Football: Grass roots game is in grave danger of dying out despite popularity of Premier League

    FOOTBALL is not like other sports. You can come from any background, you don’t need equipment – and there is a firmament of stars to look up to, writes Andrew Tong

    Only last week we reported on 17-year-old Sammie McLeod, who fulfilled his dream by signing for Leicester City. Who wouldn’t want to do that?

    So it may come as a shock to hear the game is in deep trouble at the bottom of the pyramid.

    This summer the Tonbridge & District Football League will be disbanded after 119 years of existence. That’s back into the 19th century. It’s a real shame.

    It has gone down from seven divisions to three, then two, and last season there was just one league of 10 teams. It has elected to fold because some of the clubs who are still taking part may decide not to carry on.

    “The clubs have fallen by the wayside,” admits the league’s Chairman, Bill Warner, who has been involved with Tonbridge Invicta FC for 50 seasons.

    “That’s the trouble with grass roots 11-a-side football. There’s a simple lack of numbers.”

    Many leagues are in a similar position, even in Maidstone – though Sevenoaks & District has been boosted by picking up teams who are leaving the Tonbridge set-up in droves.

    “They are picking up our teams now,” says Mr Warner. “Six of our clubs left when they saw what was happening here and they decided they wanted something more competitive.”

    So what’s behind the decline? “Lads start at seven or eight, they play for 10 or 12 years, then they go to university and suddenly they’re lost to football. They’ve got so many other things these days, money in their pockets, cars and girls.”

    The West Kent Sunday Football League is another sad example. They are celebrating their 50th season, but they used to have 80 teams – now it’s down to 40.

    It’s not just the young players, however, according to Mr Warner. “There’s a lack of people helping to run the teams now too. They only want to do it for a couple of seasons.”

    The former free-scoring centre forward laments: “I’ve been involved in football since 1959. Some of us have put a lot of time and effort into the league. It’s very sad for us to see it go.”