Thursday evening at an outdoor 5-a-side centre and a crowd has gathered around two sides of the corner pitch. Peering in through the protective mesh fencing the object of attention is one Matt Le Tissier. Playing at his customary pace the splendidly languid Southampton legend receives the ball and resists the attentions of a younger and fitter opponent by gently nudging it behind his standing leg. His opponent succeeds in getting something on the ball, but it’s not enough. Seemingly out of nowhere, Le Tissier fires off a fast angled ball which instantly transports those watching the back to some point in the 1990s and which a teammate fully does justice to by converting into a goal.
The most unusual thing about the scene is the spectators. Aside from a brief period in the 1980s when Soccer Six attracted large crowds and appeared on television, small-sided football hasn’t ever really taken off as a spectator sport. As a participation sport however, the small-sided game, and in particular 5-a-side, has grown significantly over the past fifteen years to the extent that it is now the way in which most of us experience actually playing the game.
Figures from Sports England’s Active People survey for 2014/15 reveal that among those aged 16+ who reported playing football at least weekly 740,200 participated in small-sided outdoor football, whilst an additional 292,600 reported participating in small-sided indoor football. This compares to the 598,000 who reported participating in 11-a-side in the same period. Moreover whilst the number of those participating in 11-aside on a weekly basis has declined by over 100,000 and the numbers playing small-sided indoor football have dropped by around 150,000 since 2009/10 – the first year in which the survey differentiated football by type – the numbers playing small-sided outdoor football have held relatively firm.
There are several interconnected factors which can be implicated in this shift in how we play the game; technological, economic and social. In terms of technology, anyone with experience playing on pre-3G astroturf, and all the bloody knees and elbows that entailed (known affectionately as astro-burns), would find it difficult to disagree with one supplier of 3G pitches who describe 3G as “the most significant and successful development in synthetic surface technology designed for football and rugby at both competitive and recreational levels.” 3G proved a real game-changer in providing an all-weather surface which could be played on again and again with little of the wear demonstrated by grass pitches and which also provided a pleasant playing experience.
3G could of course equally be used for 11-a-side, however to build 3G pitches requires finance. Initially his investment would not come from under-pressure public bodies who owned and operated the majority of existing grass pitches, but from the private sector. The simple equation is that outdoor small-sided pitches, taking up much less space, offered such investors a much better return as more games and paying-players can be squeezed into a smaller area. The sheer scale of this private sector investment in small-sided football cannot be underestimated; One of the market leaders, who specialise in outdoor small-sides football, Goals soccer centres, boasts on its website that it operates 500 pitches which play host to over 130,000 players a week.
The final factor is social change. In general explanations offered for declining participation centre around changes in working patterns, less free time, or the growth of more individualised leisure pursuits. The influential academic Robert Putnam famously observed that in the US that, between 1980 and 1993, whilst the number of people bowling had been increasing, league bowling experienced a sharp decline, of around 40%. It may be that small-sided football, is perhaps better placed to weather such pressures than the 11-a-side game which tends to be based almost exclusively around competitive leagues and which requires an overall greater level of time commitment than small-sided football.
There are signs however, that the growth of small-sided football may have reached its limit. The Sports England data show that numbers playing outdoor small-sided football has stabilised over the past few years, whilst in March of this year it was reported that Goals Soccer Centres had posted its first annual pre-tax loss in 12 years. Against this there is also some evidence that 11-a-side 3G pitches are beginning to attract grant funding, particularly as many grassroots leagues have approved the use of 3G for competitive games. For now though it still appears true that while we may not particularly enjoy watching small sided football, we do prefer playing it.