Why this weekend is so important for grassroots and women’s sports

Freya Louis and her Needham Market team thank fans at Portman Road Picture: BEN POOLEY

Freya Louis and her Needham Market team thank fans at Portman Road Picture: BEN POOLEY - Credit: Archant

The summer of 2020 was shaping up to be a pretty good one for sports fans, writes Angus Williams.

The Tokyo Olympics and Euro 2020 on top of Wimbledon and all our other summer favourites.

Instead, we were starved of sport throughout lockdown. The more desperate among us had to turn to the Belarussian football and Korean baseball to get our fix.

But then the games came in a glut. Top leagues and teams packed their schedules in an attempt to finish their seasons and not renege on lucrative TV deals.

Take top English rugby players, for example. After a five month pause between March and August, players will have to play a gruelling 12-month season, finishing one campaign before immediately starting another.

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All this in a sport where it has long been known that playing more than 30 games in a season can lead to a much greater risk of injury.

Perhaps thankfully there has not been the same blind urgency to complete seasons in top-level women’s sport – though this has come with its own downsides.

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While the England men’s cricket team will play all 21 of their internationals this summer, the four-time world champions women’s team look unlikely to play any of theirs.

Similarly, the FA Women’s Super League was abandoned in March and decided on “sporting merit” – whatever that means.

But after this week men’s elite sport might not dominate the back pages – if only for a moment.

For the sofa-based spectator, this weekend is going to be a particularly good one.

At 11am today – August 21 – the England men’s cricket team will take on Pakistan in the final test match of their summer. Weather and light permitting, of course.

And then the two men’s European cups reach their conclusions.

First, the Europa League final.

Then, on Sunday evening the Champions League final.

The quarter-finals of the Women’s Champion League are also played today and tomorrow.

Once the men’s competition is over, the last two rounds of the women’s competition will take centre stage – with the semi-finals will be played mid-week before the Sunday night final.

All the games are being shown live on TV – building on the success of the Women’s World Cup 2019 and helping to further inspire a generation of girls.

It’s also an important weekend for grassroots sport.

From Saturday August 22, some non-league clubs can welcome spectators into their ground again, providing some much-needed cash.

Graham Emmerson, chief executive of Needham Market FC, said: “People back at the ground means gate money, obviously, but we can also start selling season tickets with the confidence now and there’s incidental match day income as well like the cafe and the bar.”

Under the new FA guidelines from August 22 clubs can have 15% of their ground’s capacity come to watch game – as long as they have track and trace in place.

Then after August 31, if all goes to plan, clubs can have 30% of their capacity back.

Needham Market play in a 2,250-capacity ground, meaning they are allowed 337 spectators from August 22. According to Mr Emmerson, this happens to be around the Marketmen’s average gate.

These spectators do not only help the club, but the town as well.

“A lot of the games we get 240 or 250,” he said. “And the average tweaks up to 300 because the teams challenging at the top of the league bring a lot of support here.

“The town does quite well on big games. They pull into the public houses and the fish and chip shop and they have really good days.”

The benefits of grassroots sport are not only financial but mental and social.

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Shane Davey, vice-chairman of Waveney Football Club based in Lowestoft, said: “We’ve got a very large youth section, and what has driven us this past few months wasn’t so much the desire to play football – that’s always there – but we’ve got a lot of young people who have had their lived turned upside down and have no structure.

“They’re being homeschooled and all their activities and sports have all been taken away almost overnight.

“I’ve also spoken to one or two granddads and initially they weren’t even able to watch their grandson or granddaughter train.

“And you know that’s really difficult. You’re taking away that kind of lifeline for family members who get a huge amount of joy out of seeing their youngster mix with their mates and play a game of football.”

So as we watch the further return of grassroots and women’s sport this weekend, we will hopefully also be watching all the good that sport brings spread further than it has done for a while.