Postponements, prices and plastic – what’s the state of pitches in Wales? With the winter bringing the state of our sports pitches in to ever sharper focus, Graham Thomas and Paul Batcup provide a snapshot of the current picture in Wales.
Anyone familiar with playing community football or rugby at this time of year will know the feeling.
The rain falls, the wind howls, and as you peer through your living room window to assess the conditions for the weekend game, your phone pings with a message: “postponed – see you next week.”
For Welsh grass roots players, the grass is the problem – especially in a country where rainfall is classed as a national past-time. Cash-strapped councils forced into making cuts to their budgets are finding it almost impossible to afford the same level of upkeep of their local pitches.
While participation in many areas grows – the South Wales Women’s and Girls Football League has just reported a 63 per cent increase in playing numbers over the last three years – hundreds of matches across Wales are called off every week.
While the weather conditions can vary significantly in different parts of the country, so can the circumstances that enable people to play.
So, what is the picture across Wales and what will it look like in the future?
Are the winter puddles proving to be a real stain on participation?
According to Sport Wales surveys, children who played football in the last year rose from 53% in 2015 to 63% in 2018. Rugby Union seeing similar rises from 32% to 41%.*
So, something must be fuelling the thirst to get the boots on.
Many players have turned to more social forms of football, small-sided matches on artificial surfaces at purpose-built centres, such as Gol in Cardiff or Play Football in Swansea. Futsal being another continuing growth area.
Their numbers are increasing and they are a boost to encouraging fitness and participation, but they are less common outside the cities and they don’t offer a replacement to organised 11-side club games.
The Football Association of Wales have a target of building 50 new artificial (3G) pitches in Wales by 2024. That would double the existing number and take the total figure to 100. To put that into context though, it equates to a pitch for every 30,000 people in Wales.
Special feature. 📰
It’s an issue that dominates the winter months in Wales.https://t.co/aS8LFXaUjS
— Sport Wales | Chwaraeon Cymru (@sportwales) February 25, 2020
One club who took the plunge six years ago was Penybont, a club formed from a merger between Bridgend Town and Bryntirion Athletic.
They used funds from the sale of land to build a 3G pitch at their new home, now called the SDM Glass Stadium, and now they have progressed to the Welsh Premier League they are at a level where there are more 3G surfaces than grass.
“We have only had one match called off in that time and that was when we had about three feet of snow,” says Penybont secretary Mark Evans.
“Apart from the first team, the pitch is utilised all the time through our own academy, and two junior mini clubs under our umbrella – Bridgend Town and Bryntirion Athletic – who also use it. It’s a godsend.
“As part of the merger, the pitch was one of the things that had to be resolved. We probably had one the best grass pitches around, but we had a full-time groundsman. Even then, some games were postponed and training sessions were cancelled, so it was the best way to go.”
Penybont’s 3G pitch cost £220,000, and they followed the likes of Barry Town and The New Saints, but Evans has words of caution for any club thinking that might be a one-off cost.
“At the end of eight years you have to replace it. So, this is not a one-off cost. And you also have repairs and if something goes wrong the repairs are not cheap.
“But even the grass pitch we have here next door, you are talking a minimum of £1,000 every pre-season just to make sure it’s up to scratch.
“Most of the clubs in the Welsh Premier have now moved to 3G pitches. There are a lot of teams in the Bridgend area, but the costs are not cheap to install or maintain – especially for small clubs.”
Between 2014 and 2016 the number of full-size 3G pitches in Wales rose from 29 to 45, with estimates now of that figure being around 60.
Thank you to Bridgend Herons and @HeronsbridgeSch for coming down to train @PenybontFC_ over half term. Look forward to hosting your annual festival next month. #community #inclusion #footballforall #partnership pic.twitter.com/pvUGuQoc4J
— Penybont Academy (@Penybontacademy) February 26, 2020
The rebirth of the artificial pitch being boosted by things like the 21st Century Schools Programme, with investment in school facilities seeing 3G as a new staple of school life. Councils have put in significant amounts of money while private investment has also added to the numbers.
