THE BLOG

Is Grassroots Football Heading for a Crisis?

17/04/2014 16:54 BST | Updated 17/06/2014 10:59 BST

Last month's announcement that the Football Association is going to lose a significant amount of investment - £1.6m of public funding - is the latest wake-up call for amateur football. Sport England is responsible for distributing public money to increase sports participation, and its decision to reduce funding for football is as a result of a sharp decline in the number of people playing the sport.

Golf, hockey, rowing, netball and mountaineering have also had funding decreases, but football, as always, is the headline act. It is now fourth behind swimming, athletics and cycling in terms of participation, according to figures released in December. Those playing the game dropped to 1.83million, down 100,000 since April 2013.

Crisis? Not quite. But football at grassroots level is experiencing a challenging period. The romanticised notion of games being staged on pitches resembling mud baths, players getting changed in the most basic of facilities, and on going problems with the retention of referees, may provide suitable material for post-match anecdotes but the reality of these situations do amateur football no favours.

Bad weather, poor facilities and match cancellations are at the heart of the problem. The Save Grassroots Football campaign called on increased support from the Premier League, asking for 7.5% of money from global broadcasting rights to be allocated to fund the grassroots game. The campaign, backed by MP David Crausby, gained over 30,000 signatures. "I've heard stories from around the country about fees too high for ordinary families to pay, poor quality pitches, and absence of decent changing facilities," said Crausby. Kenny Saunders, a coach at Liverpool-based club Woolton FC, initiated the campaign. He told the BBC that current facilities are "horrendous, worse than they were when I was playing as a boy 40 years ago."

Nevertheless, there is support for grassroots football. Towards the end of 2013, the announcement of a new partnership, between the Premier League, the FA and the Government, detailed investment of £102m over three years. The FA Facilities Fund will provide grants for projects that include drainage and other improvements to grass pitches, upgrades to clubhouses and changing rooms, the installation of 3G turf pitches, and the introduction of fixed floodlights for artificial pitches. This provision began in the middle of January this year.

At the same time, the Football Association has been doing a tremendous amount of recent work. The FA chose its 150th anniversary celebrations in 2013 to launch a three-year plan for facilities across grassroots football. The National Facilities Strategy document included the results of its largest ever football survey; there were over 3,200 responses to the 'Big Grassroots Football Survey' and it revealed the single most pressing issue was that of 'poor facilities', raised by 84% of those who participated. Underneath that overarching term were concerns regarding playing pitch surfaces, a lack of quality 3G artificial grass pitches, a lack of floodlighting, basic toileting and changing areas, and a lack of support for volunteers.

It's not just facilities that are being closely examined. At junior and youth level, a quiet reformation has been taking place. The next time the England national team fail to impress at a major international tournament - probably the summer's World Cup in Brazil - expect an outcry over the state of youth football and pleas for an end to 11-a-side games on huge pitches.

The truth is, this format was modified some time ago. The FA's Youth Development proposals were ratified in 2012, making 5 v 5 football for Under 7s and 8s, 7 v 7 for Under 9s and 10s, and 9 v 9 for Under 11 and Under 12s mandatory by the 2014-15 season. Many junior and youth leagues have been using these formats for a while anyway, and sports suppliers such as Newitts have moved with the times by supplying specific-sized goal nets and other training and playing equipment.

Playing on a smaller pitch, with fewer players, allows a greater number of touches of the ball and therefore more involvement in the game. "These changes are a massive step forward for the future of children's football in this country," commented Nick Levett, the FA's National Development Manager.

In fact, for those not already aware, the junior and youth game has been effectively restructured. Clubs remain heavily dependent on volunteers, with an estimated 400,000 in England, though no longer is a keen sense of enthusiasm the only requirement. In an attempt to improve player learning, coaches are enquired to participate in the FA's pathway scheme, gain qualifications and commit to CPD (continual personal development).

Clubs who gain FA Charter Standard status - a kitemark awarded to organisations which are well run, sustainable and place a strong emphasis on child protection, quality coaching and safety - are required to have a number of roles fulfilled, including that of a Welfare Officer.

While reviving grassroots football won't be an overnight revolution, it seems there is hope for a brighter future.