Is English Grassroots Football in Permanent Decline?
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.
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.
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.