Grassroots Football is Dying

There was nothing I used to love more than to play football for my school team, or a simple kick around on the local pitch with a group of friends. Over the last few years it seems to me that there are less people kicking a ball around, that to me is a real worry. For all it’s riches, there are a lot of problems in the game. The complete lack of investment in grassroots football is one of the main issues. We are in an age filled with technology, kids these days are more likely to play FIFA on the Playstation or Xbox than play football outside. With the state of the majority of local pitches, who could blame them for staying inside.

Grassroots football is dying at the expense of the big business that football has become, dying at the expense of a concentration on building the brand that is the self-professed ‘greatest league in the world’. It’s dying at the expense of the continuous need to compete, no longer to win trophies but simply to remain at the top table where the riches rest; a need that sees academies heavily populated by youth talent that has been purchased from elsewhere while the playing fields a few miles down the road which, mere years ago, could have housed talent which clubs were failing to harness now serving as home to fewer and fewer leagues, teams and players due to a combination of neglect of care on the side of councils and organisations and the apathy that comes from youth football players reaching a certain age where they know that their ambitions will never be met, that a future in football cannot come, that it’s too late for them. Unfortunately, that realisation now comes when they’ve barely reached the age of 11.

The sad truth is that, due to the structure of the various club academies, if you haven’t been ‘discovered’ by the age of 11 then the likelihood is that you never will be. If you’re exceptional at 12 then you may still be spotted. If you’re a teenager then it’s highly likely that you’re now playing football for the fun of it. In reality, the only route available for the majority of youth team players who, for one reason or another, don’t make the grade at professional clubs is a return to local football; to return to playing simply for the love of the game.

There is a recognition from Danny Mills, who sat on the 2014 FA Commission whose brief was to report on ways to strengthen the national game that we lag behind Germany, who had five times as many full size 3G pitches as ourselves. That recognition extends to the fact that the solution that they provide and the investment being put forward isn’t perfect but that we have to start somewhere. Mills stated that he is an advocate of a summer league for younger players so that they can learn their trade while the pitches are in better condition while FA Chief Executive Martin Glenn was open about the fact that the muddy pitches that we see favour the stronger children while inhibiting the more skillful.

While the commission report may have put forward ideas that we will find contentious, such as academy sides featuring in the ‘EFL Trophy’, the fact that they recognise the need for investment in grassroots football, that the investment is still insufficient and that we still have a long way to go, is, at least, a starting point.

There is more that can be done, though. Greg Dyke’s ill-suited tenure as FA Chairman was heralded with his big ideas that England could win the European Championships and then try to win the World Cup and that both of these aims would be best served by the establishment of an under-23 league. Dyke came in with a 10-year plan. Ten-year plans are of no use at all. What was always needed was a 20-year plan; a 20-year plan that started by addressing the immediate need of the five-year old’s taking part in organised football for the first time so that when they are in their early to mid-20s they have been the recipients of the best possible training at the best possible facilities. This doesn’t mean academies, no matter how impressive their results can be. This means that every child in the country who wants to play football has the opportunity to do so to their utmost ability.

With investment, with improved facilities, with the hope that your ambition can be met at some point purely on the basis of your ability and not your age, grassroots football has a chance to thrive, has a chance to retain the numbers that are currently being ‘displaced’ and has a chance to give more back to the future of the game than it is currently able.