COP 26: Why football has to fully embrace the climate agenda

WE HAVE seen it many times over the decades, a football pitch deep in water with seagulls perched on the crossbars. Any club close to major rivers or residing on a flood plain or marshland can be vulnerable. Even before we became aware of the dangers of climate change and rising temperatures and sea levels, football clubs would occasionally become victims of excessive rainfall and swollen rivers and streams. David Goldblatt, in his paper on the subject, suggested that almost a quarter of football clubs in the Premier/EFL will be subject to flooding in the future. To some extent, it has always been somebody else’s problem, but environmental issues, like the displacement of people, is a worldwide issue that we all need to address.

Let’s start at the lower levels, because in truth, it is grassroots football that will be most affected by the consequences of water levels. Non-league football in Britain, which is arguably most connected to local communities (or should be), can become a standard-bearer for sustainability and social responsibility. However, it may be that big changes have to be made to ensure this level of the game demonstrates firm commitment.

First of all, travelling to away games should probably be restricted, in other words, journeys need to be shorter and more accessible. The biggest contributor to emissions aside from aircraft – aviation accounts for 5% of all global warming – are cars and buses. Non-league teams travelling a couple hundred miles to play in front of 250-300 people in midweek just doesn’t make sense on many counts. The answer is smaller, more localised leagues, which may not please everyone, but it would show responsibility. At the same time, energy usage can be restricted by limiting the number of floodlit games. In terms of weekend games, kick-off times could be adjusted to ensure lights are not needed in the winter, as for midweek, the calendar could be adjusted to only play midweek in the late summer and spring. Again, kick-off times could be modified to make that more feasible. If non-league is all about local people watching their local club, this should be an achievable goal.

In addition to these measures, clubs could adopt eco-friendly strategies such as water recycling and discouraging fans from driving to games. Certainly, in the small town football paradigm, there should be little need to use a car to attend a match.

Non-league and grassroots can play its part – according to the Climate Coalition, some 62,000 grassroots games are cancelled every year because of climate change – but like every aspect on environmental responsibility, it needs the bigger entities to follow suit for any projects to be successful.

UEFA have recently introduced the Europa Conference League, an additional club competition that increases the number of travelling clubs and games. This produces a 20% rise in qualifying games and 55% rise in group games. An astonishing 85% of Conference group games will be between teams that are at least 1,000 kilometres apart. Around 40% of these games involve trips of 2,000 kilometres or more. 

UEFA claims to be responsible about its carbon footprint, but the multi-hosting of the European Championship seemed quite contradictory. In addition, hosting the Champions League 2021 in Porto, between two English clubs, seemed a foolhardy idea, as it did in 2019 when Madrid and Baku played host to two all-English European finals. The World Land Trust estimated that the Liverpool v Tottenham Champions League final in 2019 in Madrid would generate 10,000 tonnes of carbon. From a practical perspective, this didn’t make sense at all.

FIFA also has to ask itself if the Qatar World Cup, so controversial in many ways, is really such a responsible event given the need for air conditioning to make games more palatable. AC emits very harmful gases into the atmosphere. 

AC is a completely artificial solution to a major problem and one that is counter-productive to the climate cause. Artificial pitches, so long seen as the answer to many clubs’ problems in terms of community use and fund-raising, may not be as climate friendly as people hoped. They have contributed to plastic pollution and there were health concerns about the inhalation of particles. 

Experts claim that football, to send the right messages, has to reduce its reliance on sponsorship from the hydrocarbon industries. UEFA’s tie-up with Gazprom is a good place to start, but around half of the Premier League has some sort of fossil fuel sponsorship and across the other top five leagues, more than 50% of clubs have links with companies from the sectors. It is no great surprise given the amount of wealth across these industries. The world’s leading clubs, including Chelsea, Manchester City, Paris Saint-Germain and now Newcastle United, are owned by energy-related states, companies or individuals – the so-called “petro clubs”.

Happily, clubs embracing green strategies are on the increase, but the leader is Forest Green Rovers from the English Football League. This is a club that has risen from non-league and has shown that an unwavering commitment across every aspect of the club’s operations can be successful and replicable. Tottenham Hotspur’s new ground has also been constructed with environmental responsibility at the forefront, including repurposing the old stadium’s rubble. Other clubs, such as Arsenal, Brighton, Hibernian, Ajax and Borussia Dortmund, have all included sustainability in their business model. Initiatives like “Game Zero”, which took place at the Tottenham v Chelsea Premier League match in 2021-22, are laudable, but how did the fans get to the game?

The environmental cost of travelling to games has to be factored in, hence pan-European competition must surely be under threat, but pre-season tours of Asia and the Americas have to be considered superfluous. 

Adapting to change has to be a priority for clubs and governing bodies, indeed the whole of global sport. Football, globally, emits about 30 million tonnes of carbon dioxide every year, the same as a small country like Denmark. This fact, along with the social position of the game has, makes it ideally placed to influence and inspire way beyond its boundaries. 

