As his days began to wind down at the Sydney Morning Herald in the later half of 2012, Mike Cockerill, reminded us of his value and contribution to football with a series of articles exposing the grounds issues faced by former National League Soccer clubs, Sydney Olympic and Wollongong Wolves.

Rarely pages in the mainstream press are given to scribes to point out injustices that confront football below the national competition. Cockerill was out the door, and was allowed some grace outside the usual match analysis and regurgitation of statements.

Post golden handshake with Fairfax last September, Cockerill landed a gig as Associate Editor with the Football Federation Australia’s media website. Last week Cockerill launched a campaign, aimed at improving the amount of grounds available, and the quality of facilities provided to football. The campaign titled ‘Grounds for Complaint’ reads more like a people’s action campaign conducted by a tabloid newspaper, than sound strategy from a sporting governing body.

Cockerill begins by quoting the statistic found in the FFA’s National Facilities Audit; that an average of 140 players are allocated per football pitch. This audit was done three years ago, and it would be fair to say that this statistic has got worse as participation has been steadily rising. Cockerill then adds;

At a time when player registrations are at an all-time high – and showing few signs of falling away – there can be no argument that supply is palpably failing to meet demand…The explosion of interest in women’s football only makes the problem more acute. Players of all ages, of both genders, of many different cultures, are clamouring to get onto the park. Which makes fixing the infrastructure vacuum – in my view – the most pressing issue we face.”

An average of 140 players are allocated per football pitch.

So what is Cockerill’s solution to this problem? People send in their experiences and stories, and FFA will publish them on their site, as a means of “present(ing) a more convincing case to those who have their hands on the public purse.”

He then follows up by evoking the football public’s emotions:

“When it comes to getting a fair slice of the public pie, football has missed out on its share.”

Football has eternally fought the battle for grounds against the resistance of rugby league and Australian Rules. New South Wales is littered with examples of councilors appeasing the large rugby league clubs to provide grounds in a way to shore up votes. League also set up close ties with Catholic high schools in the early part of the 1900s, ensuring it to be the primary sport of choice for its students.

In Western Sydney, AFL’s superiority in lobbying state and local governments turns into photo shoots of a brand new facility for the sport. Whilst the local football club is closing off registrations, so they have enough grounds for the players to train and play on.

Dilapidated change rooms. Players training in near darkness. Barely any grass on the field. Countless stories across the country.

However, before football starts its petition campaign, should it not address the structural issues at grassroots level of football, before it starts demanding more facilities? Should we look to get our own house in order, before we start the people’s march to town hall?

Before football starts its petition campaign, should it not address the structural issues at grassroots level of football, before it starts demanding more facilities?

The starting point for investigation needs to be at grassroots level; the local amateur clubs and the respective associations they compete in. Here we will examine the oldest association in Australia, Granville & Districts Soccer Football Association, in Sydney’s western suburbs.

Granville Association is a great staring point because it represents a diverse cross section of the Australian community. It has older suburbs and new development areas in the north-west suburbs, established migrant communities, Anglo-Australian corridors, and continual arrivals of new migrants and refugees. It has history dating back to its formation in 1882, and has new clubs birthed from the new estates, and also from the ever-growing migrant communities from the Middle East and East African communities who seek the social activity from their homeland.

Granville is the 6th largest association in NSW with 13,001 players, playing on 80 full sized fields and 7 separate mini fields (87 in total). Some quick division would show that Granville has 154 players for every field within its association, above the 140 per field average for Sydney (stated in Cockerill’s article).

Before the chest beating in anger begins, one needs to ask the question – is 140 players per field too much, too little or the right number of people, who should play and train on a football field. The National Facilities Audit conducted by the FFA back in 2010, Cockerill quoted statistics from it in August of last year:

“In Sydney, the audit covered 576 venues, incorporating 1477 pitches used to service 700 clubs and more than 200,000 players.”

A question does need to be asked if the 200,000 players are based on Football NSW’s statistics on ‘registered outdoor players’. If that is the case, the number is much lower, because this figure includes associations on the Central and South Coast, and regional NSW. The actual number of registered players in Sydney is just under 157,000 (this includes State League Clubs, who mainly reside in Sydney).

Arguing over what is the correct statistics actually leads to one of the central issues – why would the FFA not release a tax-funded report for the Australian football community, so we can debate and come up with better solutions?

Proper analysis and solutions to the challenges that confronts football in Australia is what is required. One the key reasons (not necessarily the main) is that we don’t have the critical information in front of us, to be able to come up with intelligent solutions. The discourse is then lead by a few gatekeepers of information, which breeds generalisations, innuendo and uninformed prognosis.

