January 16th 2017
Dead And Bury'd?

When Theresa May became Prime Minister in the summer, one of the first things she set out as a key policy was an end to the ban on new grammar schools.

A debate about this end to cross party consensus on education policy is for another time and place, but it was thrown into sharp focus for us at Leisure Leagues last week, as a grammar school in Lancashire decided to make false allegations about our players.

Some of you may know that Leisure Leagues are the largest private hirer of facilities in the UK, and in the summer we took out an agreement with Bury Grammar School to run leagues on their pitches, as we have done thousands of times over the last 30 odd years.

The league – on a Wednesday evening – quickly proved popular and filled, giving around 100 local footballers the chance to enjoy the sport and keep fit. These players are from all backgrounds. Some have been at the school and some not, but everyone is always welcome with us as we believe football should have no class, gender or religious discrimination.

We had been planning to extend the competition in the New Year so popular was the league, but those plans were destroyed when, just before Christmas and out of the blue we received a letter from the Grammar School, which has independent status, terminating our Hire Agreement.

The school, which claims on their prospectus that they will “unlock the potential of every child” clearly don’t want to extend that courtesy to footballers, given that on their letter to us they claimed that  they “found empty beer cans and an empty bottle of vodka” on the premises after a routine check.

This contravenes BGS policy – which we accept – but we also contend that cans and bottles were nothing to do with any of our players.

How do we know this? Well, because one of our senior members of staffs was doing a visit on the evening, and went around the facility picking up rubbish after the matches. Just for good measure he was joined in this endeavour by a member of BGS staff….and absolutely no bottles and cans were found.

It is just a classic case of “something has gone wrong, lets blame the footballers, it must be their fault.”

But still the allegations continued. They said we refused to pay them £75 when the league ran late. Untrue. And furthermore, the Match Night Supervisor responsible for that no longer officiates in any of our leagues. We don’t just expect good conduct from our teams, we demand it from our officials too. That’s why we are the best.

No one can force Bury Grammar School – or anywhere else for that matter – to hire their facilities. And we accept that relationships don’t always work out. What we cannot accept though, is our players being treated like this and our reputation being tarnished in this way.

As a result of these untrue statements, over 100 footballers faced losing their chance to enjoy community football and keep fit. Luckily, we were able to house them in an indoor venue thanks to the co-operation of the staff at Broad Oak Sports Centre and the new season kicks off this week.

We will always fight for the right of players to play football. We will always stand up for players in the face of this outdated – and dare we say largely class based – idea that footballers are always guilty. Such preconceptions were wrong in the 1980s when the Government of the day attempted to wage war on the national sport by trying to insist that supporters carried a membership card and they are just as wrong now, when we are told that vodka and beer cans must be down to people that want to do nothing more than enjoy their time on a community facility.

Except that Bury Grammar School don’t see their role as being open to their community.

In 2007, the then leader of the opposition David Cameron said in a speech against Grammar Schools that “parents fundamentally don’t want their children divided into sheep and goats at the age of 11”.

Isn’t it a shame that a decade later that at least one Grammar School is still doing exactly that. At Leisure Leagues, we believe football sees no boundaries and whether you are a “sheep” or a “goat” (themselves horrible words) you are always equal – and moreover, you are always welcome in one of our leagues.

Andy Thorley

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