Funding as a weapon, as an instrument of chastisement – it seems like an extremely odd concept to this woolly, liberal brain. If a funded body is underperforming it might seem intuitively right to deliver a rap across the knuckles. But what will cutting the cash do? Concentrate minds, perhaps, but will it make those minds better able to correct the situation? Or less? Answers on a postcard, please, to Sport England. The Football Association will surely be contemplating the question with a certain bitterness as they take in the news that funding for the grassroots is taking a £1.6m cut, thanks to participation targets not being met.
This is not a simple calculation that fewer people are playing football therefore less money is required. It’s a shot across the bows – as Sport England’s chief executive Jennie Price put it: “Taking £1.6m away is a real sign the FA needs to do something different, and I think they will take it seriously.”
It feels like a vicious circle: fewer players, less money, even fewer players, even less money. Until finally we’re back, quite literally, to jumpers for goalposts (or hoodies, more like). Sport England need to sit down with the FA, ascertain precisely why numbers are falling and take measures accordingly. Instead there seems to be a power game going on. Sport England say they’ll use the withheld funds to set up a City Football scheme themselves – but why they think they’re better qualified than the FA to run the scheme is not made clear.
Football, by the way, isn’t the only sport to receive a financial kick up the backside. Golf also loses £500,000, among others; but really, who cares about golf?
According to the figures, 1.84 million people play football for at least half an hour a week – that’s 100,000 down from last April, which seems a massive drop. But when were the stats compiled? We’ve had one of the wettest winters since Noah went into maritime construction so there must have been a lot less football played. (Figures for canoeing are in robust health, presumably.) My son’s rugby club lost the two months thanks to paddy-field pitches and we’re not even in a flood zone.
Even when it’s dry, where do they play? As the FA’s general secretary Alex Horne has pointed out, about 80 per cent of grassroots football makes use of local‑authority facilities, and they’re coming under increasing pressure to make it all pay. That calculation is simple: fewer pitches maintained by local authorities, less space for the Hangover Leagues.
Having said all that, the FA’s annual turnover is about £300m, so they can’t be on their uppers just yet. Can they not divert some of their own money towards the grassroots? The world seems seriously out of kilter when the big clubs pay wages of up to £300,000 a week while legions of volunteers at the bottom of the footballing pyramid are spending their spare time propping up the tottering structure. On Radio 5 Live yesterday morning there was a caller who runs a 62-team league from an office inside a shipping container. Will the cuts see him kicked out of it?
The England team is the most visible feature of the country’s No 1 sport, and supporters of Sport England’s decision will say that it won’t suffer. Indeed, these cuts won’t touch the upper echelons, but football is our national game, and if it’s going to play a vibrant, positive role in the life of the nation, it has to be flourishing at all levels. Hacking at the grassroots because of a missed target isn’t going to help – and we’ll have to see about the the City Football idea.
There’s also physical fitness to consider: according to the Chief Medical Officer, Dame Sally Davies, two-thirds of adults and a third of children are overweight. How is cutting funds to football’s governing body going to help that?
Suffering is good for the soul, sports fans
Sticking with the national game, there’s certainly been a decline in the amount of football – decent football, that is – being played by Manchester United under David Moyes, the-man-who-isn’t-Fergie. And as they went crashing to their 10th defeat of the season on Tuesday, against noisy neighbours Manchester City, there were howls of anguish resounding round the stadium, many directed at the-man-who-is-Fergie for anointing Moyes as his successor.
I say get a grip, you lightweights. As I approach my 50th year of United fandom, it’s not been glory, glory all the way. The past quarter of a century has been great, but the one before it was distinctly ropey. Fortunes rise and fall; empires come and go, and suffering is good for the soul. As Boris Becker put it when he was knocked out of Wimbledon as defending champion: “I didn’t lose a war. Nobody died. I lost a tennis match.”
Remember that, United fans. It’s a game. That’s all. City fans, meanwhile, enjoy it while you can. We’ll be back. I don’t know when, but we’ll be back.