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Hackney Marshes: Lack of parking is seeing footballers’ cars towed and refs unable to get in, says league chair

PUBLISHED: 09:05 11 April 2017 | UPDATED: 11:33 12 April 2017

Johnnie Walker on the Marshes. Picture: Courtesy of Hackney Museum

Johnnie Walker on the Marshes. Picture: Courtesy of Hackney Museum

Courtesy of Hackney Museum

The chairman of one of the most famous Sunday leagues in the world has launched a scathing attack on the FA, David Beckham and green campaigners.

Matches on the East Marsh during Hackney and Leyton Sunday League Football at Hackney Marshes, January 8, 2017. Picture: Gavin Ellis/TGS PhotoMatches on the East Marsh during Hackney and Leyton Sunday League Football at Hackney Marshes, January 8, 2017. Picture: Gavin Ellis/TGS Photo

Johnnie Walker says soaring costs and the selling off of pitches means grassroots football across the capital is vanishing.

And he should know. He’s been involved in the running of the Hackney and Leyton Football League on Hackney Marshes – the biggest playing field in Europe – for 34 years.

When the pitches were created on the rubble from the Blitz, there were 120. Jonnie reckons there are now 65, plus a couple of junior ones on Mabley Green, where the league’s best pitches have been replaced by an “edible park”.

The Olympics took the pitches in Arena Field, Wick Field is now Wick Woodland and the old ones along Lea Bridge Road have gone.

But while Johnnie takes issue with Hackney Council over the loss of pitches (“This edible garden. How far is it going to go?”), he acknowledges the costs it imposes are low. After all, it’s because other councils charge so much that the demand to play on the marshes is increasing.

Mustard (black and red) vs Wounded Knee, Hackney & Leyton Sunday League Football at Hackney Marshes, January 8, 2017. Picture: Gavin Ellis/TGS PhotoMustard (black and red) vs Wounded Knee, Hackney & Leyton Sunday League Football at Hackney Marshes, January 8, 2017. Picture: Gavin Ellis/TGS Photo

“We had to cancel four matches this week,” he told the Gazette. “The pitches are in such great demand now because [other] councils are charging so much for them that people aren’t playing on them any more. We have to turn people away.”

Now the pitches on the East Marsh are back in use after being temporarily lost to the Olympics, there are about 1,400 players descending on the marshes every Sunday.

But because the council couldn’t get planning permission to build a new car park there, the South Marsh car park is like a scene from Wacky Races as players fight for the 240 spaces. Tempers flare, staff are threatened and cars get towed on a weekly basis for blocking the paths.

“Out of desperation they are parking everywhere,” continued Johnnie. “They haven’t got no sense, they’re blocking an island and the refs are coming late and can’t get in the car park. But they are really desperate.”

Unfortunately, things are going to get worse before they get better. While the town hall builds a new pavilion of 16 changing rooms on the north marsh, contractors need parking spaces for their materials.

To Johnnie, it’s all down to the Olympic “legacy” – or, as he calls it, the “Olympic disaster”.

“I was very vociferous in opposing them taking East Marsh,” he said. “You’ve got people like Trevor Brooking and David Beckham cosying up to them, cosying up to Seb Coe.

“David Beckham used to play on the marshes but he must have forgotten about us. I had a stand-up row with Trevor Brooking – he didn’t take kindly to what I was saying, but they’ve forgotten where their roots are.

“Grassroots football is vanishing all over London. We’ve lost 200 clubs in the last year.

“The FA don’t realise what grassroots football is. They think conference football is grassroots – grassroots is park football.

FC Niva (yellow) vs Shakespeare, Hackney & Leyton Sunday League Football at Hackney Marshes, January 8, 2017. Picture: Gavin Ellis/TGS PhotoFC Niva (yellow) vs Shakespeare, Hackney & Leyton Sunday League Football at Hackney Marshes, January 8, 2017. Picture: Gavin Ellis/TGS Photo

“For 15 years they’ve been talking about doing more for grassroots. [Ex-FA chairman] Greg Dyke’s idea was to create more 3G pitches. That’s not going to solve all the problems. We’ve lost half our pitches nationally.”

Johnnie said grassroots football is hugely underfunded, despite the billions of pounds floating around at the top of the game.

“People struggle to play,” he said. “This is a working-class area. The kids are struggling – a lot of them are out of work. Football is huge for the community and it’s been undervalued for years.”

Cllr Jon Burke, cabinet member for sustainability, energy and community services, said the council was proud of Hackney Marshes’ status as “the spiritual home of grassroots football”.

“We spend a considerable amount of money maintaining the pitches to a high standard,” he said, “and have also been investing in improved facilities with our partners – from opening the award winning Hackney Marshes Centre in 2010 to the current construction of a new pavilion on North Marsh.

"Out of desperation they are parking everywhere. They haven’t got no sense, they’re blocking an island and the refs are coming late and can’t get in the car park. But they are really desperate"

Johnnie Walker

“In particular we’ve invested heavily in youth football – developing new all-weather pitches and grass pitches for our youth football league, which now has more than 100 teams with 1,500 children participating during the season.

“The league is a major part of the council’s football development programme, which assists clubs in areas such as training and development for coaches and securing funding.

“Later this month we’re organising a football symposium for hundreds of young players, which includes workshops on careers in football and a showcase tournament in front of international scouts.”

On the topic of parking, a town hall spokesman urged players to take public transport to the marshes.

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