New era dawns for beautiful game

Artists impression of the proposed Westfield Community Football Centre
Artists impression of the proposed Westfield Community Football Centre
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JAMES Hope-Gill still remembers the moment an irate Sunday league footballer approached him in the plush surroundings of Sheffield’s Royal Victoria hotel, grabbed him by the throat, and lifted him clean off his feet.

JAMES Hope-Gill still remembers the moment an irate Sunday league footballer approached him in the plush surroundings of Sheffield’s Royal Victoria hotel, grabbed him by the throat, and lifted him clean off his feet.

Pictured is Sheffield & Hallamshire County FA Chief Exec.James Hope-Gill,at their HQ in Cornish Place,Cornish Street,Sheffield

Pictured is Sheffield & Hallamshire County FA Chief Exec.James Hope-Gill,at their HQ in Cornish Place,Cornish Street,Sheffield

The strapping six foot centre back was less than happy with the decision of a disciplinary panel at which James was officiating.

“I can’t even remember exactly what he was before us for or the punishment we gave him,” says the chief executive of Sheffield and Hallamshire County Football Association today. “It was probably just a two-week suspension.

“But I do remember my feet lifting clear off the ground and thinking ‘this isn’t a pleasant situation’. Fortunately, he came to his senses and let me go.

“I don’t know if that was better or worse than the time a bloke started sobbing after we gave him a suspension. He was a broken man because we’d told him he couldn’t play football for a couple of weeks. People are passionate about this sport.”

Eeeh, it’s a funny old game, all right. And perhaps never funnier than when you work for the SHCFA.

Last week, the organisation – the oldest of its kind in the UK outside of London – announced plans to move to a new £4 million centre of community excellence.

With eight five-a-side pitches, a full-sized artificial turf, gym, changing rooms and enough office space for the body to expand into, the proposed development, on the site of the old Westfield School, is somewhat different from the cramped Kelham Island block (minus any playing facilities) the group currently occupies.

But the announcement perhaps also raised questions.

Namely, apart from issuing fines and registering teams, what exactly does this organisation – which comes into contact with more than 120,000 people every week – actually do?

“It’s a good question because there’s a perception – even among players – that we’re simply a regulation and disciplinary body,” says James. “We do do that, of course, but we’re about far more too.”

Certainly, it is.

As the governing body for all amateur and junior football played in South Yorkshire as well as parts of Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire and West Yorkshire, if you play, manage, referee or watch a team in a league below the Northern Counties East Football League, you’re coming into contact with the SHCFA.

That, fact fans, includes 2,700 11-a-side teams, 1,400 five-a-side clubs and more than 900 officials taking part in about 2,000 games a week.

“The numbers are staggering – about 10 per cent of the population we cover is involved in some way with amateur football,” says James. “Our role is to run competitions, register leagues, sanction games, organise pitches, allocate referees, act as an arbitration body and train up league management committees.

“But more than that we also develop the game in the area through encouraging participation. We go into schools, run coaching courses and do referee training. We were the first FA in the country to set up a female league – which now has 150 teams – or to run a primary school age competition, which now gets 3,000 kids playing every year.

“We also run asylum seeker teams and have a disability league called Ability Counts.

“Basically, it sounds cheesy but we try and promote football to all people in all walks of life because it is a force for good, a way of improving health and bringing people together.”

Noble aims, indeed.

Although, there are often less than noble jobs at hand.

One is to reply to a stream of letters from disappointed parents demanding to know why their Little Wayne Rooney’s are not being picked for the local junior team.

“We get them all the time,” says James, who has been with the SHCFA since 1992 and became chief executive in 2001. “It’s heartbreaking in a way but it’s not our place to interfere with how a team gets picked. We do write back and explain to the parents, and we’ll get in touch with the club to give them advice on best practice for communicating disappointing news to young players – but there’s not much else we can do.

Also more regular than one might imagine are the calls from the Inland Revenue.

“If they suspect someone is claiming disability benefits when they think they shouldn’t, they’ll give us a call and find out if we have them on our books,” says James. “They are a statutory body so we do have to comply with their requests for information.”

And, of course, the SHCFA was also an integral part of Sheffield’s 2018 World Cup bid.

“It was gutting not to win after all the work we’d done on the bid,” says James. “What made it especially hard to take was that our bid was recognised as the best by far.

“I watched the decision in the Winter Garden. Ironically, I had a few glasses of Russian vodka after.”

Now, however, is a new exciting venture with the proposed move – the plans are currently before Sheffield Council – offering a world of opportunities.

“Because we’ve really developed our role over the last 10 years to promote football as well as govern it we do need more space,” says James. “And it will be ideal to have access to those pitches.”

A new era dawns, it seems.

Of course, this is amateur football, so those strapping six foot centre backs, unhappy at disciplinary decisions, will always be about.

“It’s a game for everyone, though,” says James. “That’s the message we have always tried and always will try to get across.”