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The rapid decline of 11-a-side football, why exactly are we seeing it die a death in the UK?

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11-a-side football in England is in huge decline

Football. Regardless of how much ability you either were, or were not blessed with, the chances are that if you're reading this article, you enjoy playing it to some degree. You could be a Sunday League superstar, semi-professional 'nearly man' or just simply avoid it all together because you've realised that by now you've got two left feet and are best off spectating from the sidelines.

Whatever your disposition though, there will be plenty of football teams up and down the country ready to welcome you with open arms should you wish to lace up the boots of a Saturday afternoon. Well, at least there would have been ten years ago. Now, the sad truth is that the 11-a-side version of our beautiful game is in jeopardy of completely disbanding due to participation levels dropping and more and more clubs calling it a day each and every season.

The amateur game in England has suffered a catastrophic decline in recent years, with a 2015 study commissioned by the FA revealing that an astonishing 2,360 grassroots football teams had folded in a three year period between 2012-2015. Alongside this unwelcoming statistic is an even more depressing one - approximately 180,000 players aged 16+ had dropped out of the game since 2005.

So, why exactly are we seeing such a rapid decline in 11-a-side football within England? There are a number of factors, from the rise of accessible 5-a-side leagues to a lack in funding at grassroots level. The bottom end of the footballing pyramid has been neglected for years now, and players have become fed up with it.

Increased travel in semi-professional leagues

If you were to rock up to any public playing field on a Saturday afternoon, you will be greeted with a sea of footballers with extremely limited ability. What you will also see however, is one or two players who stand out from the rest, players that would draw comments such as: "why is he playing at this level?" The reason, in most of these cases, would be because of the extensive travelling required at the lower end of the 'semi-professional' ladder.

Step 5 & 6 of non-league football is where players started getting paid to play, as opposed to paying to play. The money involved is minimal however and usually only works on a performance related basis (£30 if your team wins, nothing for a draw or defeat). As such, many players are left thinking 'is this really worth it?'

Football at this level is of course not about the money, it is merely a minor perk and the fact that you get to play on better, floodlit pitches with FA registered linesmen provided instead of Big Dave from the pub, is why players want to play at this level. However, with the 'big bucks' not paid until you reach step 2-3 of the non-league pyramid (usually around £250-400 a week regardless of the result), but a similar amount of travelling required, a huge influx of players with the ability to play at a higher level have decided to knock it on the head and just play for fun with their mates, and it's hard to argue why.

Why would you travel 40/50 miles on a Saturday afternoon or Tuesday night for the chance to be paid £30 if you win, when you could instead play in a much less complex division which requires minimum travel, effort and has a much bigger social draw to it? A huge number of players have become fed up with the travelling required in the lower end of the semi-professional game which still has little financial reward available, instead opting to play in more local amateur leagues, or just quit all together.

The rise of accessible 5-a-side

Perhaps one of the biggest reasons the 11-a-side game is suffering so much in England is the rise in well ran, accessible 5-a-side football centre's throughout the country. Almost every city you visit in the UK will have a Powerleague or Goals facility, with pitches available for hire for between £50-£65 an hour. With games lasting about 40 minutes, the shortened version of the game has now taken over in Britain.

Players of all abilities are now more inclined to turn up on a midweek evening, enjoy a really competitive game of football on a flawless surface with their mates and be done within about an hour. Their weekend's are not effected by their 5-a-side participation in the week, freeing up more time for them to either watch their favoured professional side in action on a Saturday, or spend it with family etc.

5-a-side football is fantastic, there's no denying this and it's unquestionable that over the next ten years we will see it continue to grow, but what does that mean for the 11-a-side game? Further disaster, in a nutshell. We are already seeing record numbers of amateur footballers drop out of full-sized Saturday football, instead opting to participate in one of the thousands of 5-a-side leagues registered throughout the country, hosted every single night of the week between Monday-Friday.

It's all down to convenience, and with absolutely nothing being done by the government to help increase the popularity of 11-a-side football in the UK, all we will continue to see is more and more players decide that a game of 5-a-side each week will be a sufficient fulfilment for their football fix.

There has been an 11% rise in 5-a-side teams competing in the UK since 2014, which unlike the 11-a-side game is inclusive of players from all ages, gender, races and ability. It's a broader entity, which appears to be much more manageable for people who have busy work lives and little time to spare, unlike the 90 minute game which requires so much time and effort to maintain on a weekly basis.

Many are now choosing to play 5-a-side football instead of 11-a-side.

