Kids missing out on halcyon summer fun

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The various high-level initiatives announced last week to improve sport for youngsters struck quite a few chords.

The various high-level initiatives announced last week to improve sport for youngsters struck quite a few chords.

The Football Foundation, a partnership between the Premier League, the Professional Footballers' Association, the Football League, the Football Association and the Government's Sport England initiative, took over from the Football Trust as the independent body to help finance facilities in the game's areas of need. The Foundation, chaired by the Labour MP Tom Pendry, will be funded primarily from professional football's television rights income.

The Government also pledged to double general sports funding to £102m by 2003-04. This represents a much-needed boost for sport after what Chris Smith, the Secretary of State for Culture, Arts and the Media, referred to as "decades of under-funding" and the news that Lottery funding of sport is on the decline.

There are plans for 600 new schools sports co-ordinators who will foster inter-schools competition in leagues. This plan is remarkably similar to one devised a few years ago by the FA's much-maligned former director of coaching, Charles Hughes. The scheme foundered on the unwillingness of Premier League chairmen to make the necessary financial commitment. Now the climate has changed somewhat and, faced with the spectre of independent financial regulation, the clubs are happy to take on a wider social role.

The European champions, France, have rightly been widely cited as the example to follow. Even the smallest French village can boast an immaculately tended sports field.

I'm ashamed to confess I live in a village which has nowhere whatsoever for the youngsters to play games. Surrounded by farmland, there's just no free space at all, so it's little wonder that teenagers spend their time hanging around the streets or watching tacky TV programmes.

Just think how much fun they are missing out on in the summer holidays - I'm so grateful that video games had not been invented when I was a teenager. I can vividly remember one year playing football every single day, morning and afternoon, on a municipal sports field. The only interruptions came for a fish-and-chip lunch (I know Kevin Keegan was extolling the virtue of proper nutrition from an early age but chips never did Alf Tupper, the tough of the track, any harm), or when the girls who hung around in our gang got fed up with sitting on the sidelines and dragged some of the lads off to Blackpool Pleasure Beach. I couldn't see the point myself. I was having much more fun with a football and there was no admission fee.

Last week the Prime Minister's spokesman said: "Sport makes a real contribution to helping youngsters develop life skills", but my interpersonal relationships went by the board, I'm afraid, when there were sides to be picked on a sunny afternoon and half our complement wanted to abandon us for the awful Funhouse. Unsurprisingly, it was years before I had a girlfriend and little did she know what she was letting herself in for, poor girl.

There were no goalposts in the summer, of course, and no nets, just a pile of discarded clothing for posts which would engender long arguments about whether a shot had merely flicked the inside of the "post" or had knocked over the whole pile, in which case no goal was counted. The ignominy ofconceding a goal was compounded by having to go and fetch the ball. Anybody who blasted the ball home from close range was roundly derided and sent to fetch it.

We didn't have the replica kits, of course, just pumps and shorts and the ball was light plastic, not leather. This posed considerable difficulties on winter nights when we adjourned to the seafront promenade to take advantage of the street lamps. Many's the time 6s 8d worth of Frido ball sailed over the low seawall into the swirling waters below. Invariably, it was the poorest kid whose ball control let him down and who could least afford a replacement.

We had indeed enjoyed competitive football at primary school. One year the whole school was crammed into three double-decker buses to support us in the cup final. My performance caught the attention of one Charlie Kilby, a director of Fourth Division Accrington Stanley, no less, so that particular summer was spent away from all my mates. I summered in Accrington and not everyone can claim that. I played a full part in pre-season training, but sadly the club went bust before I could pull on the famous red-and-white shirt. I did buy their replica shirt for old times' sake, but everyone thinks it's Arsenal's.

If someone could give back real fun and freedom to our kids they would be performing a service millions of pounds couldn't buy.