The Times, November 20, 2017

Matthew Syed

'In memory of Lloyd, one of millions of everyday footballing heroes'

'Moor Mead recreation ground is a small expanse of green adjacent to a rabbit warren of streets behind St Margarets train station in southwest London. There are four tennis courts near the road, fine trees around the perimeter, and some lovely views. It is a place where people jog, walk their dogs and, occasionally, do pilates.

 

At around 9.30am every Saturday, however, the place undergoes a remarkable transformation: children and adults start turning up; cones are put down; nets are erected. The kids start donning bibs, chattering excitedly. By 10am, there are dozens of youngsters, from age six to 18, playing games against other local football teams and enjoying top-quality coaching.

I know about Moor Mead FC because Simon, with whom I play tennis, is one of the founders of the club. Jude, his son, had been playing the game for several years with his friends, but when they went off to different senior schools, five of the dads - Richard, Lloyd, Chris, Simon and Julian - decided to start their own club to keep the kids together. One became secretary, another treasurer. All gave up their time to coach, to run the lines and to liaise with other clubs.

 

“It has been an amazing journey,” Simon told me. “Lloyd was the biggest inspiration behind the club, but its growth has been remarkable. We have coaching on Saturday mornings, and the older boys play games on Sunday. In all, we have 12 teams

from under-six to under-18, and more than 180 children. We play to win, but the community aspect is as important as the

results.”

I mention Moor Mead because they represent one aspect of the immense social contribution made by football. The youth game,

despite the narrative of shattered dreams and broken promises, is delivering. Almost two and a half million boys between five and 15 played in schools and FA-affiliated clubs in 2016-17, along with 900,000 girls. Adult leagues exist up and down the country, too. In all, there are 22,165 clubs, each bringing parents, players and communities closer together.

At the elite end too football also makes a huge impact on society. In 2012, total attendance at English football exceeded 30 million. The previous time that the game boasted such consistently full grounds was in the postwar boom of the late 1940s. Premier League stadiums have been, on average, 96 per cent full for three straight seasons. Although many tickets are expensive, a recent study showed that the average (mean) price is £32, and that more than half of all tickets this season will cost £30 or less.

 

In his excellent book The Game of Our Lives, David Goldblatt, the sociologist, documents that in 1971 just three million people in England lived on their own. By 2005, this had risen to almost seven million, with the number of single-person households set to rise to nine million, more than a third of households. Goldblatt describes this as the “most salient” social transformation in modern Britain.

 

In this context, it is difficult to exaggerate football’s contribution to the social fabric. “Eating together, our most basic common activity, has become less prevalent in households of all kinds,” Goldblatt writes. “By contrast, we go to the football together and not just as a single, unstructured mob, but as couples, families of all kinds in various cross-generational combinations, as well as in loose skeins of acquaintance and tight networks of friends: less than 10 per cent of fans go to the game alone.”

 

The popularity and dynamism of the game also means that there is a huge payoff to the exchequer. Unlike many other sports that are resourced through subsidies, football is a net contributor to the public finances. According to Ernst and Young, the Premier League alone resulted in £2.4 billion in taxes going to the Treasury in 2015, with £900 million of the total made up of player PAYE.

 

And yet despite all this good, our national game receives a rotten press. The negativity is, when you take a step back, rather mystifying. The youth game is maligned, the FA is lampooned, the Premier League is demonised, and elite players - who make it to the top through astonishing dedication and self-reliance - are traduced. Some criticisms are necessary and fair, but it is remarkable how rarely positive stories get an airing. It doesn’t seem to fit the narrative.

 

In 2015, Lloyd, the inspiration behind Moor Mead, passed away at 55 following an illness. At his funeral, Richard, one of his co-founders, read the eulogy. “Like many here today, I first met Lloyd on a sports field,” he said. “What I hadn’t appreciated . . .was that Moor Mead becomes a miniature Hackney Marshes every Saturday morning. What was remarkable about Lloyd? His gentleness, his patience, his sense of calm . . . His soft laugh, and the twinkle in his eye.”

Lloyd’s legacy lives on at Moor Mead, where games took place yesterday afternoon, the under-18 team winning 4-3 having led 4-0. It is a remarkable story in its own right and a tribute to the dedication of fine volunteers, but it can also be seen as one brushstroke in football’s canvas. On fields and in stadiums up and down the country, this beguilingly simple game brings people together. Football is a sport, but it is also one of the nation’s most precious social institutions.'