Extra time: Government cutbacks in local authority spending threaten youth sport


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The Independent Football

This week the Health and Social Care Information Centre revealed a third of year six primary school pupils (age 10 or 11) are obese or overweight, with children in urban areas most likely to be affected.

This will come as no surprise to anyone involved in youth sport. As last week’s Dossier revealed, only 400 of England’s 38,000 football pitches are 3G (the artificial turf that mimics a good grass surface), which means that most weekends in winter many children (and adults) have their matches cancelled. Other children do not even want to attempt to play sport at venues whose facilities often lack the most basic requirements and instead sit indoors watching TV, playing electronic games, and getting fatter.

Even when the pitches are playable, Government cutbacks in local authority spending threaten youth sport. Many councils are seeking either to reduce the already limited maintenance provided or increase hire fees.

One such was Sefton on Merseyside, which proposed increasing fees for pitches used by under-11s from £180 a season to £600. However, a protest organised by Kenny Saunders, a former professional footballer now coaching kids at Woolton Football Club, has persuaded the council to back down. It is a victory, but only up to a point. Woolton run 53 teams, but the pitches they use have no toilet.

Saunders, whose former charges include Joey Barton and Tony Hibbert, organised a Merseyside-wide protest against the fees rise last week, with thousands of children forgoing their weekend match. He has also involved Everton, Liverpool and Tranmere Rovers. As pointed out in these pages last week, the Premier League, with the £5.5bn bonanza of the new TV deal, has an opportunity to make a real difference to people’s lives on a national scale and it is good to see clubs taking up the issue, even if it is the Government which has the true responsibility for the nation’s health.

Saunders hopes to build a national movement and is targeting a 1 per cent cut of the Premier League deal for grass roots. At £600,000 to build from scratch a floodlit 3G pitch, that would be enough to build half the pitches still needed to meet the playing and training requirements of the country’s 120,000 teams – though if facilities are provided it is very likely participation would rise.

Good luck to him, but where neither the Government nor the professional game is prepared to get involved the solution may lie in socially aware private enterprise. Paul Bracewell, the former England, Everton and Sunderland footballer, is involved in Complete Football, which has one base in the North-east at Gosforth Park and, serendipitously for the children of Sefton, is planning a second at Walton Park. There will be plenty of toilets.

Bracewell’s company is profit-making, but the corporates and adult players effectively subsidise youth football – together with sponsors – enabling a £1-a-head weekend charge. The aim is to roll the centres out nationally. “There is massive demand,” said Bracewell.

Indeed there is.