There is a lot of discussion and speculation surrounding the demise of grassroots football on various social media platforms, football publications and overheard in conversations with football fans. Without wanting to go all “Ron Manager”, it does indeed look like the days of young boys in the park with jumpers for goalposts are long gone. But what can we do to bring it back? Is it just about chucking money at it or does this go deeper?
In July I went with Blues Trust to the Supporter’s Summit at Wembley. Olympic Way was emblazoned with slogans about “Saving Grassroots Football” and I watched some 5 a side games taking place on pitches outside the stadium. Indeed, grass roots was the topic of much debate during the summit, with various Trusts, fanzines and supporter groups kicking off (‘scuse the pun) campaigns to put more money into the game nationally at that level. Following the dismal performance of the England team during the World Cup last year, grassroots football was obviously high on the agenda. And whilst the discussion around poor facilities, lack of scouts, no resources and sustainability were all extremely valid – and one that money plays a fundamental part in – I couldn’t help thinking that the key focus is we need to get the youth to participate in and play football again. This was something that hit very much home when I walked back past the empty pitches on a warm July afternoon and returned to my hotel a mere 200 yards away, to see in the lobby kids of twelve and thirteen huddled over the PCs…..playing Fifa 14. With purpose built, secure pitches a mere three minute walk away, in our nation’s legendary football stadium, just three weeks after the World Cup had ended, there were lads opting to play football on a screen then get outside and play it.
Many children say to me they want to be a footballer when they grow up. When asked why, the majority of answers will be around having lots of money/driving a nice car/going out with pretty girls/all of the latter. This is a true sign of the times, and the instant gratification culture that seems to be increasing. The link between standing in a muddy field in the rain in your football kit at training week in, week out at the age of eight and appearing on the cover of Hello Magazine fifteen to twenty years later is a huge one.
Although the school football teams still exist and inter-school tournaments are going strong, the amount of schools banning any parents from spectating is on the increase. Again there are many valid reasons why schools are doing this. However the knock on effect is that if parents cannot attend, and cheer on children that are playing, then children are unmotivated and do not gain the sense of pride and accomplishment that comes with winning a game. If there is no-one watching, they could potentially feel that it is a futile effort. There is also an increase in the amount of schools that ban lunchtime football. This is because of lunchtime staff lacking the expertise and knowledge of the game. Arguments over football rules cause frayed and loss of tempers amongst children, with fights happening and behaviour issues spilling over into the afternoon.
Money needs to be invested into the right areas. We can invest it into pitches, changing rooms, kits, minibuses for fixtures, local teams – but if there are no children to play it, it’s a wasted economy. I don’t pretend to know all the answers, however if the powers that be were to explore the gaps and missed opportunities in schools a little more closely, there could be a turnaround in engagement. A possible avenue is to train lunchtime support staff up in schools, to referee the game and properly supervise it, or even young academy players of teams going in and supporting primary schools with their games at lunchtime. This could possibly improve the quality of the game for the children, diffuse behaviour situations and turn over bans. Perhaps games console manufacturers hosting and sponsoring a school tournament would be a way forward. Publicity and advertisement would be easy to do through consoles, social media. The children’s opportunities for playing football in schools should not be diminishing – school is rapidly becoming the only place for some children where they can get the chance to play it.
I mentioned at the beginning of this article about “chucking money” at grassroots football. Ironic then that the news from the Premier League as I have been writing this is that Sky Sports and BT Sport have secured television rights packages, which in turn means that funds of £5.14 billion will be used on “grassroots”. Richard Scudamore was quoted in a news article as saying that the money will “provide a degree of certainty so clubs can continue to invest and run themselves in a sustainable manner; it also allows us to start planning how the Premier League can continue to support the rest of the football pyramid from the grassroots upwards.”
Who’s grassroots Premier League money will effect remains to be seen, and how the money is used is something that will obviously be up for debate. My concern however is that with increased television deals, the sport will continue to be something that our younger generations just watch on the television……and so the cycle will continue.
(Or maybe I’m wrong, and Peter Scudamore and Greg Dyke will telephone me tomorrow and ask me to share my ideas regarding engagement of children and young people in schools. I shan’t hold my breath though…………)