IF money was no object, I’d be on a bus to Derby today to support my beloved Barnsley FC. The truth is that I haven’t been to an away game this season. And neither has my son Jack.
Watching football has been on our “luxuries” list for a few years now. We haven’t had a season ticket since 2011. When the time came for renewal, it was a straight choice between that or a new laptop for work. The laptop won, otherwise I probably wouldn’t be writing this.
I know it’s the same for many families. Football, for so long regarded as a working-class sport, is rapidly becoming unaffordable. Watching it is expensive enough. An adult ticket to see even a modest club like my own can cost in the region of £25. That’s around a quarter of my weekly food and household budget. And that’s before I factor in the cost of taking Jack, transport, and luxury of luxuries, a programme.
It’s not just going to a game, though. Even the cost of being an armchair supporter is becoming unsustainable. Every time I go through my monthly outgoings, I wrestle with the direct debit for Sky television. Can we really justify paying to watch football? What would life be like in this house if we couldn’t switch on a big cup match? Would Jack leave home in protest? Would I leave home with him? I keep handing over the cash, but I’m not sure for how much longer.
And don’t get me started on the price of football shirts. Thankfully, Jack has grown out of the phase when he had to possess every version of the Barnsley FC kit produced each season. I used to thank my lucky stars that he was born in August, so his birthday money could be directed straight into the coffers of the club shop. However £90 for an England World Cup shirt? He’s only 11, but he’s in adult sizes already. I’m touched that he hasn’t mentioned the possibility of owning one yet. I like to think that my endless lectures about thrift and saving money have finally hit home. I suppose he knows better than to ask these days, but it pains me to think that I can’t just buy him one without having to agonise over the price tag.
Every decent parent wants to make their child happy. And my child happens to be happiest when he’s watching – or playing – football. The cost of being a supporter is taxing enough. The cost of actually playing is in another league altogether. Jack’s been a goalkeeper since he was four.
Every year I’ve had to find £140 just for his club fees alone. My mother saves the money for me each month in a tin so I’m not stung by the bill come September. I can’t begin to tell you, though, how much it’s cost me in football boots, kit and diesel. And a satellite navigation system for the car following a tearful incident near Nostell when I couldn’t find the away pitch we were playing on. That was my tears by the way, not his. You can’t let your child down. Especially if he wants to run around keeping fit in the fresh air every Sunday morning.
When the season ticket had to go, and when the new season shirts had to be relegated, I was determined to continue finding the money for him to actually participate in the game he loves.
This still means making sacrifices, it means constant reminders about never leaving his gloves (£22 a pair) behind or losing a boot, but he’s one of the lucky ones. So many families simply cannot afford those boots, or don’t even own a car. What happens to their lads (and lasses) when they show enthusiasm and ability? It breaks my heart to think of the talent going to waste in our parks and back-streets, talent which should be nurtured to improve our national game.
Figures produced for Sport England show a long-term decline in the number of people playing football at grass-roots level. In 2006, more than two million played on a regular basis. There are now just 1.84 million players, with at least 100,000 dropping out since April last year.
That’s why Sports Minister Helen Grant is launching an investigation into making grass-roots football more affordable.
One of the suggestions is to force the Football Association to slice a percentage from Premier League broadcasting rights. This cash would be redirected into supporting promising young players, improving facilities and generally making the game more accessible. I wish her luck with that. We’re dealing here with a football establishment which can quite happily justify a shirt on sale for £90. We’re dealing with a football establishment which presides over players raking in millions upon millions from transfer fees and sponsorship deals.
But we’re dealing with a football establishment which never ventures from the directors’ box onto the terraces. Does she really think that those who line their pockets with the loyalty of the fans would give up anything to help a kid get a game?