Grassroots Football: It’s Good To Talk, But What Next?

THERE remains a strange apathy toward grassroots football and it’s importance in the grand scheme of the game – a fact underlined by attempts to drum up 100,000 signatures to potentially spark a parliamentary debate on the issue, writes GARETH ROBERTS.

A petition that ran for six months proposing a five per cent levy on the money raised from Premier League broadcasting rights – and for that cash to be pumped back into the lower levels of the country’s most popular sport – had attracted 42,843 signatures when it closed in March 2018.

To put that into context, that’s only 2,000 or so more than the average attendance at a Chelsea match in the Premier League. And it’s significantly less than the 50,000-plus that regularly pack into St James Park to watch Newcastle United.

A glance at the petition map further brings into focus what is a depressing picture. It shows that in the overwhelming majority of UK constituencies only 1-90 people signed via a very simple online process.

A rebooted version of the petition at change.org currently sits at 36,000 signatures.

The big question is: why?

Fans, managers, chief executives, the PR department – seemingly anyone and everyone connected to the big football clubs loves the local lad come good tale.

And why not? It’s fairytale stuff that never fails to warm the heart when a kid swaps a replica kit and the local park for the real thing and the ground of the club he loves.

So why isn’t there more love for the breeding ground for those romantic tales?

Last week Justin Madders, Labour MP for Ellesmere Port and Neston, led a parliamentary debate that heard facilities at grassroots level are still lacking when compared to other countries.

The discussion centered on the now collapsed £600million deal for selling Wembley Stadium to Shahid Khan that was set to spark a windfall of cash for grassroots football.

When selling the case for selling Wembley, the FA’s own research suggested that only one in three pitches at grassroots were “adequate” and that one in six matches were called off due to pitch quality.

As Madders highlighted last week: “The sale falling through has left a hole where the grassroots strategy was.”

Alex Sobel, who represents Labour Co-op for Leeds North West, said a club in his constituency, Otley Town FC, had written to him with concerns around facilities.

The letter read: “The key issue that we have is the quality of training facilities in winter. Most junior and senior clubs need access to all weather pitches so they have good environments to train in.”

It’s a picture replicated up and down the country. Yet while potential stars of tomorrow struggle to train for – and play – matches, the land was happily riding on the England rollercoaster during the World Cup exploits last summer, a trip to the semi finals that featured players that started out at local junior teams.

Madders added at Westminster: “I believe a small levy or a redistribution of existing funds could do an awful lot more for grassroots football.”

And this is exactly the premise of the petition above that received such disappointing support.

At The Fans Agency, our aim is to play a small part, too – donating 10 per cent of future profits to deserving grassroots causes.

Yet the question will remain when it comes to the bigger picture, why can’t more be done? Why can’t more pitches be brought up to scratch?

The Premier League currently provides around £100 million a year to grassroots causes. Yet when the last round of TV rights was worth £5billion – and Richard Scudamore was paid a lucrative “farewell bonus” of £5million – it’s easy to see why campaigners continue to bang the drum for more.

As Madders concluded in the debate: “…thanks to the thousands of people who give up their time to voluntarily run the teams, organise the fixtures, paint the lines, mow the pitches, put up the nets, and all the other jobs.

“Without those people, grassroots football would not exist. Their love of the game means that millions of people up and down the country get to participate, and their dedication gives youngsters opportunities to emulate their heroes. They often have to do so while getting changed in car parks in the freezing cold, facing frequent cancellations and bobbly pitches that are mud baths, so it is not surprising that kids sometimes prefer to spend their time playing football on the Xbox, rather than in real life.

“We all know about the need to encourage healthy living and exercise, and we all know about the many distractions kids have that do not involve them getting off their couches, so we need to make the playing experience as genuinely enjoyable as possible.”

The debate might have finally reached the right part of London. But still the answers aren’t clear. While cash is finding its way to some inner-cities, and there are undoubtedly some good projects taking place via The Football Foundation, a crisis in provision of quality facilities remains.

You can add your signature to the petition on grassroots football HERE.

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