How the Olympics hacked off the Marshes

For Johnnie Walker, a sprightly 80 this year, it is the sort of skill that makes it worth getting out of bed on a freezing Sunday morning.


On a roped-off show pitch on Hackney Marshes, a fascinating contest is unfolding between local side Phoenix and FC Tripimeni in the London FA Sunday Challenge Cup – and Phoenix striker Nico Muir has just rounded the goalkeeper to score a goal that would grace any game at any level.

“This is perfection,” says Walker, chairman of the Hackney and Leyton Sunday league. “You’ve got two good teams out there, the pitch is perfect. That is why I’m still here. I wouldn’t turn up every week and watch bloody rubbish.”

Such moments aside, these are tough times at the legendary East London home of grassroots football. On any weekend in its post-war heyday, when Walker was tormenting defenders as a nippy inside forward, there were thousands of players down here packed onto more than 120 pitches.

Now there are just 50 pitches on the main site, with some of the best playing surfaces lost to the adjacent Olympic Park. Others on the East Marsh, turned into a car park for the Games, are due to be restored for next season. But Walker remains bitterly resentful, and vents his anger at the Football Association.

“They should have been fighting our cause,” he said. “How do you think we felt seeing East London people like David Beckham and Trevor Brooking cosying up to the Olympics while we were having pitches stolen from under our noses?”

Worse still, 23 more pitches were damaged during last summer’s Radio 1 Weekender concert, forcing the delay of the season. Many remain rutted and pockmarked, while the pressure of additional matches on those still playable – with some hosting five a weekend – means that wear and tear is far worse than usual.

“They’re supposed to be football pitches and for one event they wrecked the whole marshes,” said Robert Woolfenden, a player with FC Bow Prince. “Every pitch has got one point where there is just a massive hole in it. It’s out of order.”

But there may be bigger challenges ahead for all those involved in Sunday morning football. According to the FA’s most recent figures, the number of 11-a-side teams fell from 33,568 to 30,355 over the five years to 2011, with many players turning to smaller-sided and more flexible forms of the game as a consequence of changing lifestyles and economic and social pressures.

“If it’s a choice between working, spending time with the family, or playing football then sometimes priorities are what they have to be,” said Byron Casimir, the London FA’s Get into Football officer for Hackney and Newham.

fourfourtwo coverWith players, clubs and officials all feeling the squeeze, several London leagues have already folded. Once capable of turning out nine divisions, the Camden Sunday League now struggles to sustain three, said chairman Nigel Copperwheat.

“We’ve toyed with the idea of going down to two, but we know if we do we’ll never get back up again. Eleven-a-side football at our level is dying on its feet. It’s a complete and utter tragedy.”

Peter Ackerley, the FA’s Senior National Game Development Manager, said that the FA had to recognise that the nature of grassroots football was changing, highlighting surging participation at youth level and among women and girls, and people with disabilities. But he added: “Sunday morning football is our heritage and we will protect that until our dying day.”

In the case of the marshes, the FA said it had contributed £2 million to an £8.7 million redevelopment plan agreed in 2009 that has so far funded the construction of a new changing rooms complex.

Hackney Council said it intended to develop the site as a “world class sport, health and wellbeing hub” with football remaining the main use. But the council’s website also states that it is licensed to host live music, raising the prospect of damage to the pitches on a regular basis.

Ackerley said that any grant given out by the FA would be conditional on pitches being restored to their proper condition in the event of damage. But he conceded: “At the end of the day, being sat in Wembley Stadium, we’ve got very little understanding of what is happening at Hackney Marshes on a Sunday morning.”

For Walker, there is at least some cause for cheer in the short term. Phoenix’s 6-3 win means Hackney and Leyton still has a representative flying the flag in the London FA Cup. The league has so far managed to maintain its five-division structure, partially bolstered by the arrival of teams from disbanded competitions elsewhere.

But he said: “All I hear about is development but they develop every other form of football except the real grassroots game, the outdoor 11-a-side game. That is what is going to sustain football.”

For now, there are enough old timers with life in their legs to keep the Sunday game alive and kicking. At the end of a match on a nearby pitch, Symon William has just been presented with an oversized trophy to mark his 400th game for Walthamstow Village.

“I’m nearly 50 now but I reckon I’ve got a few more years yet,” he says. “I’m just going to keep going to see if I can get to 500 games.”

A version of this article was published in the February 2013 edition of FourFourTwo.