HAD you headed down to Cutteslowe Park on a Sunday in 2019, one sight would have met your eyes, WRITES SAM MATTHEWS BOEHMER.

Hundreds of boys and girls of all ages, clad in red and white, running around playing football.

One of the biggest youth football clubs in Oxfordshire, Summertown Stars house 53 teams and 750 players across various age-groups.

Every weekend, players would don their strip and converge on Cutteslowe to enjoy some good-spirited but competitive football.

But with the COVID-19 pandemic, this lively scene changed.

Though walks were permitted, these were in solitude. The fields, once lively with goal celebrations, were now uncannily deserted.

For Sunday League clubs across Oxfordshire, the past 18 months have been a stressful whirlwind, with pressure placed on clubs financially.

For the players, the absence of football as an outlet for physical activity increased mental stresses.

Summertown Stars have very much shared in these woes.

A popular community club, uniting young people from diverse backgrounds, were suddenly forced into the background, as the world shut down.

Young Stars’ footballers, used to weekly training and matches, were stuck indoors.

Stuttering restarts to the calendar led many to question if we would ever see the light of a footballing day again.

“The initial lockdown was difficult for all our teams, but my own team’s experience was that we went from the normal hectic training and weekend match schedule to nothing,” said club secretary Peter Joyce.

“Like an emergency stop after driving everywhere at 70mph."

All attempts to entertain players in other ways could not compensate for the day-to-day buzz of football.

Joyce added: “From seeing the team and their parents a couple of times a week to not seeing them at all was tough.

“We arranged a team online quiz and participated in some of the online sessions the club organised, but it wasn’t the same at all.”

Clubs like Summertown are vital to the local community.

Relationships build as lifts to various away games and the joy of goalscoring form friendships that sport uniquely provides.

For several months late last year frustration finally had a release, as football resumed.

Joyce added: “We had a great response when we returned, the boys were just pleased to see each other.

“Football was almost secondary, and the spirit was great. They came back with a great attitude.”

Looser restrictions produced an influx of players, and the club now has a waiting list for many age-groups.

However, further frustration followed as lockdown was re-imposed last November.

Volunteers like Joyce faced an organisational nightmare as efforts to enforce social distancing and the expense paid on tools like temperature guns were rendered pointless.

But, rather than wilting in the face of new restrictions, everyone at the club and Oxfordshire Youth Football League dealt with the situation efficiently, ensuring that, when normality did arrive, they would be prepared.

Joyce said: “All the leagues did a fabulous job in a difficult situation.

“They did a great job at keeping us informed and spent a lot of time and energy rearranging fixtures.

“Bearing in mind they are also volunteers, it’s extraordinary how much they put into it.’’

At the core of these clubs are the same volunteers putting in thousands of hours.

This has been a year like no other. But the way that everyone has dealt with the challenges it has posed has reemphasised the fortitude and kindness of people, including in our local football world.

As young footballers play their first game of the new season this weekend, it is worth remembering Sunday League clubs, are not simply football clubs.

They are hubs of community solidarity, a release from the daily challenges of work and education.