Grassroots football came to an abrupt halt across Merseyside on Sunday as teams boycotted matches in protest at rising pitch fees and a lack of investment from football authorities and the government.
Around 300 people gathered in freezing conditions at Camp Hill in Liverpool, home to the FA Chartered Standard club Woolton FC, to call for the Premier League to give 7.5% of broadcasting income – currently a record £5.5bn for the 2013-16 period – into the grassroots game. The Premier League originally agreed to give 5% of its total income to grassroots football but that has fallen to below 1% with the organisation, the government and Football Association each cutting contributions from £20m to £12m a year.
Similar events were held nationwide, including at Hackney Marshes in London, as the Save Grassroots Football campaign attempts to force a parliament debate on the lack of investment via an e-petition on direct.gov.uk. The campaign founder, Kenny Saunders, said: "The main aim is to get more investment from the Premier League but the protest is not just aimed at the Premier League. Local councils are increasing pitch fees across the country and kids, or their parents, can't afford it. We want to raise awareness of the e-petition.
"This isn't just about Merseyside. The same thing is happening in Manchester, Newcastle and London. Walsall council have just increased their pitch fees by 300%. I think many councils are waiting for this e-petition to finish in February before they announce their own pitch fee rises but we won't be going away."
Approximately 95% of junior football teams on Merseyside agreed to boycott matches this weekend to join the protest, before councils postponed matches due to waterlogged pitches – a decision that underlined the campaign's argument about poor facilities.
"Matches are called off week-in, week-out from December to February because of poor facilities and waterlogged pitches," Saunders added. "That's eight to 12 weekends of football that is being lost. If you missed eight to 12 weeks of school you would fall miles behind and, to me, that's why the kids in this country are miles behind other countries in terms of their football development."
Public sector cuts have impacted on the grassroots game due to local authorities raising pitch fees. A glaring example was given at the Camp Hill protest, where representatives of the Bootle, Litherland and Netherton Junior Football League revealed the extent of the costs being demanded by Sefton Council.
Colin Chadd, league secretary, said: "We had a meeting with Sefton Council in October when they said their pitch fees would not be increased. We paid £2,015 last year for the full use of 10 pitches on Buckley Hill and three pitches at Brookvale. On Friday I received a letter saying that this year we would have to pay £5,320.
"After 20 years they have changed from charging teams a block fee for the pitches to charging per team per game. The cost of maintaining a pitch is the same but this way they can charge more money from teams. We'd have to double the amount we charge kids in subs to cover these costs. We won't be paying it."
Saunders called on Liverpool and Everton, indeed all Premier League clubs, to invest more in a grassroots system that provides them with Youth Academy hopefuls from as young as five years old. Kevin Duffy, of the Skelmersdale and Ormskirk League, told the protest: "Over 1,000 kids have missed football in our league this weekend to make a statement about lack of investment in grassroots football. What is going on is wrong. No kid was born in a Premier League club's academy. They all start in grassroots football and we need to protect it."