Lack of sports facilities an election issue, warns Brooking

Grass-roots crusader must convince ministers that an industry awash with money still needs investment.

The public perception of Sir Trevor Brooking is a Mr Nice Guy sitting firmly astride the fence, slow to chide and swift to bless. But to start the elegant former West Ham and England midfielder off on favourite topics such as Government funding of sport or the coaching of young footballers is to light claret-and-blue touchpaper.

The public perception of Sir Trevor Brooking is a Mr Nice Guy sitting firmly astride the fence, slow to chide and swift to bless. But to start the elegant former West Ham and England midfielder off on favourite topics such as Government funding of sport or the coaching of young footballers is to light claret-and-blue touchpaper.

It was the former subject that won him an unexpected combination of notoriety and enemies in four years as chairman of Sport England from 1998 to 2002, and the latter one that helped make him the perfect candidate when the Football Association decided to appoint a director of football development 15 months ago.

Although immediately mentioned as an obvious caretaker whenever there is any question of the England manager's job falling vacant, he is much more involved with the opposite end of the sport's pyramid, a role that found him at Charlton Athletic's ground last week, helping to publicise "The Grass Roots Football Show". Billed as the Motor Show of football, in London's Docklands in July, it will nevertheless be Ford Focus rather than Ferrari, with coaching sessions, equipment displays and discussion groups all aimed at the half-million unpaid volunteers who keep the ball rolling from Stanley Park to Wanstead Flats.

Sir Trevor will make the keynote speech on 16 July, and could do worse than reprise his 10-minute rallying call at The Valley, delivered without a note. In that introduction and in a series of subsequent interviews, he returned persistently to the dual themes of chaotic funding and quality of coaching, linked by football's power as a tool for social cohesion. "My brief at the FA covers the national game, which is the grass roots, and the development side," he began, "which is something I feel very strongly about, especially the lack of investment in PE and school sport for a number of years. With an election on the horizon, I think you'll find sport gets a lot of mentions, but unfortunately not so much finance."

In front of a much smaller audience later in the day, Brooking would quietly reveal his own role in bringing about what is supposed to be a massive increase in such funding: "I went to a League Cup final at Wembley a few years ago and was moaning at the meal beforehand about PE in schools to the lady next to me, who said I ought to talk to her husband opposite. He turned out to be Sir Richard Wilson, the then head of the Civil Service, who got me a meeting with Alastair [Campbell] and eventually the PM. The PM works on about 16 top priorities, and PE and school sport became one of them. I came back from doing a radio commentary for Five Live listening to the Prime Minister at the party conference announcing £750 million for school sport. But the frustration is that, as we sit here four years later, less than 10 per cent of that has actually been spent, because the rest is stuck in the bureaucracy of delivery mechanisms.

"Football and sport have been really poor at lobbying," he adds, suggesting that election time offers the chance for sports enthusiasts everywhere to ask some pertinent questions. "There's a great opportunity when candidates are out in their constituencies. Why aren't they investing in local sports facilities? You've got obesity problems, the health service, targets to hit for physical activity... In the next decade, almost every secondary school in the country is to be refurbished, a multi-billion-pound operation. What I'm concerned about is, are there going to be quality sports facilities for use by that school, the local primary schools and the community in the evening and at weekends?"

Outside the Parliamentary Football Group - and perhaps even inside, as their report a year ago suggested - there is suspicion, however, about an industry perceived to be rolling in money. Brooking says: "One of my challenges at the FA is to get Cabinet ministers to understand the work football is doing at clubs like Charlton, which has a magnificent Football in the Community scheme, or Notts County, where 18 coaches are working in the community. The perception, unfortunately, is that it's an industry awash with money at the top end that Government doesn't need to invest in."

Brooking is keen to make the point that the Champions' League and Premiership are a long way removed from the grass roots and cannot, in any case, be expected to supply the £2 billion required to bring facilities up to scratch. In supporting football at the lowest levels and the youngest ages, he would hope to deliver "coaching for a social programme, helping to produce people with an all-round character, fitness and a good standard of behaviour."

But who will coach the coaches? Concerned that teaching for those children not taken up by club academies is "very fragmented and sometimes not very good", he is considering setting up a Coach Education Department, and targeting "the mums and dads who run their own teams at the weekend". Watching matches in local parks recently, he was dispirited not only by the ranting on the touchline, but by a lack of improvement in skills and technique from month to month. "The technical input is not good enough in the lower age-groups and we've got to get real quality coaches working there, so that any youngsters who want to get better understand how they can become better.

"At the moment, they're getting a lot of encouragement and enthusiasm, but not coaching. When they whack the ball upfield 20 yards from anyone, they get a 'well done, good clearance', but actually they've given it straight back to the opposition."

As that is an accusation that can be levelled at English teams considerably higher up the scale - right at the very top, it sometimes seems - the scale of the task for a director of football development is clear. But, nice guy or not, do not underestimate the current incumbent and his determination to do something about it.

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