foundation Grass Pitch Maintenance Fund, which can ease climatic pressures by improving pitch quality, supports 6,000 surfaces across the country.
Still, the picture on the ground suggests that there is work to be done.
“Some of our club members have taken advantage of the FA’s grass pitch maintenance fund but I don’t think this is promoted enough,” says Champion.
Doug Waterson, President of the Hull Sunday Football League, cites problems in accessing the fund for inner-city clubs. He estimates that 80 percent of clubs receiving the fund are located outside the city.
“Inner-city teams have difficulty accessing funding as they don’t have ownership or long-term leases,” he tells the Sports Gazette.
A lack of data also impedes decisive action.
FA data cannot tell us precisely how many games are lost due to weather.
“There isn’t concrete, transparent data that is available to understand those vital aspects of English football’s relationship with climate change.
“These are the foundations for actionable and impactful policy,” insists Daley.
Lindsay is amongst those searching for a fuller understanding.
“If you understand where your hotspots are, where games are being postponed on a regular basis due to flooding or whatever it might be, that can shape the maintenance fund. That’s one key element that data will drive.”
The FA’s data cycle is set to renew in 2024, and we must hope that a clearer picture emerges.
Football can look to mitigate the effects of the climate crisis, but it must also become an active player in decarbonisation processes.
Richard Lindsay and the Birmingham County FA are sculpting the grassroots game in a sustainable mould.
The final 'Carbon Literacy for Grassroots Football' course is now available to book, delivered by our partners ClimateEQ 🌍
27th Nov 2023 & 29th November at 18:00 – 21:00 (learners must attend both days) 📅
— Birmingham County FA (@BirminghamFA) October 30, 2023
Although its own climate impact is marginal, there is considerable enthusiasm for the adoption of sustainable practises at the grassroots level.
“We know from our research that 86% of our clubs want to become more sustainable, but they don’t necessarily know where to start,” says Lindsay.
Providing the frameworks and funding for climate action, BCFA has changed the grassroots game in the West Midlands area.
Despite initial difficulty in convincing them to participate, Lindsay feels that clubs have now taken the initiative in shaping a sustainable game.
“In year two, we went from water bottles to supporting solar projects, to supporting cycle racks at clubhouses, recycling bins, all sorts of things that they hadn’t considered before, but now they’re seeing actually there are steps and changes they can make.”
A bottom-up approach has been integral to the BCFA’s success, maintaining discourse with grassroots clubs rather than speaking from above.
A Pledge Ball league, which ranks clubs based on sustainable activities, awards each month’s winner a £500 grant. Harnessing the competitive spirit of football, the league has promoted conversations about climate action.
“What we’re seeing now is members of clubs have a real affinity with that club. It’s more than just where they go and play football,” says Lindsay.
If grassroots football is to weather this storm, we must all view our clubs in this light.