Which football club is the third biggest on Merseyside?
It’s a classic pub quiz question.
Wedged between two of the world’s biggest football clubs and rivals, Everton and Liverpool, lays Tranmere Rovers FC. With a proud history and diehard support since 1884, they currently languish down in the Conference. They dropped out of the Football League in 2015 to what is the fifth tier of English Football.
But things could have been very different. They qualified for the Premier League play-offs in three consecutive seasons in the late 90s, made three FA Cup quarter finals and played in the League Cup Final in 2000 against Leicester City. You may have heard how Leicester did last season…
But this is modern football, and the game isn’t what it used to be. Bigger budgets buy better players, attracting more sponsors and more global support. The opposite is also true. The downward spiral that so often cripples big clubs starts when bad results trigger fans, sponsors and players to leave. This has taken Tranmere down the depths of the English league structure.
To put it in context for my New Zealand connection, they’re also the club that sold the Wellington Phoenix Chris Greenacre, a starting striker, who’s since retired and is now assistant manager for the A League club. They’re a similar size with average 5 084 attendance last season; Phoenix’s was 8, 042. Tranmere’s ground breathes history and has a real old-school feel with 16 000 capacity, turnstiles, statues and a towering ‘Kop’ end.
But the big difference here in the UK is the history and culture for football. This provides a challenge for the introduction of a new sport like futsal – for football development, and especially as a sport in its own right. Football is very big and very powerful here.
So for Tranmere to completely incorporate and adopt a futsal plan from the pre-academy foundation stage up through futsal specific academy teams and a national league men’s team, is big news. Owner and Chairman Mark Palios has said that they are putting futsal at ‘the heart of everything they do’. That’s a bold statement for a club with the goal of being promoted straight back up in the very physical lower leagues of English Football.
Oxford City was a professional football club participating last season and won the National League. Unfortunately due to wider circumstances for the whole club, they’re no longer continuing and the pro players they signed have gone to other clubs. In the last week or so York City have announced they will adopt the York University team which is fantastic news too. They too have plans to have a futsal academy structure feeding into this. Maybe it will be a new trend.
Bristol City, Cambridge United, Southampton and Sheffield FC all have ties with a national league futsal team too, though to varying degrees of visibility on their websites. Cambridge United have recently appointed former Manchester United player Luke Chadwick as a futsal coach.
In the case of Sheffield FC, a quick search of ‘futsal’ revealed 10 results, the most recent in 2015. Bristol City Futsal sit within a separate website for Bristol Rovers Community, and Southampton have just three search results for futsal, the most recent in 2015. In comparison, Tranmere have over 100 search results for futsal on their main website, and nine in the past week.
I work in content marketing, and I love futsal. If I struggle to find futsal on their websites, are they really going to reach the people, their own fans, that don’t know a lot about the sport?
Many football clubs also have futsal as part of academies; incorporated into football development programmes and academies. The Premier League hosts an annual futsal festival, which includes music power plays where goals are worth triple. BTEC programmes for futsal and education for 16-18 year olds are very common too, even Chelsea are doing it. But this is merely a community programme with no pathway through futsal beyond it. However, if using young people’s love of the game can get them through an education, I am all for it. Everton have weekly futsal within their academy for ages 7-13, as a games structure to ‘recreate street football’.
For Tranmere to recognise, invest and support futsal as a sport in it’s own right, from foundation to the national league is unique and potentially ground-breaking. Nothing signals their intent to develop futsal more than the appointment of Damon Shaw as Head Coach and Manager of Futsal. The easy option would have been to get a football coach or a retired football player; someone known to football or the club. Instead they have recruited the most internationally qualified and experienced Englishman in the sport of futsal, direct from Barcelona where he has been for three years coaching and acquiring his Uefa A futsal licence.
Maybe this is a step towards the multi-sport type hub/clubs I saw throughout Europe, from ETO Gyor in Hungary, to Barcelona in Spain. These clubs provide resource and support for multiple sports, and a specific pathway and support for futsal as a sport in its own right. Tranmere have built a futsal hub, with a two court futsal venue on site at the back of the famous and historic Prenton Park stadium. I believe this is unique for a professional football club. They’ve invested in it, and it’s literally part of the club now.
At the International Futsal Cup and Coaching Conference in Belfast a few weeks ago, a lot of the panel discussion at the end of a historic weekend revolved around that fundamental debate. Is futsal a sport in its own right, or a development tool within football? To have a defined futsal pathway within a football club is a great way to grow the sport in a developing (futsal) nation like England and have the best of both worlds.
With the support and relationship of a professional club, I hope players can switch between pathways as they choose. If futsal is a great option until 14 and then a player wants to switch to football, great. And if they started futsal for their football but see a pathway and dream of Uefa Cups and playing for England in World Cups that is great too. Or if they drop out of the football academy system, by selectors or love of the game, then it might be futsal that keeps them engaged in sport.
I think there will be examples of all of these, and Tranmere have a huge opportunity to become a real trail-blazer for acknowledging, building and supporting futsal as a sport.
The best way to experience the unique benefits of futsal, is to keep it genuine and pure. The only way to do that is to have futsal specific coaches and pathways up to the men’s game, rather than moulding and shaping it to fit football. To simply slot it into a football academy, or as a community BTEC, isn’t going to do that.
But Tranmere Rovers Football Club, unlike most football clubs, is keeping futsal pure.
For a club that finished 98th in the Football League structure last year, I believe they’re leading the country in being progressive, adaptive and attempting to evolve the football and futsal culture in this country.
And it can only help both sports.