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Five-a-side firms looking for a safe pair of hands

England fans may be reeling from the disappointments of the World Cup, but contractors can take consolation from a football phenomenon that is kicking up business opportunities across the UK. Steve Menary reports

AFTER the thrills and excitement of the World Cup, it might come as a surprise that the 11-a-side game is no longer the most popular game of football in the UK.

According to the Football Association, 3.1 million people play 11-a-side, from the Premier League down to Sunday morning pub teams, but an impressive 4 million play the five-a-side version.

Also known as short-sided football or futsal in Europe, where many nations such as Spain have professional leagues, five-a-side centres are springing up across the UK.

From Heathrow to Sheffield , Dunfermline to Portsmouth, the UK is gripped by a five-a-side bug that presents a chance for contractors to score work in a growing niche sector.

Bill Gow, finance director at Goals Soccer Centres, says the game's popularity is down to its nippy format:

'Eleven-a-side involves more training but five-a-side only takes an hour and a drink. Then you go home.'

His company is one of the main providers of five-aside centres, along with Powerleague and sports wear giant JJB Sports. All three businesses are listed on the stock exchange.

Another smaller provider, Taskcatch, operates a number of indoor pitches mainly in the nor th and on the south coast, but a fifth outfit, Vida Sports, recently went under.

The failure of Vida Sports, which saw four sites sold to Powerleague and one to GSC, should not deter contractors from looking for work from the remaining providers. Powerleague has been in operation for 15 years after emerging from a Glasgow-based five-a-side centre known as Pits.

Powerleague has spent more than £50 million building up a network of 36 five-a-side cent res across the UK.

Apart from the four bought from Vida's receivers, the rest have been new builds comm issioned by Powerleague.

Powerleague has a partnering agreement with Support in Sport to provide the pitches but the evolution of artificial turf in recent years has led the firm to look for different options on the construction side.

Powerleague's operations and development director Jez Hall adds: 'Our centres range from eight pitches up to 15 but typically have 10 pitches. Increasingly, we are also building a seven-a-side pitch for 11-a-side teams to train on. A few years ago, the typical sand-based pitch with metal fences cost £25,000 but the new third-generation pitches using rubber crumbs are much better to play on but cost more like £45,000.

'That's why we looked for different ways of providing the actual buildings. We have a modular building that costs about £1.3 million and a traditional building that costs about £1.8 million.'

Lymm Joinery & Construction, based in the northwest, has recently been building many of Powerleague's modular structures, replacing another modular contractor, Wraith.

Some of Powerleague's traditional buildings have been put up by Multibuild but the firm turned to Willmott Dixon for a £3.4 million centre built in Coventry that also included a gymnasium. Using a larger cont ractor is a sign of the kind of goals that Powerleague is aiming at.

Mr Hall explains: 'We're going to build fou r cent res per calendar year for the foreseeable future.

'We're not the easiest planning application but we've got 25 locations in various stages of the planning process and we'll hit that target. If we get further approvals, we will build more.'

Powerleague is the largest provider but the other two firms have big plans.

JJB builds soccer domes featuring between 11 and 22 pitches along with bars, sports stores and other corporate facilities.

Goals Soccer Centres emerged from a management buyout of Glasgow Open Air Leisure Services (Goals) in 2000 and has since spent more than £30 million building 14 more centres with another four in Bradford, Plymouth and two in Birmingham under construction.

Mr Gow says: 'We've told the City that we'll be rolling out five more centres a year for the next few years. Each centre costs about £1.8 million, so that's close on £10 million a year that we'll be spending.'

GSC looks to build centres in urban areas. Each has a minimum of 10 pitches with a 470 sq m pavilion, changing rooms and pavilion.

With each scheme built to a virtually identical template, these five-a-side centres offer a relatively easy source of work - particularly as GSC only looks for f lat sites.

Mr Gow says: 'We certainly wouldn't build on a hill. The only significant variations on the sites we build on are the groundworks, like putting in more piles or a longer entrance road. We've got contractors that have done jobs before but I always tend to think you get the best price if you go to tender.

'We tend to use a group of the same firms that we keep on our tender list but we are always looking for new companies to work with.'

Among the contractors to win work with GSC are CR Richardson, Multibuild, Banner, Speymill and Totty, which is building the company's £2 million centre in Bradford.

John Git t ins, managing director of Tot ty's public sector arm, says: 'The increasing popular ity of five-a-side football has led to a growing demand for high-quality, purpose-built facilities.'

Like Powerleague's project in Coventry, GSC's scheme in Bradford is a partnership with the public sector. At Woodlands School in Coventry Powerleague and Willmott Dixon are building a large centre in conjunction with the city council and Sport in England that features five- a-side pitches and a gymnastics centre.

Peter Owen, managing director of Willmott Dixon's Coleshill office, which is building the scheme, says: 'This fast-track project will give the school and community a first-class facility ready for summer.'

At Hanson School in Bradford, Totty is on a 20-week contract to build and a single-storey steel frame, brick clad pavilion and 10 five-a-side pitches, a full size 11-a-side pitch, f loodlights, an access road and car parking.

'I can't tell you how valuable that is to the school, ' enthuses deputy head Derek Needham.

'Goals contributed matching funding to new outdoor changing facilities and we also get to use their outdoor pitches up until 5.30 pm each day, which is really useful.

'We've also got access to the full-size pitch, which is something we never could have afforded, and new offices in the pavilion, but the best thing has been To t t y.

'They have been fantastic. I'm involved with Building Schools for the Future and if I decided the contracts, they would get one.'

England may be criticised in the 11-a-side game, but the country's performance in futsal is demonstrably worse. The team lost 23 consecutive internationals and sank out of the qualifiers for last year's European championships at the hands of Albania and Cyprus.

A futsal FA Cup has been launched to try and stem the rot and, like the professional providers, the FA is also keen to help upgrade facilities.

Many cont ractors have given up on league football as a source of work due to unreliable clients. But by contrast, the five- a-side game offers an opportunity that on ly a handful of cont ractors seem to have so far seized upon.