Grassroots football in crisis, part 2: Buck stops with Government to fund facilities society needs

COMMENT: The FA, Premier League and the Government need to do more

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The Independent Online

Somewhere on the journey that led the Football Association to spend £757m on Wembley, £105m on St George’s Park, £6m a year on Fabio Capello, and £528,000 a year on current chief executive Alex Horne, the game’s governing body lost sight of what it was for.

The FA is not just for the England team, it is also about the 65,000 other adult and junior teams that play the national game. Belatedly they have woken up to this, though Horne’s surprise when a survey revealed 84 per cent of grassroots respondents said poor facilities were their biggest concern showed how out of touch the executive was.

It is to be hoped Greg Dyke, FA chairman, will reveal major proposals on Friday, and investment, in the second report of his England Commission. It is also to be hoped they are more likely to succeed than the half-baked plans for B teams and feeder clubs that undermined the first.

There are many good people in the FA’s National Game division working hard to repair decades of neglect. There is now support for clubs online, the Charter Standard initiative has improved club administration, once dismissed areas such as medical care and child protection are taken seriously. Female and disability football have received long-overdue attention.

The coaching courses are good, though too expensive, and there is an awareness that effort is needed to retain casual players in the face of competing demands, such as work and family commitments, and less traditional leisure pursuits.

But the bottom line is better playing and training facilities. Modern society demands more. Just as students now expect en-suite rooms as standard, while 30 years ago there was a breeze-block toilet-and-shower block down the corridor, so parks footballers want to change in clean, dry surroundings, with warm, working showers.

Much as the FA (and Premier League) could do better the task is bigger than they can handle, and the responsibility should not be the game’s alone. With most clubs hiring facilities from local authorities or educational establishments, both the sums involved and the practicalities demand Government involvement.

The £10m per annum the state currently puts into the Premier League and The FA Football Facilities Fund (formerly the Football Foundation), which build 3G all-weather pitches and changing rooms, is pathetic, the more so set against the £1.5bn tax Government receives from the professional game.

It would be stretching a point to argue parks football is the backbone of the national game, but it is part of the fabric of English society, and it gets people out of bed and keeps them moderately fit.

At a time when the NHS budget is £113bn with obesity and diabetes costing billions of pounds (not to mention to reduction in the crime that engaging and empowering youths through sport can achieve), that should be encouraged.

In Scandinavia and much of western Europe it is, with multi-sports clubs using excellent facilities part-funded by state help. That this is not the case in the UK shames us all.

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