Mid-Solent League determined to be ‘adventurous and imaginative’ in arresting recent grassroots football history
The Mid-Solent League are aiming to fly in the face of recent grassroots football history - by welcoming more teams than they bid farewell to.
Portsmouth is by no means alone in losing many Saturday and Sunday League teams in the last couple of decades.
As a result of falling numbers, the Portsmouth Saturday League - only founded in 2000 - took the brave decision to move under the Mid Solent Youth League umbrella two years ago.
The adult league’s assistant secretary, Rob England, is hoping the move will soon start to bear the fruits of more teams playing on a Saturday afternoon.
‘We have obviously seen the number of teams diminishing in recent years,’ he said.
‘That’s not a Portsmouth problem, and it’s not a Hampshire problem either - it’s a nationwide issue and we’re trying to address it.
‘We’re not going to sit on our hands and wait for the problem to solve itself, because it won’t.
‘We have to be imaginative in trying to find more teams.’
The logic behind the Portsmouth Saturday League’s switch to the Mid-Solent competition was - and still is - perfectly simple.
In the Portsmouth area, the numbers of children playing the game remains high.
The long-standing Mid-Solent Youth League boasts a large number of divisions ranging from under-7 all the way through to under-18 and even under-19.
The problem is often youth teams fold when they reach those latter age groups - sometimes because of the hassle of having to find an adult league to play in.
England is hopeful that the now ‘seamless’ transition route now in place from the MSL youth to adult section can cut out some of the problems that previously existed.
‘It’s retaining the kids that can be the issue,’ he explained.
‘The Mid Solent Youth League and the Portsmouth Sunday Youth League have good numbers.
‘We’ve got around 3,500 kids playing on a Saturday morning and I’m told there’s 4-4,500 in the Portsmouth Youth League as well.
‘Those are brilliant numbers.’
There are signs of a revival already. At present, Stubbington under-19s are due to enter the Mid-Solent League for 2020/21 - raising the number to 12 clubs.
‘They will soon be playing some friendlies against the Mid-Solent clubs,’ said England. ‘We are calling them ‘enhanced friendlies’ because they are being organised by the league.
‘We started off last season with 10 clubs and now we have 11. We lost one (Blue Anchor) last summer but we gained Rowner Rovers and Cowplain.
‘I know it doesn’t sound much, but we have got more teams now than when we started.’
England admits leagues such as his have taken a metaphorical kicking from ‘societal issues’ that didn’t exist a generation ago.
‘I know some youngsters always move away from the area every year to go to University, and I know a lot have Saturday jobs now,’ he said.
‘I’m also aware there are many other attractions these days apart from playing sport.
‘We can’t address the societal issues, so we have to try other things to make it easier to attract teams.’
One way is to make it cheaper. Many people involved in local league football complain about how expensive it can be, and England is fully aware of the moans.
The Mid-Solent League have a development fund which has previously been used to give new clubs free entry to the league and cup tournaments as well as free player registrations. The fund’s pursestrings could well be opened again in 2020 if needs be.
The MSL are also ‘encouraging’ member adult clubs to attain the Charter Standard status that is mandatory for youth teams. Launched in 2001, the Charter Standard is the national FA’s accreditation scheme aimed at raising - as the name indicates - standards.
‘It’s not as onerous for adult teams as it can be for youth teams who obviously have child protection issues,’ explains England. ‘But part of the Charter Standard status is you have to have someone fully qualified in first aid and we pay for that course, and we give the club a first aid kit.
‘We also tend to find that clubs that have the Charter Standard status tend to be longer lasting.’
The Mid-Solent League could also benefit via better links with the University of Portsmouth.
The Portsmouth Divisional FA, Portsmouth City Council and the Hampshire FA are involved in discussions to try and boost student playing numbers.
The University of Portsmouth won the Portsmouth Saturday League in 2009/10, earning themselves promotion to the Hampshire Premier League.
After finishing third and fifth in their first two seasons, the Uni were bottom of the top flight in 2012/13. They began the following campaign in the second tier but withdrew halfway through, and have never returned to the local leagues.
It is a sign of recent times - but not a good one - that of the 10 teams who formed the top flight of the Portsmouth Saturday League a decade ago, only one (Wymering) is still in the Mid-Solent set-up.
Of the 10 teams that made up the second tier - there were four divisions in 2009/10, untold riches compared to today - only Segensworth remain in the Mid-Solent.
England - also secretary of the Portsmouth FA (‘many people in local football wear more than one hat!’) - explained: ‘I know we lose a lot of youngsters from this area to university, but there are also a lot who come to Portsmouth to study.
‘Are we giving those who want to play football - and who might not play for the university teams or in the intramural league - the best chance to play?
‘In the past the Portsmouth Saturday League had university teams, and so did the Hampshire League.
‘I know it can be tricky as their term times don’t always mesh with league fixtures, but perhaps we have to be a bit more flexible.
‘We don’t want to be dogmatic and telling people ‘this is how it will happen.’ We want to ask them ‘how can we make it happen?
‘The days when leagues could turn away clubs are long gone.
‘In recent years we’ve lost two leagues - the Dockyard League and the Havant League - while the Solent League merged with the Gosport & Fareham League.
‘We are trying to build our league back up again, and we are doing it by being adventurous and imaginative.
‘We’ve got a social media guy who is a mentor for other leagues introducing social media. We’ve given him a video camera to go to games with - it’s about showing people that we’re a progressive-thinking league.’