Then there’s public funds through grants. One national initiative has been the ‘Collaborative Sports Facilities Group’ – a partnership between the Welsh Football Trust, Hockey Wales and the Welsh Rugby Union together with Sport Wales. Since 2015, and armed with £3million of National Lottery money, the group has contributed to 29 projects – including Barry’s Jenner Park, Conwy’s Parc Eirias and Penyrheol in Swansea.
And recent funding from Welsh Government has seen Sport Wales plough £1.1m into eleven non full-size artificial pitches, and a further £456k into six full-size artificial pitches
The 3G revolution will come at a cost.
Some clubs have more pressing concerns – pitch fees.
As Council budgets get squeezed ever tighter there are more warnings of rises in costs to play. In Bridgend, one proposal will see clubs currently paying £55 per match for using a pitch, having to pay £305. Cricket clubs will see their fees go up from £40 to £343.
The alternative being help to guide the clubs down the path towards taking ownership of the council’s pitches themselves – usually through a lease – a process known as community asset transfer.
To ease the strain, Bridgend Council are offering a £1million war chest to help clubs take on the transfer.
Some cash-strapped councils in Wales have already tried this model, handing over certain pitches, changing rooms, clubhouses or pavilions to clubs themselves and making them responsible for the costs of maintenance and upkeep.
According to Carmarthenshire football club official Mike Bassett, who led a community campaign to halt price increases, success can be mixed.
He says: “Villages like Kidwelly set up sports associations and took over the asset and it was then run by the local community. In Llanelli, the town council stepped in and took over a number of pitches.
“But we lost about nine clubs altogether.”
“The experience here was that there were big rises in the fees for games once teams went over to trying to book 3G pitches. Overnight, fees were going from £40 an hour to £90 an hour.”
The switch to community asset transfers has been welcomed in some quarters, but it is complex and involves a level of expertise, of time and commitment that some grass roots clubs, run by enthusiasts with other priorities, can find difficult to manage.
Others have been achieved elsewhere in Wales, such as the joint effort between Mumbles Rangers Football Club and Mumbles RFC that saw them take charge of the facilities at Underhill Park.
But community asset transfer can be a scary prospect, particularly for the volunteers without the experience or skills to take it on. It’s a view echoed by Graham Williams, director of community engagement at Sport Wales.
“What we also know is that many grassroots clubs rely on public facilities provided by local authorities,” he says.
“With local authorities facing increasing financial pressures this is having a knock-on effect on sports clubs.
“Community asset transfer can provide a positive solution. However, there needs to be support – be that financial or from a skills perspective – for any club looking to go through this process.
“A key thing to emphasise is that to get asset transfer right it takes time and a long-term commitment from all parties.
“Governing bodies of sports are aware of the issues and, where they can, are also providing advice and support to their clubs.
“While Sport Wales can’t provide financial support specifically for asset transfer, we do have a number of grants available to support clubs to grow and improve their facilities.”
Well done lads 👏🏻👏🏻👏🏻#uppalan
— Penlan Club AFC (@PenlanClubAFC) February 22, 2020
Penybont, Barry Town and the grass pitch at the Parc Eirias stadium in Colwyn Bay all have wider public uses than just their host teams, but elsewhere in Wales the picture is mixed.
Many clubs already manage or own their own facilities, particularly in parts of rural Wales away from the cities.
Not all non-3G pitches are quite underwater across Wales this winter, though, and not all clubs have mounting fixture congestion.
Penlan FC, currently playing in Division One of the Swansea League, have fallen six games behind some other teams, but that’s because of cup competition runs rather than postponements.
Penlan play at Mynydd Newydd Playing Fields on a hill overlooking the city where the winds are so strong that rain tends to travel horizontally.
Paul Davies, the club secretary, says: “Our pitches are pretty good at the moment. They are council-owned, so the players pay £6 a- a-week subs and we pay £52 for every home game.
“We play on a few dodgy ones when we play away. The standard does vary.
“Sometimes, we are the only ones playing when everyone else in Swansea is calling theirs off. But then it’s always freezing cold here – even in the summer.
“There are a few teams in Swansea who have already gone down the road of taking over their pitches. But it’s not something we are looking at just at the moment.”
*Data from Sport Wales School Sport Survey – 2015 and 2018