Football: Trust in the game can pay great dividends

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I WORKED with the Football Grounds Improvement Trust when it was established by the then Minister for Sport, Denis Howell, in 1975 and later for almost 20 years with its successor, the Football Trust. So I was delighted when the noted Raith Rovers fan, Gordon Brown, ensured the survival of the Trust last week by further cutting the pools betting tax in his Budget.

The football pools have been competing manfully with the National Lottery, so the reduction in tax (now 17.5 per cent) means they can streamline their operations while maintaining their pounds 8m annual contribution to the Football Trust.

The Football Trust's is a spectacular success story. Little over 10 years ago, a leading newspaper proclaimed in an editorial that football was a slum sport watched by slum people in slum stadiums. The game had been brought almost to its knees by a succession of crowd tragedies and awful outbreaks of violence on the terraces.

John Major first reduced the pools betting duty in 1990, thus releasing a flow of funds used to implement the Taylor Report. Latterly the Football Trust has been partly funded through the proceeds of a three per cent reduction in the tax.

New grounds have been built, new stands have gone up, and terraces in the lower divisions have been made safer. The Trust has contributed pounds 300m to the game. Football has been transformed.

The Taylor work is now almost complete and the Trust was fearing for its survival. Comprising representatives from all the major football bodies, it holds a uniquely independent position capable of giving help to the game at all levels throughout the UK.

Government and football should now come together to forge a new, longer- term future for the Trust in the millennium.

There is so much to be done and the Football Trust, chaired by Labour MP Tom Pendry, the former shadow spokesman for sport, can play a vital role.

Already the Premier League helps Football League clubs. It provides pounds 10m a year for centres of excellence and ground improvements up to the year 2001.

Provided the Premier League can resist the challenge from the Office of Fair Trading to its authority to negotiate television contracts on behalf of its clubs, it should continue aiding the game's lesser brethren through the Football Trust.

Clubs in the lower leagues will always need help with safety and improvement work. And below the professional levels, the grass roots of football are crying out for help. Ten thousand sports fields have been sold off in the last 20 years.

Many inner city facilities for football are sorely in need of renovation. With nowhere to play, kids are much more likely to turn to crime, vandalism or drugs. More small-side grass pitches are needed for the under-10s. And local authorities face a massive shortfall in the maintenance budget for schools facilities. As an example, Stanground Community College in Peterborough faces costs of pounds 450,000 to fit out its new sports hall.

The Stephen Lawrence Report confirmed that racism still permeates our culture and institutions. Football is part of this equation. Properly funded at all levels, the national game can become a true catalyst for change and improvement.

The Government must build on its good work, because it has not yet fully implemented its election pledge to maintain the Football Trust as a UK- wide body.

The Premier League must he prevailed upon to continue helping its lesser bretheren. The Football Association, as the representative body of the whole game, must prioritise the areas which need help most.

Bookmakers, who make massive profits out of football, must be levied at a proper level. A wager on football in a high street betting shop generates a tax which benefits horse racing and not football.

British football is unique in the role it occupies in society, in issues of health and well-being, and in the environment, and our national culture. It is unique, too, in its strength in depth. We should treasure the lower division clubs, rather than castigate them for struggling to continue against all the odds. Even the most humble can be a focus of civic pride.

Three agencies can come together and become a real force for good in the new millennium: the Government (with the Sports Councils), football itself, and the Football Trust. Health and quality of life can be improved. Football can become a valuable vehicle in a fight against social exclusion. Girls and boys can be given better facilities and more opportunities. Their lives would be enhanced.

It needs imagination, real commitment, and co-ordination. Given the right backing a relaunched Football Trust can do the job.

If that happens, to revive some old cliches, they'll be dancing in the streets in Raith. And Gordon Brown will be justifiably over the moon. Tony Banks should set this agenda without delay.