Back to Granville Association….

Within Granville, the Hills District is where the bulk of the players come from with clubs such as Castle Hill United (1,276 players), Winston Hills (1,196), Kellyville (995), Baulkham Hills (898) and at the base of the area Pendle Hill (771). If concentration on lobbying local councils for more grounds is required, in the case of Granville Association (plus FNSW and FFA), the Hills Shire Council would be first point of call. By understanding the ratio of players to grounds, administrators can focus their efforts rather than use a scattergun approach.

At the bottom end the smaller clubs are made up of former Churches association clubs who merged into the local area, and clubs from the traditional heartland of Granville – its namesake suburb, Guildford, Auburn and Lidcombe. These club have 2-12 teams.

This leads to the next area of strategic decision making when it comes to securing grounds and improving facilities – are the grounds allocated effectively?

Pendle Hill has 4 grounds to service its 771 players, which equates to 193 players per field. Originally this club had only 3 fields, but thanks to the rugby union team vanishing they were able to secure the fourth field, to much relief of the club.

But when looking at this straight number, one has to keep in mind that Small Sided Games (SSG) has meant that more games can be played on one field at anyone time. Prior to the introduction of SSG, under 6’s for example played half field. Now on the same size field you can play 4 games at any one time. Lessening the requirement for more full sized fields. If a club’s playing stocks are heavily skewed towards pre-teens, then the question that needs to be asked is do we need more full sized fields? Or can we come up with more creative solutions by procuring small parcels of land from the council’s parklands for mini fields?

But as those of us who played park football are well aware, this issue needs to take into consideration training needs. Most teams train on Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday nights. This is so that they don’t train to close or too far from the match day. Go to a field on any of these nights you can see 4-6 teams trying to train on their small patch of turf.

This issue needs to be addressed through scheduling of games, and changing the mindset that games specifically need to be played on weekends. Does over 35s need to be played on weekends, when more than likely a lot of these teams don’t train? Why not play Monday nights when hardly anyone uses the grounds? This would stop juniors and men’s competitions tying to be crammed into Saturdays. By spreading the days games are played, means that Fridays can be used for training nights, relieving the congestion. Some associations already split men’s and junior competitions on separate days to ensure field availability, but why can’t nights be an option?

If we look at 2 clubs within the suburb of Guildford they operate on the other end of the spectrum to Pendle Hill. Guildford County has 282 players, 3 playing fields that equates to 94 players per field. Holroyd Rangers has 2 full sized fields and one mini field for its 184 players (62 players per field).

This is a major contrast between sizes of clubs, and does go back to the central question of what is the right number of players per field. But a new question then arrives – should associations work on merging smaller clubs? Apart from citing the benefits of local clubs being larger – improved purchasing power for equipment, more attractive to sponsors, offering a full compliment of age groups  – what it does do is free up grounds so larger clubs can expand and have the right allocation of fields-to-players.

This is where the hard decision-making comes in. Some clubs may cite they don’t want to merge because of history, and the years that they have serviced the local community. But as reality dawns that their time is fading, this should not be the point of argument, but shift to what is best way to service football in the community. A small club may not offer the full compliment of services due to shortages of resources (volunteers, equipment and finances), but a larger club could offer better services through sheer numbers alone.

The alarming aspect of Cockerill’s call to arms is the fact why such a people’s campaign of sharing stories is required. There has been a lot of talk about securing and improving facilities for football, and there are pockets of proactive approaches, such the Victorian and South Australian football bodies attempting to improve the situation.

Football NSW in its strategic plan lists by 2015 to have, “Undertaken a Facilities Strategy, which identifies and prioritises the Sport’s facilities requirements.” Granville Association in its business plan lists that it would aims to grow participation, but lacks detail on how it will service the increase in demand.

Lots of plans, lots of discussion, and an audit; yet no clear and concise strategy.

As discussed throughout there is a lot of work for one association alone to do, before the request for extra money and grounds. A clear understanding of which clubs needs more grounds, a grading of facilities to determine which need repairs or upgrades, can clubs be merged so grounds are used effectively, improved scheduling of match fixtures, and a determination of what types of grounds are required (full or mini sized fields). Once football has come up with the details, it can then start to plan what it needs (even a cost-benefit analysis on installing more synthetic pitches).

By being proactive and professional, with a plan for the future; local councils and state governments might take football more seriously when it requests for more funds, grounds, and improved facilities.

 

Note: Registered player numbers sourced from Granville Association and FNSW Annual Reports for 2011. These are the latest statistics available.