Many years ago, a group of sports centre managers began running a 5 aside league at their facilities. These managers all knew each other and quickly realized that there appeared to be nobody else doing a similar sort of thing. It also became apparent that the 5 aside leagues were very popular and lots of groups who normally hired sports halls on a casual basis, much preferred to play in a competitive league format, particularly football clubs in the off-season.
Of course, in those days, there were few if any Astroturf facilities in the whole of the UK! So the leagues which first started were all in sports halls, usually with wooden floors and occasionally with paint markings for goals on the brick back walls! The first balls that we used were like big balls of sponge and bounced about in an irregular fashion. If you could dribble one of those balls then you really were skillful!
The first fixture lists for small-sided leagues was implemented by us and were hand-written on sheets of white card. If a fixture list needed to be changed, it was all done manually (no computers in those days!) and changing fixtures was an extremely time-consuming process. To run more than a few leagues would simply have been impractical. We still have the very first fixtures codes for different leagues although the paper has gone a bit yellow and the staples holding them together have gone a bit rusty!
In the late 80’s some private facilities began copying our example and started running their own larger-scale small-sided leagues. Some leagues in Coventry, London and the North of England became extremely popular. In the mid to late 80s computers came on the scene and this revolutionised the way league tables and fixture lists could be updated, speeding the process up vastly. The initial group of sports centre managers now began seriously thinking about expanding their operation from just a few leagues to many leagues across the country.
While still continuing in their jobs as facility managers, in their spare time they started using other facilities and took advantage of the new astroturfs which were being built across the country. It is hard to believe, with most astroturfs in the UK full nowadays, that then many facilities who built an astroturf could hardly get anyone to play on them.
Initially, some leagues were started in Stratford-Upon-Avon, Warwick, and Coventry. Leagues soon began springing up all over the Midlands. Soon, most of the Midlands was covered in small-sided leagues and after that we spread further afield. In 1990, the name ‘Leisure Leagues’ was first used and, around the Midlands, this became synonymous with footballers playing in a small-sided league.
Nowadays, Leisure Leagues has hundreds of small-sided leagues across the UK and is part of a larger group which has many interests.
And what became of those original managers?
Well, one of them eventually went to live and work in South America, but the others are all still connected to us in some way, if only in a consultative capacity.
Even today, Leisure Leagues is seen as the benchmark to which all other small-sided league operators strive. A few years ago, we started using banners to promote our leagues. A year or two later, our competitors followed suit. We were the first to introduce booklets to every team, and today thousands are produced and sent out every week. We were the first to have information boards up at leagues and saw the need for glossy literature in the days when it was almost prohibitively expensive to produce.
We remain the only operator to have a dedicated 10,000 sq ft office based in the Midlands to service our nationwide leagues, as well as the only operator to have a fleet of Operations Managers in marked-up vans to service our leagues. Our competitors still look up to us to lead the way in the field of small-sided football and we are proud to have been the ones to start it all off and the organisation people still look up to for inspiration.
Of course now, in the new millennium, there are many competitors who have jumped on the bandwagon we started all those years ago. You can imagine over the years how many we have seen come only to fail after a year or two! Starting a league is one thing, sustaining it quite another. We have seen many small-sided competitors start up and then find that it’s not quite worth it, or what they thought it was going to be after a couple of years. We feel proud that we have had the longevity that we have had. We hope to be offering the same high levels of service and quality standards for another 25 years!
In 2011, following a major restructure the original Leisure Leagues model stopped and Leisure Leagues became a licenced trading name operated by various franchisees across the UK and Ireland. This meant that each league operated on a much more local level bringing small sided soccer closer to communities across Europe.