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A Magazine for Sheffield

Pitch Perfect: The Grassroots of the Beautiful Game

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Neil Carribine

Wipe away football's veneer of modernity and the game is as it's always been: shackled to an archaic structure and fraught with cultural toxicity.

But there is an immense power to the sport, one that can draw communities together and provide valuable support. In Sheffield, many initiatives are hard at work expanding the availability and applications of grassroots football.

Independent women's club AFC Unity represent a demonstrable commitment to social change. Not content with championing inclusivity within football, the team partners with local foodbanks, encouraging supporters and matchday attendees to donate unwanted food. Current figures stand at over 1,000 kilograms collected across nearly 30 events. "The environment and ethos of positivity, inclusion, feminism and solidarity impacts upon the local community around us," says club co-founder Jane Watkinson, "whether that be by food bank collections or through supporting collective bargaining of trade unions to fight low pay and increasingly poor working conditions."

In Hillsborough, Sheffield FC's Disability Team welcomes players living with a wide range of disabilities. Though the club promises game time for every player and describe themselves as 'about inclusion, not results,' success has nevertheless followed, with coach Peter Donohoe guiding his under-12s to 7-a-side victory earlier this year.

Grassroots football has a great effect on communities

"[We] see the positive role that football and being part of a team can have on the progressive development of kids and young adults," says Donohoe. "All abilities and disabilities can mix and learn from each other [...] I'd like to see this provide some of our younger kids with new skills to hopefully cope better in what for some of them will be an incredibly challenging future in modern society."

Such examples of positive change at a local level mask the unfair social burden placed on grassroots initiatives. The top flight's wild financial success has fundamentally failed to enrich the lower leagues, with the more sinister psychological effects of wealth manifesting in its stead. "The ethos is trickling down [...] affecting clubs' development teams and plans," laments Watkinson. "Hopefully a time comes when the profit motive doesn't influence the football landscape the way it is doing now." Donohoe condemns the 'brutal reality' of youth team football and the disposability of young players. "Fans want success, but at what cost?"

Mental health charity Sheffield Flourish acts to ease these modern pressures, their work with Brunsmeer Awareness FC embracing the sport's wellbeing benefits. "We pass each other at the bus stop or see each other at the shop, but it's too rare that we get together with our neighbours and have a laugh," says Jo Eckersley, Deputy Managing Director at Flourish. "Grassroots football has a great effect on communities because it's one of the glues that helps bind them."

In recent months, the Sheffield & Hallamshire County FA have partnered with Flourish to create the Flourish League, a place where adults with experience of mental health problems can play together and a revamp of the Good Mood League. Sam Firth, FA Football Development Officer for Disability, has big plans for the project. "We are hoping, through our work with Flourish, that we will gain better exposure for the league and get other organisations involved."

Firth explains the FA is working hard to "increase youth level participation and provide better access to the disabled game." He states a desire at county level to be more proactive on inclusivity. "We are aware of the barriers to the game and will be working with local partners who can support us to help people overcome those barriers."

These are just a small number of the groups across the country promoting football's holistic benefits, to the individual and the community. And while it seems unimaginable that the sport's upper echelons might one day shed their profit motive, it's the local game that proudly upholds football's duty of care as the nation's biggest sport.

Nick Burke

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