Bold thinking and big changes required

Let’s face it, amateur football’s not in a great place at the moment and everyone has their own theory or opinion on what the problem is. This season alone has seen the Northern Ireland Amateur Football League lose some of the big names like Nortel, Donard Hospital, Temple Rangers and many more are on the ropes. Attendances are down, youth leagues are crumbling and the appetite for football seems to be at an all time low. The same line is trotted out over and over…’it’s not the same nowadays, young ones don’t care’…is that really whats going on? Is it just a different era and theres nothing to be done?…surely not?

Youth

At Kilmore Rec we are extremely fortunate that we have a flourishing and vibrant youth academy headed up by 2 of the Irish Leagues best in Andrew Waterworth and Michael Carvill supported by an extremely dedicated band of coaches and volunteers. I have spoken to many clubs out there not so lucky in this department and there is no doubt they are suffering for it. The lack of clear pathways from youth football to senior sides is clearly an issue and a factor which will see any club struggle. Implementing a sustainable youth policy and clear pathways to develop players and coaches is a very significant and important core value for any club.

Community engagement

In my last post ‘Success: What is it? What does it mean for your club…’ I touched on a few areas that may be a measure of success for a club and I outlined the aim of our own constitution.

“The purposes of the Club are to promote the amateur sports of Association Football in Co. Down and community participation in the same.”

A couple of key words in there are ‘Community Engagement’…you could almost miss it but it is such an important factor for clubs and their continued existence. The community is the lifeblood of the club, they ARE the players, they ARE the volunteers, they ARE the supporters…the community IS the club.

These two core principals, policies, values or whatever you want to call them should be a top priority for any club wishing to remain relevant and continue in existence. Remove one of these legs and your club falls…it may take a while, there may be a few well meaning rescue bids put in but it will eventually come crashing down.

If you stand still, you go backwards

I feel sorry for clubs like Nortel who were born out of our industrial past. These old ‘factory’ teams had a different kind of community and a different style of pathway…the factory floor. As long as the doors remained open and there was sustained and fresh employment then these factory teams had a chance. However as we have seen many times over, as soon as the doors of the factory close, its a slow road to extinction for the club. Ive heard many business owners say ‘if you stand still, you go backwards’ – adapting to changing circumstances and changing times is key to success. Perhaps theres the lesson?

Perhaps its time to start asking ourselves are we standing still? Are we in danger of slowly falling into insignificance and being bypassed by more progressive and future proof sports? What’s working? What can we change? Can we afford not to change?

Rugby & GAA

I have to admit that on occasions I look with envy on Rugby & GAA and its not because a player might chose to play Gaelic or Rugby over soccer or because they have attendances that some Irish League clubs could only dream of. Im envious because they get it…not just the local clubs but the leagues and governing bodies…they understand the spectator, they understand the player and they understand the values of community engagement at all levels. Of course there are factors in play in this country that lend itself to one sport or another but that aside….they get it!

GAA

The GAA have a very simple county structure providing the perfect backdrop for local derbies, local passion, communities coming together to support their team taking on the neighbouring town or village. 

They have one governing body who oversees grassroots via county boards and this is replicated right across every county, streamlining youth and senior football. 

They have one cup competition ‘The Championship’ and in many eyes this is prized above any league campaign. The one and only chance to succeed in a knockout competition in a season is such a draw that it commands serious attention, dedication and following.

Soccer on the other hand has a mismatch of leagues and cup competitions, each league with its own vision, rules, regulations, age sections, affiliations etc. A confusing mess that serves nobody apart from those in power and clubs with financial draw. I can’t imagine that any coherent strategic thinking could be developed or filtered through a system with so many independent leagues with their own visions and agendas. 

Up until last season Kilmore participated in five cups throughout a season…FIVE…forgive me if i’m wrong but it dilutes the prestige, it removes the significance and ultimately fails to grab peoples attention.

I look at the GAA’s model and see a simple and natural system – Clean and efficient, encouraging community engagement. Its not magic or something to look on with suspicion, its an opportunity to learn, its an opportunity to see what works and what does not. Don’t get me wrong, the GAA are far from perfect and theres a lot about the Soccer community I wouldn’t change for the world but ultimately there are areas requiring root and branch reform and surely looking at other ‘business models’ isn’t a bad thing.

Its Northern Ireland, not Spain

We also need to face up to the fact we are living in Northern Ireland and not Spain. Winter leagues do not help anyone. Trying to encourage players to train and participate on cold winter nights in January is becoming a hard sell and its not any easier trying to tease your local support out on a wet Saturday when there is wall to wall football coverage in front of the fire. The winter also brings with it increased expenses training on 3G flood lit facilities, lost matches due to poor pitches, poor light forces 2pm Sat kick offs which is in direct competition with premier league coverage and Irish league attendances.

Lets face it, theres not many queuing up to travel on a Sat afternoon to Islandmagee or Larne…or Windsor Park for that matter. I know spectators would much rather travel to a local ground to face a local rival and catch up with people they know and competed against. Local clubs would benefit from increased attendances, increased revenue, reduced training costs and reduced man power repairing cut up pitches. 

I cant imagine anything better than a nice warm midweek evening walking up to a local ground with two local teams competing for a local league or a local cup. It makes sense for the players, it makes sense for the spectators and it makes sense for the clubs.

Bold moves – big changes

Is it not about time we start making big changes for the betterment of the game. Its all very well spending millions on the National Stadium or Windsor Park or what ever you want to call it when the grassroots game is slowly crumbling. Make it easier for clubs, participants, spectators, the community as a whole and be bold!

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