Lack of quality playing surfaces and facilities

Unsurprisingly, a huge factor contributing towards the rapid demise of 11-a-side football in the UK is down to a lack of quality facilities and playing surfaces. Council owned pitches which are maintained to the basic degree due to a lack of funding from the government simply are not enjoyable to play on, with thousands now swerving the idea after suffering injuries such as rolled ankles thanks to a bobbly playing surface littered with rubbish and dog faeces.

Throughout winter, almost every amateur side will experience postponements due to adverse weather conditions. Even clubs competing in the professional lower leagues have to cope with such problems, however for the sides at the very foot of the pyramid playing out their fixtures on Britains public playing fields, even the slightest bit of rainfall will see a match postponed.

Without the ability to complete these rescheduled fixtures in midweek due to a lack of floodlighting, what happens is games then just get added on to the fixture list right at the end of the campaign when the season should be over and done with. Players will miss these matches due to holidays and other pre-planned commitments, leaving the club in a hugely difficult position.

In summary, players could go through an entire winter playing just one or two games, missing out because their team's poorly funded pitch cannot handle the British weather conditions, but then be faced with a hugely unwanted backlog of games right at the end of the season when everyone else has finished playing.

It's a vicious circle that has been going on for decades, however years ago there were no other options, players were forced to get on with it or they wouldn't be able to play the game. Now, there's the option of midweek 5-a-side football in high-tech, modern facilities and more people are swaying towards that idea, each and every season.

Thugs disguised as footballers

In a recent article written by the Telegraph, Rod Sutherland, who is secretary of the Southampton Saturday Football League revealed that just 15 years ago there were 182 teams competing across 13 different divisions on a Saturday afternoon. These days that number has fallen drastically to 43 teams spent over just six divisions, highlighting just how many people have seemingly given up and thrown the towel in on the 11-a-side game. So aside from what we've already mentioned, what else could be deterring people?

Well, a huge issue that faces the amateur game is the hostile environment the pitch has turned into over the years. Football is of course a passionate sport in which tempers can often flare and draw out confrontation, it wouldn't be the same without its competitive nature.

What it has become for many narrow-minded, violent individuals though is an opportunity to go out and release their anger by kicking their opponents around the pitch without consequence. Though the sentence 'it's only a game' is one of the most offensive things you can say to any devoted footballing disciple, beneath the surface and in the grand scheme of things, it is true. So why are there so many nutters out there who have to ruin it for the rest of us?

Anyone willing to give up their spare time for the love of the game isn't expecting much back, just the chance to enjoy themselves between the white lines for an hour and a half with their mates. What they don't expect is to be confronted by some maniac who feels that the only way to release his pent up frustrations in life is to kick lumps out of anyone who dares to try and take the ball off him.

You just don't need it, do you? Not when you're not getting paid for it. Not when you've got work on Monday morning and could really do with your legs working. The trouble is, these thugs are everywhere in amateur football, further harming the sports reputation, and with most referees at that level over the age of 50 and unable to control them, they'll continue to run riot and further discourage participation from the players who would make the game enjoyable.

A generation dominated by the digital revolution

With football's prominence on social media increasing 10-fold in recent years, alongside the millions of money being pumped into TV rights, no matter where you are in the world, at what ever time, you can grab your football fix. There are now people who play Fifa on games consoles for money, with some even forging successful careers out of it.

Almost every night of the week there is a fairly appetising game shown live on the television, which has lead to a vast amount of people who used to actually go outside and physically play the game instead just watching it from the comfort of their sofa.

People now have time-poor lifestyle's, with only the very dedicated still happy to devote their free time to a mid-week training session (sometimes two) and a 90 minute match on the weekend. They would much rather stay in and watch one of the hundreds of matches available to them at the touch of a button, perhaps making time for a quick game of 5-a-side through the week, but nothing else.

There is of course nothing wrong with any of this, it falls completely down to personal preference, and with work and family commitments to consider, the choice has been made for many people over the years whether it's what they really wanted or not.

The sad reality is, there just isn't enough interest there anymore. Dress it up any way you like, but with a lack of funding made available at grassroots level making facilities at the very bottom of the pyramid almost unplayable, and the obscene amount of football now shown on TV, people would much rather just play down Goals for an hour in the week. Soon enough, we will see this once spectacular activity which captivated so many throughout the last 50+ years fall by the wayside all together and it's a huge, huge shame.

With the amount of money pumped into TV rights, people prefer to stay in instead of physically playing football.