Non-League football can lead the way in the climate agenda

MY local non-league club, Hitchin Town, has averaged round trips of 120 miles per away game this season and on four occasions, the milometer has almost hit the 200 mark. This is a part-time club, run mostly by volunteers and their home attendances for league games average around 450. They are loyally supported, both at home and away matches.

They are unfortunate in that they are in the Central Premier of the Southern League, Hitchin often feels like an outpost and therefore they travel quite a distance to some games. At times, you have to wonder if a 200-mile round trip is worth it for a game played in front of less than 500 people, but that’s non-league. Hitchin are just one of dozens of clubs in a similar position.

Travelling to away games by coach is certainly better for the environment than any army of cars, including the very harmful, gas-guzzling and climate unfriendly SUVs that proliferate British home counties towns. Coaches are even less damaging than trains, often thought to be the most friendly mode of transport. 

Local football should encourage less travelling to games. It is quite remarkable that even in a town like Hitchin, a lot of people still drive to the Top Field stadium. The myth that everyone walks to the ground is just that, the stream of parked vehicles in surrounding streets tells you that many opt for convenience. While any club can claim to be “green” in its processes and practices, while a big percentage of the crowd drives to the match, the damage will continue. Perhaps a day of walking to the ground would be a good initiative for a club, or maybe a non-driving day?

In order for travelling to be restricted, leagues may need to become more regionalised than they are at the moment. While football is an essential part of so many lives, there is ample scope for recalibration of an activity that should have a degree of flexibility. As Real Betis in Spain proclaim in their stadium, “No planet, no football”, so we should all be motivated to help. It is arguably time for the governance of clubs to include stronger rules around environmental issues that can be punished if breached.

And that would include floodlights. Around a third of Hitchin’s games in 2021-22 have been under floodlights, and one can assume this applies to most of their peers. One could argue that midweek games are needed to ensure fixtures are fulfilled, but smaller league constitutions could help the reduction quite easily. As for Saturday games, making kick-off times earlier would reduce the need for “lights on” in the winter months. With fewer games, closer rivals and earlier kick-offs, non-league clubs would surely cut their fuel and travelling costs. Less reliance on artificial lighting would also reduce light pollution.

Pitches are another issue. The average football pitch needs approximately 20,000 litres of water per day. That’s a huge requirement, so recycling has to be a priority for clubs. Artificial pitches may be a commercial winner for some clubs, but there has to be some question marks about their environmental impact. Water conservation has to go hand-in-hand with energy efficiency technology such as solar panels.

Many non-league clubs are proud of their position in the local community, but a firm commitment to the environment can make them even more important and also local standard bearers for the green agenda. But this won’t be fully effective unless leagues and governing bodies grasp the task at hand and reshape the game beyond the Premier League and EFL. While COP26 has stole all the headlines, nobody should be fooled into believing that small-time football will be immune from the consequences of severe climate change.

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