Football: Can we have our ball games back, please?: Our uncertain future

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The Independent Online

Dr Neil Armstrong's celebrated studies of children's fitness showed no significant difference between the fitness of British children in the late 1980s and that of children in other environments or in other periods. What they did show was a significant decline in activity. Armstrong found that, during the week, more than 50 per cent of girls and more than a third of boys failed to sustain even one 10-minute session of strenuous physical activity (eliciting average heart rates of 146 beats per minute); at weekends, these proportions increased to more than 90 per cent and more than 70 per cent respectively. The physical cost of inactivity is relatively slight in childhood; the real cost is more subtle. Habits of sport and physical activity are established early in life. Children who learn to enjoy active life-styles are reasonably likely to remain active later on (as well as to enjoy beneficial side-effects on their learning abilities); those who do not are most unlikely to change their ways. Given the well-established link between a sedentary life-style and heart disease, the long-term consequences for the NHS are obvious. Perhaps Mrs Bottomley should take note.


The decline of school sport in Britain began with the teachers' dispute of 1985. Before that, the system had muddled through on the strength of teachers' good will, with countless thousands of hours of sport being supervised outside school; ever since, children have had to make do with the National Curriculum's two hours a week - if they are lucky. Parents and sporting bodies have tried to fill some of the vacuum, but most children have been left with little or no way back into the world of sport. Despite the obvious social costs - from delinquency to long-term ill-health - no political party has shown much concern about the problem. The Left is traditionally suspicious of sporting competition among children; the right of investments which yield no short-term benefits. Yet it is not a problem of concern only to sports enthusiasts, and both its causes and its effects go far beyond the sphere of education. The cost to the NHS may eventually run into billions; the social costs could be immeasurable. Even transport policy has affected the problem, by making roads unsafe for children to play in. Any impetus for change will need to come from the very top of government.


The FA's contribution to the development of football in England includes the employment of a Director of Coaching and Education (Charles Hughes), an Assistant Director of Coaching and Education (Programme for Excellence), an Assistant Director of Coaching and Education (Community Development), three Regional Directors for Community Development and five Regional Directors for the Programme of Excellence (centred on the FA National School at Lilleshall); and running the FA Youth Cup, the FA Sunday Cup, the FA County Youth Cup and England B, Under- 21, Under-19 and Under-18 teams. (The English Schools FA runs additional schoolboy teams.) The total number at present employed in the FA, League and PFA community scheme to develop football nationwide is 105, of whom 85 are ex-players. Charles Hughes, the controversial figure who presides over most of this edifice, is associated with the long ball game and 'direct football'. Tomorrow he will tell the FA Council of his plans to improve the way England's best young footballers are coached. But many believe that his future is even less secure than Graham Taylor's.

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