The Nation's Game - life at the bottom of the pyramid: Part 7, So what comes next for grassroots football?

Across a seven-part series, The Independent has explored the deeply misunderstood and complex world of grassroots football

Samuel Lovett
Monday 14 January 2019 14:22
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Grassroots football is now at a crossroads in this country. What lies ahead will either make or break the nation’s game
Grassroots football is now at a crossroads in this country. What lies ahead will either make or break the nation’s game

Marcus Rashford? Fletcher Moss Rangers. Lucy Bronze? Blyth Town. Harry Kane? Ridgeway Rovers. In this day and age it’s easy to forget that, for these players and more, this is where it all started; not in the space-age comfort of the Etihad Campus or the leafy Cobham suburbs, but the humble, unassuming familiarity of the local Sunday football team.

In many ways, this is what connects ‘us’ with ‘them’. For all their fame and wealth, the grassroots experience is one that thousands of us share in common with the game’s elite stars. Like them, we too cut our teeth in the pouring rain on a Sunday morning, we too revelled in the glory of a game-winning goal, we too went through the agony and heartbreak of relegation. Perhaps this explains our deep, and at times, illogical attachment to the sport. Strip back the glitz and glamour and it’s our game as much as theirs.

Which is why the sad decline of traditional grassroots pulls on the heartstrings somewhat. As fewer children turn to the game, and as more and more clubs disband under the strain of the current socio-economic climate, wrapped up in all of this is the tacit acknowledgement that those formative childhood memories so many of us hold dear are becoming increasingly rare.

But we shouldn’t let our sentimental attachments to the past stand in the way of what can be a new chapter for the sport. After all, there is cause for optimism. More money than ever is being invested in the game, more 3G pitches are being built, and more opportunities to get involved are emerging; after years of neglect, there is now direction and purpose to the grassroots strategy. This has subsequently seen new variants of the sport materialise and flourish, with the thriving 5-a-side game testament to our nation’s unwavering passion for football – in whatever form it takes.

The real challenge, then, lies in embracing the sport’s future while preserving the traditions of the past. Whether this is possible, such is the complexity of the grassroots game, remains to be seen. But that needn’t deter us. There are changes that can be introduced, tweaks that can be made to tighten the mechanics of grassroots football, solutions to be proposed.

Indeed, according to the FA’s 2017 grassroots survey, in which 30,000 people took part, the availability of quality artificial pitches was cited as a priority for 63 per cent of participants. Good news for those communities set to become the beneficiaries of Parklife schemes later this year in Liverpool and London respectively, but what about those without access to such facilities?

The FA is planning to bring Parklife to 30 English cities in the years to come – but what about those without access to such facilities?

The FA earlier this year outlined its plans to introduce 600 ‘mini pitches’ within schools and club sites by 2024. As more and more green-space is swallowed up by urban development, or abandoned to a lack of council funding, it’s vital these new pitches are kept accessible to ensure already falling participation rates aren’t accelerated. In the same spirit, more inner-city ‘cages’ are needed too. These facilities offer a viable alternative to public playing fields and have proven beneficial to the most deprived areas of England’s towns. Whether funded by the FA, the Premier League or Sport England, or all three, we need more.

Nonetheless, as discussed earlier in the series, Parklife holds much potential but it remains limited in what it can offer those in search of a casual kick about. Why not, then, introduce an ‘open-gate’ policy during after-school hours which, prior to the daily evening rush, will offer children a free and safe space to keep playing the game? The costs lost through this policy can be reclaimed by bumping up prices during peak hours when participants are more likely to be those with a steady income and a desire to play 5-a-side football.

What about the traditional grass-based pitch, though? As the backbone to grassroots football, this area of the sport shouldn’t be neglected in favour of 3G. With 83 per cent of England’s pitches owned by cash-poor councils, an agreement must be struck between local civic authorities and the FA to address this imbalance. Either the government dedicates more sports funding to local councils to allow them to properly maintain public pitches (easier said than done) or, conversely, more responsibility is handed to the FA. In sharing the burden of pitch provision and maintenance between the two organisations, greater attention can be paid to our country’s grass-based playing spaces.

The traditional game shouldn’t be neglected in favour of emerging 3G-based variants

Away from facilities, the 2017 grassroots survey revealed that just 27 per cent of the coaches questioned were positive about the opportunities for advancement. This is a key area where our grassroots game lags behind the likes of Spain, the Netherlands and, most notably, Germany, where there are three times as many grassroots coaches with DFB qualifications than there are FA-qualified coaches in England. The FA has made it clear it wants more coaches in the English game but until the organisation reduces the costs involved within the current system – it costs up to £4,000 to train for a Uefa A licence in England whereas Germany coaches will pay out around this figure – the chances of this happening are small.

Other criticisms levelled against the current grassroots system have often targeted its bureaucratic and antiquated infrastructure which, in many instances, clashes with the no-nonsense pragmatism deployed by grassroots footballs’ volunteers. Coaches have complained of the protracted nature of applying for funds which, on top of running a club in their spare time, can take hours complete. One figure within the FA admitted to The Independent that it could be simpler where it needs to be. Similarly, criticism has also been raised against the way FA’s country franchises are run separate from one other, therefore leading to variation in terms of fees for coaching courses, first-aid training programmes and more.

Why am I asking, and this is true mind, a heart surgeon at the Freeman Hospital in Newcastle to do a bloody basic first aid course because the FA won’t recognise the qualification what he’s got.He could teach the tutor whose doing the course more than he'll ever dream of!

Ian Coates, secretary at Newcastle Pinpoint League

It’s in these sorts of instances where a more streamlined, unified approach across the country would serve to enhance the game. In making small tweaks here and there, we can expect see to greater efficiency and cohesion out in the field. Sometimes it’s the small things that make the biggest difference.

Higher up the pyramid, those much-needed tweaks have already been made meaning the internecine strife that used to characterise the relationship between the likes of the FA and the Premier League has made way for a shared commitment to grassroots. “All the partners are now moving in the right direction and I am more optimistic than I have ever been that we will get this right,” Paul Thorogood, chief executive of the Football Foundation, told The Independent.

In the past four months alone, funding from the FA, the Premier League and the government, via the Football Foundation, has helped build floodlights at Newquay AFC, an all-weather football facility in Oxford, a state-of-the-art clubhouse at Thetford Town FC, a 3G pitch at The Hemel Hempstead School, and much, much more. Since its inception in 2000, the Football Foundation has invested more than £1.4bn into the grassroots game. Although certain areas of the sport remain hamstrung by parochial strategies and obsolete administration, the Football Foundation continues to lead the way and its work has been vital in breathing new life into the game in recent years. That the FA, the Premier League and Sport England all increased their investments into the charity last year points to the continuing success of the organisation.

But are we indeed at a “game-changing moment for grassroots football” – as Thorogood says? More can always be done, sports minister Tracey Crouch acknowledged in Part 6 of the series, but in many ways the game is now approaching a crossroads.

To the left, we’re faced with the same old story: falling nationwide participation rates; decreasing public green-space; inadequate facilities; cash-poor councils; and a general decline in traditional 11-a-side football. But, to the right, there is reason to be optimistic: rising rates of participation among women and girls; increasing investment into the game; state-of-the-art facilities; flourishing ‘astroturf’ football; ambitious new initiatives; and, for the first time, a shared commitment to improving grassroots among the sport’s elite decision-makers. It’s what lies ahead that will come to either make or break the nation’s game.

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