The Seaweed Inn, a squat-looking pub nestled at the foot of some nearby tower-blocks like a crab amongst a pile of grey boulders, was a decidedly unremarkable boozer. It did though boast a formidable football team. With a line-up consisting of several ex-Portsmouth trainees, one player rumored to have had a stint in Norwich City’s reserve side, and the kind of old-style goalkeeper who still defied the trend for wearing gloves, the side had won the Southampton City Commercial Houses Football League Division 2 title at a canter.
Visit today and all you’ll see on the site of the pub and its long asphalt ribbon car park is Seaweed Close, a wedge of new-build yellow-brick homes and miniature blocks of flats – the kind with paper thin walls which allow every sound to travel throughout the building. Along with many other pubs like it the Seaweed has closed its doors and been erased from the landscape by the shovel of a bulldozer whilst the name of the football team quietly vanished from the league tables.
At the same time as, according to CAMRA, 26 pubs per week are closing participation in football, particularly 11-a-side, is sliding toward its own crisis. Figures from Sport England show that 238 600 fewer people reported playing football at least once a month in the period from April 2012 to April 2013 than for the period October 2007 to October 2008 and as the figures do not differentiate between 11-a-side and the more buoyant 5-a-side game the real decline is likely to be much more marked.
Could it be that, as with the Seaweed, the decline of the pub and the decline in participation are linked? The pub after all provides a focal point for a football club; It is place to recruit players, to meet before a game and a place to visit after, to celebrate or commiserate, to analyse the game, or to quietly sip a pint whilst watching the big-match on TV. The pub can also provide a team with other support through sponsorship, raffles or providing somewhere to hold the Christmas do and the end of season presentation. The fate of pubs and their football teams are therefore intrinsically entwined.
The fate of the Seaweed’s team is not an isolated case. Of those 26 pubs closing every week some will have football teams which will disappear along with them. Pub football may have been the butt of jokes about lagered-up centre-backs hoofing it into Row Z, but it provided opportunities for many people to participate in the sport at grass-roots level, opportunities which now no longer exist.