Unless something is done to improve grassroots facilities, we will never be able to improve standards of play, writes Gavin Willacy

I’m all for selling off playing fields. The majority of our pitches are good for nothing but walking a dog or building houses on. That suggestion may be considered heresy by callers to phone-ins and fellow feature-writers, but selling them off could be the answer to one of English football’s biggest barriers to progress.

Having spent at least two afternoons a week for years on sloping, puddle-filled, dog shite-spotted wastelands, only identifiable by two rusty, bent, drunken rectangles at either end covered in scraps of tape, I should know. The vast majority of football pitches in Britain hardly justify the tag. They are dumps. And the dressing rooms – if any – are worse. Even the FA calls them “poor, and in some cases, awful”. They’re right.

They are not places for young children to spend their free time, let alone environments in which to encourage positivity and creativity, the virtues that would help us develop better footballers and people. The parents must hate these dives, but most do nothing about it. Councils are not harangued, newspapers not filled with letters of dismay. The 400,000 volunteers running 99 per cent of football in this country are the silent majority.

The FA recently announced its headline-grabbing National Game Strategy, a £200 million investment in grassroots football. But that seemingly charitable contribution is to a cause that is surely at the heart of the governing body’s raison d’être. Spread over five years, the money will be directed towards recruitment and retention of referees and coaches, as well as employing 66 full-time coaches for the one million primary school kids playing across England – ie, one per county. In a country with 125,000 teams – about 124,000 of them amateurs – the £44m a year won’t go far. With just £15m going to the Football Foundation, you’ll do well to notice any difference round your way. The FA themselves estimate that it would cost £5 billion to haul our facilities into the 21st century.

The Football Foundation encourages grassroots clubs to combine with schools and other sports to bid for funding for new facilities. It makes sense, but does not reflect well on our professional clubs, among the richest in the world. The Premier League show how much they care for the people who support the clubs, through buying tickets and Sky subscriptions, by contributing a whopping 1.6 per cent of their income a year to the Football Foundation. Thanks a lot.

I was brought up in a town with two major football sites. Both were huge, undulating, windswept areas with one old changing block at least half a mile’s walk from the far pitches and no clubhouse, no facilities whatsoever for spectators, no income stream. Despite having 12 secondary schools and thousands of young footballers, there was not one floodlit all-weather pitch for our use.

I teach at Southgate College in Enfield, a London borough of almost 300,000 people. We have to drive 20 minutes away to access an artificial pitch in the daytime for our 80 football-playing students, and the only available, acceptable matchday facilities are even further away. One of our teams has to train and play in a local park with no changing rooms, shelter or running water. It’s embarrassing.

Any visitor to France or Holland would be astonished at the disparity between facilities here and there. In northern Europe, every village seems to have floodlit training pitches and perfect surfaces for matches. Their kids play at specific football centres where dozens of well tended pitches are adjoined by modern clubhouses with decent changing rooms, cafes, bars, gyms etc. Funny how well their national teams do.

There need to be far more imaginative partnerships between councils, clubs and schools to focus time and money on the venues with the most potential. Local authorities would be far better off selling the worst areas and using the income to revamp other grounds or returning the fields to common land and saving the maintenance costs.

My college team used to use the Enfield Playing Fields, but they were a 45-minute bus ride away and about as depressing as a swathe of pitches can get. Five years after negotiations began with Tottenham Hotspur over a deal to convert the land into a modern football centre for the use of Enfield people and ensure Spurs got their academy training ground built nearby, nothing has happened. The pitches remain twig-­scattered and waterlogged. The once-­glorious art-deco changing block left to rot, the other pavilion almost derelict. Not exactly a fertile breeding ground for the next Ledley King or Jamie O’Hara.

My local paper has just announced that the Football Foundation and East Herts Council were investing almost £1m in a school’s facilities for the use of our neighbouring village youth football club: they’re going to get new changing rooms, a pavilion and improved pitches. The deal also includes five years’ funding for a development officer. Now that just needs to happen in your town, too.

From WSC 255 May 2008

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