Photo Gallery: The drive begins to save long-term future of the King’s Lynn Sunday League
The world of Sunday football is in danger – and in King's Lynn, league organisers are desperately trying to keep it afloat. GAVIN CANEY reports.
For almost half a century, friendships have been formed on football pitches across West Norfolk on Sunday mornings.
Generations of the same family have turned out for – and sometimes in – the same team that usually consists of drinking partners or work colleagues.
But while the alcohol may continue to flow like it once did among social groups, the desire to step across the white line on a Sunday burns less brightly than it did.
Those that remain involved in the King's Lynn and Sunday District Football League clearly still have the passion. However, many don't, as the facts show.
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From the heady heights of 59 teams across five divisions in 1989, the league ended last campaign with just six teams in Division One and eight in Division Two.
Four teams folded, for a variety of reasons, during the campaign with at least two more – Crown Outwell and last season's dominant Division One force, treble-winners Bentick/Discovery – appearing set to dissolve during the summer.
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For all the hard work that goes into running the divisions, the stark reality is this: the long-term future of the league is under threat.
Those on the committee remain desperate to restore Sunday league football to its former glories. It may be a huge ask, especially when grassroots team numbers in a host of sports appear to be diminishing.
But as the league looks set to enter its 50th season, the committee's passion to reignite the Sunday football flame in West Norfolk cannot be doubted.
Committee member Rob Bunting, who plays in goal for Division Two William Burt, said: 'There's no immediate threat to the league and we're very confident we'll have two divisions again next season.
'But we don't want it to get to the stage where we haven't got a Sunday league so we're being very pro-active to try and get new teams in.
'We're using Twitter and our new website to drag the league into the 21st century to try and restore it to its former glories. Live updates from finals have gone down well. We've also slashed affiliation fees to try and overcome the financial barrier too.
'I've always considered Saturday football to be slightly more competitive, but the Sunday set-up, especially in Division Two, is very sociable. It's enjoyable to be involved in.
'Division One is certainly very competitive, though, with some good players, and teams, involved in it. It's why we're so keen to keep at least two divisions.
'We're there to help run a league, but now we need pub teams and work teams to join us and become part of the Sunday league community.'
A host of outstanding players have been part of that grassroots community at the start, or end of their careers, since the league began in the 1963/64 season.
Andy Hunt, who went on to play for Newcastle United, West Brom and Charlton cut his teeth on the pitches around King's Lynn for Light Blues before turning professional.
King's Lynn Town boss Gary Setchell, Fakenham Town manager Wayne Anderson and Swaffham Town chief Paul Hunt have all played in the league.
And a host of Ridgeons League players, past and present, have also helped teams in the Lynn-based league reach a string of Sunday Norfolk FA county cup finals.
Many, including the now-defunct Fenman Freehouse and Globe Bowls Club have tasted glory with Chilvers, Bentick and Crown Outwell (Cambs) reaching their respective county finals last season.
Such successes means Bunting and those on the committee remain upbeat about the state of football in the area.
He said: 'We're proud to have a team in every county cup final we entered last season.
'There are some great players around here, many of whom have gone on to play senior football after playing in the league.
'We worked hard last season to get our finals days held at non-league clubs like King's Lynn, Wisbech Town and Fakenham Town and it's an incentive for players to keep performing to play at grounds like that.
'We've had quite a bit of interest about new teams next season and we're positive about it being even bigger and better than last season.'
One man who remains committed to the Sunday league cause is 79-year-old Terrington stalwart Gordon Rasberry.
'Raz', who has received an FA long service award, has been associated with his village side since the age of 14. He has been manager, chairman or secretary of the club's Saturday and Sunday teams since the early 1970s.
He still sometimes runs the line for the club and helps put the nets up, as well as cleaning the dressing rooms before and after games.
However, Rasberry, a long-standing committee member, insists that fact shows the real problem with grassroots football in the area – a lack of willing volunteers.
He said: 'As soon as someone stops running sides, nobody wants to take over. It has happened to a lot of clubs over the years. When people can't carry on nobody else wants to do it.
'People are happy to play, but they don't want the other stuff that comes with it. There's still quite a few of us old ones about which shows what I'm talking about.
'There is some new blood coming through, but there needs to be more because people like me won't be around forever. If we're not careful there won't be a league in 10 years.'
Although his fears may be genuine, it's clear to see those on the league are doing all they can to ensure that such worries never become a reality.