David Conn: Grass roots reforms may be too little, too late

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The Football Association has launched a strategy to revolutionise the English national game's development over the next five years, aiming to improve standards dramatically for the estimated one million people who play football in 43,000 clubs nationwide. Did you know? Almost certainly not.

It is the way of the sporting world that such fundamental work receives so little attention compared to, say, who was on the bench for a Premiership match on a single Saturday. This is the boring stuff of the grass roots: the pitches, the kits, the footballs and the structure which should give millions a love of the game and also provide the next generation of David Beckhams and Michael Owens.

For the last 20 years it has been in crisis, caused by neglect partly outside football's control, that of successive Conservative Governments which talked of the moral benefits of "games" while savagely cutting the budgets of local authorities which are the major providers of facilities, in schools and outside.

Basic to the new reforms, led by the FA and the Football Foundation, is the first ever national survey of football facilities, a task nearing completion by the consultants PriceWaterhouseCoopers. They have already found that although cash-strapped schools and local authorities continue to sell off playing fields, the nation has a good number of football pitches left. The only problem is that, according to Geoff Webb, the Foundation's head of grass roots development, many are so wretched they are unplayable.

"The problem is not just that the pitches are so poor now," he said. "There is also a shortage of qualified groundsmen to look after them. We need to train a new generation."

The Foundation, formed to replace the Football Trust, is funded by the Premier League, the FA and Sport England with £60m per year for three years to invest in a facilities improvement programme and community and education football initiatives. Meanwhile, at the FA, the chief executive Adam Crozier has formed the National Game department, with 42 staff, to redress the years of neglect. The two bodies have had their own peculiar turf wars, but are increasingly saying they have resolved them and understand their responsibilities.

Last month the FA National Game launched its five-year development strategy, which aims to improve facilities, develop the current playing patchwork into 3,000 "community clubs", help to provide football in primary schools and continue to promote the rapidly-growing girls' and women's game. The department, headed by the former Mars executive Steve Parkin, will work "with all partners", in particular local authorities and the 43 regional county football associations.

The Foundation will effectively provide the money to implement the programme. Both organisations are committed to "socially inclusive" strategies to reach out to all sections of society in all areas of the country.

"We're trying to ensure as many people as possible play football at an appropriate level," said Kelly Simmons, the FA's head of national football development. "That means improving the quality of the experience and making it long lasting. It is mostly about the 98 per cent who will never play professionally, but it has to be good for the game at the top too."

Among the specific schemes is a £2m per year, three-year programme to train primary school teachers and provide basic football kit and equipment. That this is to be shared around 18,000 schools gives an idea of the scale of the problem. "We know it's going to be difficult," said Simmons, "but we are committed to working hard to make it happen."

In a world infested with too many organisations, initiatives and funding programmes, there is some scepticism and resentment. Many stalwarts of weekend playing fields feel they have not truly been listened to, but subjected to a cosmetic consultation exercise. Some in the counties believe the FA's ambitions exceed what can be done in the impoverished realities of grass roots football. They look at the FA's new department at Soho Square with its budget last year of £32m and fear that yet again it will generate jobs – now for the suits, not the blazers – without solving pitch drainage and shower blocks.

Then there is the criticism that Crozier's FA is not committed enough to this area, which is so fundamental but generates no headlines. Crozier and other senior FA officials visit the National Game's section of the building so rarely that the joke among staff is that the lift does not stop at the second floor. Some worry that the FA is turning into a commercial organisation, managing and marketing its lucrative brands, the FA Cup and international team, and that the National Game represents a sop to the workaday business of running a great sport. Add to that the usual concerns that there are too many committees and outdated attitudes, both at HQ and at the counties.

Most of those involved reject such criticism, arguing that the very existence of a department, handsomely funded, staffed by many committed young people who consider themselves as crusaders, give this latest FA initiative a good chance of producing results.

One major disappointment is the failure to work out a co-operative way forward with secondary schools, where most boys, and now girls, have always played their football. The FA has had a tedious and damaging tussle for 15 years with the English Schools Football Association, which has suffered its own agonising decline.

In 1997, Howard Wilkinson, the FA's newly appointed technical director, abolished the FA's school at Lillieshall which had been the source of some of the bitterness, and also removed the Under-15 international side from the ESFA.

His Charter for Quality programme introduced professional clubs' academies, whose players, hundreds at each club, are not allowed to play for their schools as well. The FA argued that the school teachers were not adequately qualified to coach the most gifted boys, and were overplaying them – yet the academies immediately poached some of the best teachers to be their coaches.

Sven Goran Eriksson's current young England side is hailed by some as a triumph for the new system but that is nonsense: the current players all came through the old system and played for their schools. Sol Campbell, Michael Owen and Wes Brown, among others, went to Lilleshall.

However, John Read, the ESFA's chief executive, stressed that he supported the FA's new strategy and positive work, but said: "It is very frustrating. We have been compensated financially for the loss of the Under-15 side, but have no other funding from the FA. We have had our business plans continually rejected. We have now given up sending them." Both he and Simmons said they were working towards agreeing sufficient funding to allow the ESFA to run football competitions for all schools football.

The Foundation has spent around £10m on facilities and applications are piling up. A truth generally acknowledged is that three years of £60m will not be enough and still compares badly with the millions the game is squandering on players' wages. The decline of sports facilities is ultimately only one aspect of the general collapse of public services which can be repaired only by a Government prepared to find the money. What football is doing is too little, too late, but it is a landmark to be able to say that, finally, something positive is happening.