‘Grassroots football in Leighton-Linslade in danger of dying’ warns league chairman

The chairman and secretary of the Leighton and District Sunday League is calling on the town council to provide more pitches or face the death of grassroots football.

Andy Tipping told the LBO he feels there is a sorry lack of council-run football grounds in the area causes matches to be cancelled regularly and difficulties in finding places to play.

AFC Oldhill (yellow) v Sportsmans Arms (blue) in a semi-final, at Pages Park, Leighton Buzzard.

AFC Oldhill (yellow) v Sportsmans Arms (blue) in a semi-final, at Pages Park, Leighton Buzzard.

The Leighton and District Sunday League currently has over 30 adult clubs including Leighton Madrid, Leighton Borough, and Leighton RedBulls, but Andy fears this number will dwindle unless action is taken soon.

He said: “In essence there is Astral Park and when that gets wet, it leaves nowhere unless we can get other privately owned pitches. But they are normally all booked up on Sundays.

“It’s also only got four changing rooms and the parking facilities get muddy. It leaves the teams in Leighton Buzzard with nowhere to play and this does not encourage juniors to migrate to senior teams when they are at an age to do so. It is really disheartening, because there is a massive gap in football currently and at grassroots it is dying.

“We really need a campaign for the council to re-open or re designate pitches at a number of locations which have disappeared to ensure that we can hold games, otherwise teams will continue to disappear.”

Andy says that there has been a drop in numbers in Sunday League and grassroots football, declining by approximately 30 per cent over the years. This was neither helped by the bad weather in January and February, when around three matches a week were axed.

He claimed: “The town council seems more interested in raising money with events at Astral Park, rather than supporting football. Where’s the investment in more pitches? The Vynes closed three years ago, with two pitches lost, while three usable Pages Park pitches closed around the same time.

“Matches being cancelled and the lack of pitches is then a contributing factor to managers and secretaries quitting, teams folding, there not being enough volunteers, and young players not progressing and advancing their careers.

“It also discourages local sponsorship, as teams are forced to play in Dunstable instead of Leighton Buzzard.

“People have raised the issue of the lack of pitches with Leighton-Linslade Town Council over the last two seasons and we just find that facilities are being withdrawn. There used to be pitches at Vandyke Road and Mentmore Road, too, and these have also disappeared from use.”

He added: “Teams have remained static but people have got older and when teams fold now, there are very few new teams.

“If games aren’t played, then players lose interest and clubs don’t get the subs that players play. It also then ends up with games having to be played mid-week, so people have to take time off work.

“The council loses revenue until the game is played and if a game is abandoned then the pitch still needs to be paid for.

“It’s the 50th anniversary of the Leighton and District Sunday League next season and I hope people will get behind this campaign.”

A Leighton-Linslade Town Council spokesman, said: “Football (both adult and junior) is taking place at Astral Park.

“This season, it is anticipated that a total of 500 matches will be played at Astral Park. There are operational as well as cost benefits in concentrating football at Astral Park. However, the town council does have the capacity to move football elsewhere should it be required.

“In consultation with the Sport England and the Football Association, the expectation that a team will have its own designated changing room no longer applies. Changing rooms are expensive to build and manage. Instead, all teams are offered lockers in which to store their belongings and have access to changing rooms and showers should they need them.

“Astral Park has a total of 70 parking spaces and when required, overflow parking can be accommodated on grassed areas. On busy match days, we employ a car parking marshall to make car parking as efficient as possible. We will continue to work with teams to encourage players to car share in order to reduce the number of cars we have to accommodate on site at any particular time.

“If the pitches are found to be unplayable, football can be moved elsewhere and has been done so. This year, the weekend ofFebruary 2-3 was cancelled due to lying snow otherwise football has continued at Astral Park.

“Can I remind your readers that Astral Park is not a dedicated football resource. A significant contribution of the construction costs came from the S106 Agreement for the Sandhills development.

“Its purpose is to offer the parish a facility it could readily use for community activities (including but not exclusively football). Whilst a community use, the expectation is that the facility is used as much as practicable in order to reduce the tax burden that council tax payers have to pay in order to subsidise its on-going running.

“Regarding the claims about the demise of local football, which is blamed on the lack of football pitches, if it is found that there is a demonstrable shortage of playing pitches, then yes, we would be pleased to investigate this further.

“For example our records show that the take up of junior football continues to increase with year-on-year increases for the past three seasons.

“Sadly, the interest in the senior game is waning.”

The town council also challenged Mr Tipping’s suggestion that too many matches have been cancelled.

The spokesman added: “The intention has always been that football would move to Astral Park once the facility was fully operational.

“In a typical year, over 500 games are played there. From an operational perspective, there are economies of scale and cost savings to be achieved in having football played in one location. Both the Vynes (football last played there three years ago) and Page’s Park (football last played there two years ago) remain as contingency sites should for whatever reason it prove impossible to play football at Astral Park.

“Football has not been played at Vandyke Road for over seven years now. The pitch has sunk in places making it impossible to continue to play football without having to spend a considerable amount of tax payers money in remedial works. With football having now been moved to Astral Park, investing money in remedial works there is not considered an appropriate use of financial resources.

“During the 2016/17 season, a total of 14 games were cancelled at Astral Park due to pitches being either waterlogged or frozen (which represents 2.8 per cent of the total 500 games played.

“During the 2017/18 season, a total of 28 games were cancelled due to snow/frozen or waterlogged pitches (which represents 5.2 per cent of the total 500 games played. I don’t think your readers need reminding of the ‘Beast from the East’ which ravaged the country for several months during which business let alone outdoor sport came to a standstill.

“For municipal pitches that are not covered and subject to whatever the great British weather can throw at them, the number of cancellations whilst frustrating is not unusual for a typical municipal run facility. With Astral Park being the recognised base for municipal football within the parish, we will continue to invest in the maintenance and upgrade of the pitches over the coming years.”