Macclesfield: The Silkmen eventually cometh

IT HAS not been a good season for Macclesfield Town and the future remains very uncertain for a club that ranks among the smallest in the Football League. Just 35 miles away, Bury provides a reminder of what can happen to a club that loses its way and becomes the victim of financial mismanagement and owner dissatisfaction.

If nothing goes according to plan, Macclesfield may yet go the same way as Bury, although the club’s current owner, Amar Nouri Alkadhi, claims he is having “superior negotiations” with a potential buyer. That may well be Joe Sealey, the son of the late Coventry and Manchester United goalkeeper Les Sealey. Some fans are sceptical that discussions are taking place at all.

Macclesfield have just appointed their third manager of the season, Mark Kennedy, who follows former England central defender Sol Campbell and Daryl McMahon. Campbell took on the job as his first management role in the game, but left just a week or so into the 2019-20 season and was owed £ 180,000 by the club. McMahon left recently, fed-up with the club’s precarious financial situation and attracted by a job with non-league Dagenham & Redbridge. Kennedy made all the right noises when he took over: “What we want to do is for fans to be going home every week with points on the board and a smile on their face from us doing it the right way,” he said.

The Silkmen have been making the wrong sort of headlines all season, their players going on strike, wages not being paid on time, a points deduction and a winding-up petition that has now been postponed 10 times. Their court appearance will go ahead on March 25 – or will it? The most worrying aspect may be that Macclesfield owe the taxman money, and that rarely ends happily. You have to sympathise with the long-suffering fans, who remain passionate, albeit in smaller numbers than in the past.

Unsurprisingly, there is something of a gloomy atmosphere around the club, indeed the town. “Everyone is unhappy at Macclesfield. They don’t like the owner and people think the club will probably go under or have to reform,” said the taxi driver that took me to the Moss Rose ground. There’s an ominous sight when you arrive at the stadium, hoardings for a demolition company and a building site in front of the ground.

What is the future for clubs like Macclesfield Town. Would non-league football be more suitable?

Apparently, some fans have stayed away from the Moss Rose in protest. Certainly their crowds this season suggest people are probably voting with their feet. Sub-2,000 attendances are frequent (current average just over 2,000) which must be a big cashflow problem for the club, even though they have one of the smallest wage bills in the Football League (2018-19 average of £ 750 per week per player).

This is Macclesfield’s second season since they won promotion back to the Football League in 2017-18. Their first spell in the league was between 1997 and 2012. In their debut campaign, they were averaging almost 3,000 at the Moss Rose, but by the time they went down, they had lost more than 20% of their audience.

With 50,000 people in Macclesfield, an average gate of 2,000 represents a reasonable 4% of the local population, but there are many distractions for football followers – the club is surrounded by competition for fan affection: Manchester (20 miles), Liverpool (44), Stoke (22), Sheffield (36) and Derby (40), are all within range. Their gates are more in keeping with a lower step in the football pyramid.

Forest Green Rovers were the visitors on January 25, a club that also ranks among the poorest supported in League Two. They have been receiving a lot of publicity over the ideological and substainable way they run their organisation. As the first Vegan club in Britain (probably the world), they are certainly tapping into the mood of the moment. They were top of League Two recently, but before arriving at the Moss Rose, they had won just twice in 10 games and dropped to 9th in the table.

For a long time, Forest Green looked like they would leave Cheshire with all three points. They took a first half lead through Carl Winchester’s 25-yard low drive on 18 minutes and were in control until they missed an early second half penalty from Josh March, an excellent save from goalkeeper Jonathan Mitchell, recently signed on loan from Derby County.

With 16 minutes to go, Macclesfield finally gave their fans something to cheer about, Joe Ironside shooting home with a tame effort through a crowded area. But there was a setback in the 80th minute when they lost Corey O’Keeffe to a red card after he executed the perfect “professional foul” when March raced towards goal. Macclesfield kept going and the game was won in spectacular fashion by a superb left-footed volley by Arthur Gnahoua from 30 yards. A 2-1 win for Macclesfield, a result that looked very improbable earlier in the afternoon.

There were just 1,600 people at the game which did make you wonder what the outlook is for small clubs like Macclesfield. Would they be better off as a non-league outfit – are the odds just too great for them to be successful at Football League level? With the exception of the 1997-98 season, their first in the league when they won promotion at the first attempt, life hasn’t exactly been a bed of roses at the Moss Rose. What would Macc regulars really like to see – a successful team playing at a slightly lower level or a life as a perennial Football League struggler that cannot compete financially with many of its peers? It’s a tough and unpopular question to ask, but equally, a hard one to answer with the head rather than the heart of a devotee. It’s clear that Macclesfield Town have a few battles to fight in the coming weeks and months, with the biggest challenge undoubtedly coming from the courtroom. Those that cherish English football’s 92-club structure will wish them well.




Photos: GOTP