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Ten Years Is A Long Time In Grassroots Football

Tue 22nd Apr 2014 | Football Governance

Roll back the clock to 2004 and, whether you were a footballer aged 11 or 31, football was played on a full size pitch with 11 players per side and three league points up for grabs.

Youth football has a different outlook today. A two-year review by The Football Association has led to a more ‘child-centred’ approach to the game which, from this season, sees more kids playing small-sided football with age-appropriate pitch and goal sizes.

Today’s under-11s play a new 9v9 format and, from next season, kids won’t start playing the ‘adult’ game until under-13s. Those three league points are still up for grabs but not for long, with traditional league seasons being phased out in favour of mini-seasons for all kids of primary school age, with friendly matches followed by a trophy event.

The aim of the changes is to allow our youngest kids to enjoy the game and develop their technique - through more opportunities to dribble, pass and shoot - in a nurturing environment with competition involved, but with less pressure from adults with one eye on the league table.

This new dawn represents the biggest change to youth football in England since 1999 when mini-soccer (7v7) was made mandatory for kids under-10. That change caused protests from many adults but The FA were proved right and it looks like they will be again.

The kids may be alright - and youth participation is booming - but the adult game represents more of a challenge, as evidenced when Sport England recently cut £1.6m of FA funding due to a sharp decline in the number of over-16s playing the game.

Encouraging adults with ever-increasing options of how to spend their social time to choose football is an ongoing challenge for The FA and, despite offering more flexible ways to play the game - such as the drop-in Just Play scheme - adult participation is down 10 percent on 2005.

This is a serious concern for The FA, but the recent changes to youth football, the trial of repeat substitutions in open age football, an increase in the mixed football age limit to under-15s and the recent ‘Silent Weekend’ in Lancashire - where watching adults stayed quiet and just let the kids play - suggests a freshness of thinking at The FA that belies the ‘old men in blazers’ impression still held by some.

Coaching numbers and standards have improved in the last 10 years, with more age appropriate coaching thanks to the new FA Youth Award. There is more work to be done in this key area - and coaching badges remains remain over-priced - but The FA believes St George’s Park, which opened in 2012, will act as a catalyst for creating the next generation of grassroots coaches.

Almost a decade ago, referees were leaving the game in droves - 7,000 per year - due largely to the abuse they received from players and spectators. The FA Respect Programme launched in 2008 to address the issue and, although bad behaviour remains a problem at grassroots level, 5,000 new referees - an 18 percent increase - suggest a worrying trend has been reversed.

Off the pitch, if a football club had a website 10 years ago it meant it had money to burn or a willing web developer in its ranks. Nowadays, thousands of clubs and leagues across the country run their very own website for free, while players, managers and coaches can communicate online with the wider grassroots community.

Of course, some things haven’t changed in 10 years. Grassroots football is still sustained by volunteers - the lifeblood of the game – and football facilities still need more investment. The FA’s own 2011 grassroots survey found that 84 percent of people identified facilities as the most pressing issue facing the game and yet another winter of cancelled matches for weeks on end has merely reinforced the fact.

The Football Foundation has been responsible for over £1.2bn of investment into grassroots facilities since it was launched in 2000, building or renovating thousands of new pitches and changing rooms in that time.

The Premier League and FA invest £12m a year into the Foundation, with the Government adding a further £10m via Sport England, but rewind 10 years and each of those funding partners invested £20m a year. As funding has been cut over the decade, calls for investment have increased, with the Premier League’s £1.3bn annual income often the centre of attention. They certainly hold the financial aces but can argue that the 15 percent of income they redistribute outside of the league is the highest in Europe, even if the majority gets only as far as the Football League and less than one percent is directed to grassroots facilities.

The Premier League could also argue that the responsibility for grassroots football lies with The FA and that council pitches – which host 80% of grassroots matches - are the responsibility of government. For more than just this last decade, various Governments have invested too little in sporting facilities and, with councils allowed to fund sport through discretionary spending - an obvious target in times of austerity - teams across the country are still paying the price.

It is hoped that The FA Chairman’s commission on the future of English football will examine the issue of grassroots investment - a key factor in the development of future England talent. If the powers-that be can come up with a positive solution for the next 10 years and beyond, then the game as a whole can only benefit.


By Dan Pope. @DanPope

Taken from fcbusiness issue 76


Posted by: Aaron Gourley 

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