For those that care enough to wish for a windfall for grassroots football – the players, the managers, the coaches, the fans – you could forgive them all for a collective shrug of the shoulders when the subject periodically enters the national news agenda, writes GARETH ROBERTS.
It’s a topic that ebbs and flows through the wider football conversation, repeatedly brought into the spotlight for an all-too-brief moment, only to fade away into obscurity again as the Premier League pushes its way to the front of the focus once more.
Issues at amateur level have long been recognised and discussed, from failing facilities to pricey pitches, yet too often it feels like there is a need for, to quote Elvis Presley, “A little less conversation, a little more action, please.”
What is depressing in many respects is how so many view football away from the top of the game as almost a different sport. So it’s spoken of as: grassroots football. Or non-league football. Or lower-league football.
It’s not. It’s just football. All of it is football.
It seems to get lost at times that most clubs started out as grassroots clubs. Manchester City may now splurge a seemingly endless amount of cash on superstar players but, like Celtic, it was a church that founded the club back in the distant past.
Manchester United and Arsenal, meanwhile, were works teams. Similar stories are many and plentiful in the history of football.
The clubs, and the leagues they play in, may now have been repackaged, polished and marketed as something else, but they remain clubs, albeit rich ones, operating in the community in which they were born.
Marcus Rashford may now wear a red devil on his chest as an employee of Manchester United, but once upon a time he turned out for Fletcher Moss Rangers in Didsbury.
You may not have heard of them. It’s a club in a suburb of Manchester that also counts Jesse Lingard, Wes Brown and Danny Welbeck among its alumni across three decades of competing in junior leagues.
Those players didn’t play a different sport at Mersey Bank Playing Fields. They played football. It’s where they mixed with mates, developed skills, found their forte and eventually made it to the very top, clocking up more than 650 Premier League games between them so far.
Dave Horrocks, academy development manager at Fletcher Moss Rangers, spoke to The Times about Rashford’s rise to the top in 2016.
He said: “You don’t have a crystal ball, so you never know for sure, but Marcus is one of those whose talent shone through straightaway. He scored 12 goals in one game.”
“He was greedy with the ball, always looking to dribble and shoot. That’s not a criticism. We encourage them to dribble and shoot at that age because that’s what they enjoy. You work on the passing later. He was always hungry for the ball.”
Does that sound like Rashford benefitted from the opportunity to play competitive football on his doorstep at a tender age?
What would have happened had that team, that league, and those people offering the player advice and guidance, simply not existed?
It seems that all too often we only talk about the bottom of the game when something happens at the top. Yet it should be a constant conversation and one that ends in doing something differently for the good of the sport without excuses and with an actual end result.
There have been examples recently of the situation that so frustrates.
First, the potential sale of Wembley Stadium to Fulham owner Shahid Khan.
While the idea outraged many, it was sugar-coated for others by The FA’s plan to invest the projected £600million proceeds into grassroots facilities.
Sport England supported the move, detailing a national assessment that found 63 per cent of pitches to be “poor or standard”.
The body said its research found a “clear link between poor-facility experience and [lower levels of] participation”.
When Khan’s offer was withdrawn, so came the same old conversation and conclusions. Something should be done. Something should change. And yet there has been very little evidence of either in the aftermath of the collapse.
Meanwhile, the facts remain. Among them that two out of three grass pitches in England have been found to be inadequate.
Yet when attention turned back to The Premier League – and questions were asked by The Guardian’s David Conn as to why the percentage of cash going back to grassroots from the Premier League amounted to 3.6 per cent (short of a once promised five per cent) no real answers were forthcoming.
A few weeks on though, it emerged that outgoing executive chairman of the Premier League Richard Scudamore would receive a £5million “farewell bonus” paid by clubs – a move that went ahead despite outrage from football fans up and down the country.
And so those shoulders shrug once again. What about us?
For the thousands looking in from the outside it feels like there is a bubble wrapped around those bringing in the billions.
More than 147,000 grassroots matches were postponed last year because of pitches being unplayable.
It surely can’t be the hardest issue to remedy when the TV cash continues to pour in at the top of the game. It just needs to flow to the bottom more readily.
While we wait for the big answers, the smaller solutions continue to be offered up.
Every week, armies of football-lovers will volunteer their time to keep clubs from flat-lining, from organising fundraisers, putting out the begging bowl to local businesses or just continuing to give up their time to keep things ticking over.
At The Fans Agency we want to play a part, too – and we need your help. We’re launching our Game-Changer Grants – with an initial pot of £20,000 – to help some of the clubs most in need of a helping hand. Keep an eye on the website for details soon.