The speakers were Woking Football Club chaplain and director Ian Nicholson, Wycombe Wanderers professional footballer David Wheeler, referee Harrison Blair and Cllr Colin Kemp, the Woking Borough Council portfolio holder for Leisure and Cultural Services. Our chair was Woking Debates committee member Dubby Stemp. At the peak of the 90-minute session, 27 people were logged on to Zoom, including the speakers and chair. The consensus was that football has an overall benefit to society, although there are negative aspects such as the huge amount of money poured into Premier League clubs compared with clubs in the lower tiers of the national game who often struggle to stay financially viable. Ian Nicolson opened the debate, saying Woking FC is part of the foundation of modern Woking. The club has supporters all over the world and recently a Dutch TV company made a documentary about it. The club has won the community club of the year four times in the past nine years. It was involved in the Surrey Pride march last year and the New York Times wrote about the club in an article on chaplaincy in football. When a football club dies, something in the town dies as happened to Guildford. The club gives family, cohesion and depth to many in the community. Harrison Blair said he wanted to be in football at the highest level he could be. He finds football to be the one place in life where everyone is on an equal footing. David Wheeler, who previously played for Queens Park Rangers R and MK Dons, talked about how football develops fitness, wellbeing, teamwork, perseverance and resilience. He said it is a great leveller where you meet people from all parts of life and the best profession for social mobility. There is a constant pressure in training to be picked for the next game and to play well in the game and he is sure this has made him a better person. Financially, it has been good for him. It enabled him to get on the housing ladder at a young age, which he would not have been able to do otherwise. The community aspect is important for him unifying people. Colin Kemp said that, although not having a great passion for football himself, he recognises its importance in the community, its inclusivity and social importance and the outreach work it does with young people preparing them to become part of society. Asked about LGBT issues, David recognised that few footballers are prepared to come out as gay. This might be because it is not as accepted in wider society as much as is thought to be the case and this is unlikely to change until it is tackled in schools. Players are worried by the fans reception and if they find it difficult to come to terms with their sexuality themselves then it is much more difficult to come to terms with under the exposure of fans and press. On how money affects football, the Premier League is the most-watched league in the world and the Championship is the fifth most-watched league. The television companies pay enormous sums of money to show these games and that gives them power in the game. To make the incomes of the teams more equal, the lower leagues would have to be broadcast more. Ian described the Premier League as an international league that happened to be based in the UK. When a team in the lower leagues gets a rich sponsor, it can make a massive difference and gives them an opportunity to rise rapidly up the leagues. Woking is part-time. The Premier League could
Ian Nicholson.
Colin Kemp.
Dubby Stemp.
David Wheeler. Harrison Blair.
afford to give £40 to each person who attends a match! With their wealth, the big clubs stock pile players, resulting in many top players getting little time playing football. The whole system needs a shake-up. Players often enjoy playing more as they go down the leagues, as they get older. On women’s football Woking had a women’s team 10 years ago which got promoted. The standard of women’s football has improved immensely over the last two years. Lewes FC remains the only club to pay the women’s and men’s team the same. Women were banned from playing at English and Scottish football league grounds from 1921 to the 1970s, although before 1921 the women’s game was flourishing. On racism, Harrison said he had never heard a racist chant. There had been one or two comments, but not in the changing rooms. Kick It Out had raised awareness. It was felt that racism is not found at the local club level because it does not get the publicity there. At Portsmouth, a bigger club, racist comments do get made. It is a reflection of society. The coronavirus crisis is hitting clubs hard. Woking has furloughed most of its staff. Gate money is vital to keep non-League sides going and some will not survive the lockdown. Clubs have released players and nobody was signing, so players had nowhere to go. Moving to regional leagues on the National League level would help when matches start to be played again, as part-time players often get home at 4am after a weekday match and face working the same day on their full-time jobs. It would cut down on transport and environmental pollution. It would also make it easier to compete in knockout cups. It was great to hear such passion and positivity about football and the qualities it brings out.
Harrison Blair.