The weekend the clocks go back is not just a miserable one psychologically, it is a damaging one for grassroots youth football. It is now dark within an hour of children coming home from school, which means the usual midweek training facility – the local park – is no longer practical. Since floodlit and indoor venues are usually commercial operations which want around £50 for an hour's hire, a long indolent winter lies ahead for many teams. While there are weekend matches – waterlogging-prone pitches permitting – the players' only access to midweek football will be via Fifa 14 or TV.
Meanwhile the Football Association continues an orgy of lavish self-congratulation which peaked at a 150th anniversary dinner last week (cost unknown, though the FA insists it was modest) at which the star turn was Sepp Blatter, a man whose contempt for his hosts knows few bounds.
At the dinner Greg Dyke, the FA chairman, said: "Our consistent theme across the year has been to celebrate the FA's support for the grassroots game, which has always been fundamental to the FA's role in football. At every turn, we have highlighted the work done right across the country by 400,000 volunteers and also highlighted what is being achieved with the £100m we put back into the game every year." Hmm. Most people at grassroots would rather have a pitch to play on than a pat on the back.
Recent FA research discovered 84 per cent of grassroots players think improving facilities should be the main focus of the FA. This appeared to surprise an organisation whose general secretary, Alex Horne, is paid more than three times the prime minister's salary, which has spent £850m on Wembley and St George's Park in the last decade, yet can only spare £12m a year to improve facilities at grassroots level.
As a general view this correspondent feels the Government is primarily to blame for the abysmal state of public sports facilities. One need only look to the Continent to see what can be achieved under governments that actively encourage the population to exercise rather than just reel off platitudes and slogans. But the coalition's downgrading of the sports minister's role means Helen Grant, though eager, will be largely impotent when it comes to getting the nation off the sofa and onto the playing field.
It would also be nice to see the Premier League invest more of its £5.4bn TV windfall in the wider game even if, by the standards of private companies in the UK, they do more for society than most.
However, the FA must bear some responsibility for what is, after all, its raison d'être. In its strategic plan, launched in 2011, the three pillars are creating winning England teams, promoting football for everyone, and governance. Since the clubs employ and develop professional players, and the leagues are responsible for much of the game's organisation, the grassroots would appear the area the FA can most influence.
Of the £100m Dyke mentioned, only £50m actually goes into the grassroots; the rest is spent on the professional game (England, FA Cup prize money etc). But where does the £50m for grassroots go?
The FA was unable to provide details but one county FA, which is the conduit for much of its work, did. A medium-sized county FA, serving both rural and urban areas, it has an annual income of around £1m. Roughly half of that comes from the FA, much of it ring-fenced to fund specific programmes. There is also a small contribution from Sport England. A remarkable £200,000 is provided by fines, though since running the disciplinary system costs £100,000, only half is profit. The bulk of the rest comes from affiliation fees (for which clubs get benefits such as insurance and administrative assistance), the County Cup, publications (both break even), and fees for coaching courses.
The last is a controversial subject, with many thinking FA courses are too expensive. They are actually, compared to most training courses, good value and run at a loss. Coaches at charter standard clubs can often access funding to cover some or all of the costs. But since most coaches are volunteers, seeking only to improve the quality of footballers, and have to take time off work to attend courses, there is a powerful argument for further subsidy. Indeed, across the Severn, Sport Wales provides 100 per cent funding for levels one and two.
The FA also subsidises disability football, the women's game and skills coaching for children. The organisation also has many talented people whose focus is on the grassroots. However, it could be argued the leadership has focused too much attention and cash on one team, England, at the expense of the thousands of others the FA oversees. The media are partly the cause of this, but instead of making the headline-grabbing vow to win the 2022 World Cup, Dyke should have pledged the FA to provide a decent football pitch for everyone who wants to play the game. Not as sexy, but much more important.
'Two boys somewhere', a picture taken in Derbyshire, near the FA's £105m St George Park development by photographer Stuart Roy Clarke (above), taken from his book Homes of Football:Where the Heart Is (Bluecoat Press, £19.99), published this week
1. Where there's a Wills, there's a way to reach grass roots
Sepp Blatter was not the only star turn at the FA's 150th birthday party, Prince William, the FA's president, was also present. It is to be hoped Greg Dyke had a word as to how HRH can personally help the grass roots. When his father becomes King, Prince William will inherit the Duchies of Lancaster and Cornwall, one of the largest landholdings in the country. While much of the 180,000 acres is farmland, forest or central London property, surely the Prince could lay down a few 3G astroturf pitches for his subjects, or donate some land for the purpose?
2. Zero to hero Bale shows fickle nature of modernity
Gareth Bale: From waste of money to superstar in 90 minutes. The rush to judgement, by media and fans, is clearly as much a problem in Spain as it is in England. More problematic is that it now infects boardrooms as Notts County, searching for their 17th manager since the turn of the Millennium, might ponder.
3. Third degree for clubs who try to cash in on fans?
Third kits, a needed alternative when the first two strips are not suitable, or another way to fleece supporters? A tweet from Crystal Palace yesterday may provide some clues: "The team will be in our third kit of all yellow @WBAFCofficial – you can buy this new kit now from our online shop."
4. Miraculous Ahly flying the flag for troubled Egypt
An extraordinary feat of resilience in Africa where, amid the ongoing problems in Egyptian society and football, defending champions Al-Ahly have reached the final of the continent's Champions League. They play the first leg against South Africa's Orlando Pirates today with the return, probably in Cairo, next Sunday. With their domestic league suspended Al-Ahly have played only Champions League ties since June.
5. Only one man shown up by Blatter's latest blunder
After viewing Sepp Blatter's bizarre Cristiano Ronaldo impersonation at the Oxford Union, he does not seem to be insulting the Real Madrid player but instead celebrating the diversity of characters in football via Ronaldo and Lionel Messi's differences. The more convincing impression Blatter gives is of a genial, but doddery old buffer who should have stood down from leading Fifa to play with his grandchildren a decade ago.