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Is English Grassroots Football in Permanent Decline?

Updated on April 10, 2014

English football is in the midst of a transitional period. The likes of Ashley Cole, Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard are probably a matter of months away from international retirement, and the nation faces a nervous wait to see if upcoming talent such as Andros Townsend, Adam Lallana, Ross Barclay and Jay Rodriguez have what it takes to maintain England’s place at the top table of football.

But serious questions remain about England’s ability to compete at international football’s top two competitions. The nation’s players are enjoying an unwanted reputation for lacking technical ability - you only have to assess the team’s performances at recent championship finals to find evidence of that fact. What is the reason for this gradual fall in standards? Well, opinions are divided, but the continued decline of the grassroots game is surely one of the contributing factors.

Could scenes like this become less common in future?
Could scenes like this become less common in future? | Source

The Facts and Figures Behind Grassroots Football in England

Faced with the prospect of steeply rising pitch fees, dozens of local clubs are winding up every week. Facilities are falling apart after decades of under-investment, and the number of people playing the game at a local level has dropped significantly in recent years – so much so that Sport England recently cut funding for the FA’s grassroots football schemes.

While the cash-rich FA may struggle to empathise with the average local player’s frustrations, emotions are running high in clubs up and down the country. In January of 2014, dozens of local players boycotted a weekend of league games to raise awareness of their plight. Kenny Saunders’ Save Grassroots Football campaign inspired a walkout on Merseyside, and similar boycotts took place in Manchester, Newcastle and London. A Houses of Parliament e-petition asking for government intervention on the issue attracted 30,000 signatures – forcing the government to make a statement.

Grassroots Football is Facing a Funding Crisis

Why is this happening? There are many reasons, but most of them relate to the chronic lack of funding at local levels. Following previous pressure and media coverage of the issue, the FA committed five percent of its TV revenues – £5.5 billion for the 2013-2016 contracts – to developing grassroots football. That funding has slipped to less than one percent, and it could fall yet further when the Sport England funding cuts take full effect.

Peter Hart of The Soccer Store works with grassroots football clubs and their players on a daily basis, and he believes that the current situation will affect the England team for years to come.

“We see clubs and associations scraping by without the proper facilities or football equipment on a daily basis,” Hart said. “Being forced to change in rotting club facilities and play on dangerously waterlogged pitches is turning people away from the game. The FA needs to take action before it’s too late.”

Local leagues and associations are having their incomes squeezed by austerity measures. Funding from central government has been cut substantially, and hard-up local authorities are being forced to hike up pitch fees to account for frozen council tax charges. While the FA may seem relaxed at the prospect of falling participation at the grassroots level, they surely must be concerned at the long-term effect this situation could have on the future of the England team. Put simply, fewer people playing the game means a far smaller pool of talent to draw from.

According to the Save Grassroots Football campaign, 12 weekends of local football are being lost every year in the average local league. In most cases, these lost matches are attributed to substandard facilities and poorly maintained pitches. And all of this is happening at a time when the elite of the game have never had it so good.

Grassroots football in action
Grassroots football in action | Source

What Does the Future Hold for Local Football?

The FA’s own statistics show just how bad the situation has become in England. Since 2011, an alarming 2,000 teams have folded – affecting more than 20,000 players. The outlook looks bleaker still according to a recent Sky News survey. More than 83 percent of the local players and officials questioned said that the FA wasn’t doing enough to support the grassroots game. The state of pitches and facilities was the main reason for discontent amongst the survey’s respondents, which suggests that the simple issue of money is the main reason for the game’s current predicament.

Of course, the FA probably can’t be blamed for everything. British culture has completely transformed in recent years. The sight of kids playing on the street from dusk til’ dawn has long since vanished, and the prevalence of gaming consoles, 24-hour TV and the Internet has given people so many more ways to spend their free time. Jumpers for goalposts have been replaced with housing developments on every spare inch of inner-city greenery. People just aren’t playing football in the numbers they used to, and that will never change.

But let’s face it; England is home to the world’s richest and most popular league. This is where the game was invented, and England has more professional clubs than any other country on the planet. At a time when obesity levels are soaring and the nation’s health is in crisis, surely participation in football at grassroots level is more important than ever. It’s time for the FA to take the initiative and give the grassroots game the money it deserves – before it’s too late.

Alex Oxlade Chamberlain on Youth Development


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    • profile image

      Mark Harrod 2 years ago

      We supply sports equipment to grassroots teams across the country - find out more

    • Malcolm_Cox profile image

      Malcolm_Cox 3 years ago from Newcastle, England

      Thanks for the kind comments guys.

      We simply don't produce the stars we used to!

    • cfin profile image

      cfin 3 years ago from The World we live in

      It's sad to see less and less English players making it big in England. The leagues there have really become a home for soccer from all countries. Soccer is between the 3rd and 4th most popular sport in Ireland after Hurling, Rugby and possibly Gaelic Football. All of the best players go to play in England and our soccer clubs are less than wealthy as a result.

      I used to love watching soccer, but it has become a bit of a farce and although the internationalization of the league seems cool, watching Liverpool really didn't seem like Liverpool anymore. It's sad though to remember the days of Robbie Fowler, Michael Owen and some Irish players in there to keep my interest, like Jason McAteer and Phil Babb. Then for the Man Utd supporters there was Roy Keane, Denis Irwin and John O'Shea. But with the increase of talent from around the world, those players would struggle nowadays. Now I watch the international games the odd time and Rugby is my main interest.

      Great article!

    • chef-de-jour profile image

      Andrew Spacey 3 years ago from Near Huddersfield, West Yorkshire,UK

      I enjoyed your concise writing. Grassroots football in England needs a boost - yes funding is a large part of the answer and has been decreasing over the years - but it would be great if more schools could produce teams of good quality as they used to when I was a child. Many school fields have been flogged off in the past few decades, a scandal, and it's very difficult to get a field back once it's developed! Ridiculous.

      As you say, kids now want digital this and that and the other and don't go in for serious kickabouts as they used to. That's life. It'd be wonderful to think we could produce another high quality England 1st XI again ...I see Sterling, Oxlade Chamberlain, Barclay and Sturridge and might be possible. Am I dreaming!!?? Probably!

      Votes and a share.