Grassroots football in crisis: Players could fund pitches... but then again pigs might fly

COMMENT: Millionaire players could help with the problem

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The Independent Online

The biggest problem at grassroots is facilities, specifically, pitches. PBFL was one of hundreds of leagues that suffered from last season’s wet winter with a welter of postponements. Many players went weeks without kicking a ball.

Among them, Paul Scholes’ revealed in these pages, was the former England and Manchester United player’s eldest son. Scholes wrote glowingly of two 3G all-weather pitches he had opened in Salford, said he passionately believed in young kids having access to better facilities and hoped many more would be built. Rio Ferdinand, Scholes’ former team-mate, has added his voice to the debate. Ferdinand, who is on Greg Dyke’s England commission, whose report on grassroots is keenly awaited, wrote in his book how appalled he was that there are only 639 3G pitches in England compared to 5,000 in Germany.

There is investment in such pitches, but it is pitifully slow. Terry Butcher and Chris Sutton were at the opening of one in Lowestoft a fortnight ago, Roy Hodgson attended an unveiling in Biggin Hill last week. But we need, it was calculated last year, 2,000; at this rate it will take decades.

It doesn’t help that the Premier League, FA and Government now, shamefully, put only £34m combined annually into the Premier League & The FA Facilities Fund (formerly the Football Foundation), which builds new pitches, when they used to provide £60m. This despite the game’s television income having increased exponentially to the stage where it tops £2bn a year, and the Government receives £1bn a year in tax from football.

The decision by the Football League to move towards allowing 3G pitches in the lower divisions will help. Non-League can be expected to follow suit and that will encourage professional clubs at those levels to lay 3G which can then, as at Maidstone United, be shared with the community. But this is still nowhere near enough. Huge investment is required by the game and the Government.

But here’s an idea. A new full-size floodlit 3G pitch costs around £600,000. An England footballer earns roughly £5m a year. Building football pitches though a charity such as the Facilities Fund is tax-deductible. Recent and current England players, like David Beckham and John Terry, Joe Hart and Wayne Rooney, could probably spare £700,000, and it is a far more moral form of tax avoidance than some of the schemes footballers have become involved in. Many footballers come from areas of social deprivation. Ferdinand could put his name to a centre in Peckham, Steven Gerrard could do so in Huyton, Danny Welbeck in Longsight. Some players already run foundations that do good work, but this would be a collective activity, by the players of today for the players of tomorrow.

It would improve their image and ameliorate the growing sense that footballers have become isolated from fans. It might even shame the authorities into stepping up their investment.  All the players need to do is write the cheque and choose the area. The Football Foundation, whose delivery is excellent, would do the rest.

And there goes a flock of pigs, flying by.

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