Cllr Chris Whitehouse is Chairman of The Whitehouse Consultancy, and Secretary of the Conservative Group on the Isle of Wight Council.
30th July 1966 remains one of the greatest dates in our nation’s sporting history: the date of the World Cup Final in which the England team beat Germany 4:2, with Geoff Hurst powering home his third goal in the final minutes of extra time at Wembley Stadium to give England victory and become the first man ever to score a hat-trick in a World Cup final.
To observe that, by the standards of the England performance in the World Cup a few weeks ago, the glory days are long gone would be the understatement of year; but what is worse, as a nation we seem to have no real determination to end the malaise at the heart of our national sport. We appear to be willing to allow the beautiful game on our own nation’s pitches to wither and die.
Our Minister for Sport, Helen Grant, is a great advocate for our party in terms of women and ethnic minorities; but her main coverage to date has been threatening to bang heads together if football clubs and sporting bodies don’t appoint more women to their boards. All well and good, but where has been her voice in the debate about the need to get a grip on our approach to football and to tackle the underlying problems that create a situation in which we simply do not have a large enough pool of national talent upon which to draw when picking the national team? Silence.
It’s not as if others haven’t been striving to identify the core problems and force a debate about them. Greg Dyke, the Chairman of the Football Association, published in May his own proposals to encourage the English game to identify and nurture domestic national talent rather than simply spending ever more obscene sums on overseas players.
Dyke called for the creation of a new tier within the Football League to accommodate Premier League B teams; for a ban on non-European Union players outside of the top flight and for a reduction in non-home-grown players in Premier League squads – British jobs for British players! He also wanted to develop “strategic loan partnerships” between clubs.
This, felt Dyke and his colleagues, would address the fundamental problems with the English game which they identified as:
- Inadequate and insufficient playing opportunities for 18-20 year-old elite players at top clubs.
- Regulation of the player market in England not being effective in preserving the balance of British, EU and non-EU players.
- Grassroots coaching and coach development not having reached a satisfactory level.
- England lagging behind in the quantity and quality of affordable grassroots facilities, particularly in the provision of all-weather pitches.
Predictably, the vested interests that control the game each defended their own position, but it was mainly the fans of the lower league clubs who were appalled at what they saw as a move to give even more dominance to the all-powerful Premier League. The negative reaction has seriously undermined Greg Dyke’s standing, and it seems that bar the provision of more all-weather pitches much of the enthusiasm and momentum behind the need to tackle these serious problems will be lost.
The players and managers can deliver change in one area, and one area alone. That is a much more determined focus on ball-handling skills from the youngest children players upwards, but the rest requires action at an organisational and national level.
Whilst I don’t advocate for one moment the Government seeking to run football, I want to see our Minister for Sports asking how soccer is going to reform its structures and systems to make success a possibility in future rather than just an increasingly distant memory from the past. Helen Grant must cease threatening to remove public grassroots funding for soccer if it doesn’t meet her tokenism targets and instead use her influence and leverage to secure grassroots investment and changes in the game’s approach.
A minister who spoke up for the lower league fans and positively championed their issues whilst ensuring that the big problems are addressed, rather than just turning out for the occasional photoshoot, could prove to be rather popular. Many of these clubs are in smaller towns and on the fringes of larger cities in the Midlands and the North – just where we need to win marginal seats if we are to have a chance of a victory next May. It’s time to speak up for the consumer, not the powerful clubs.
Greg Dyke sought to kick off an important debate – ministers should now run with the ball. If they do, then maybe the dismal memories of Brazil 2014 can be the precursor to a match in which our national game is the winner and, in passing, our party is seen for once to be interested in an area of national life which matters greatly to a huge, growing and passionate section of the population. In Government, we have possession of the ball, and such is a prerequisite to scoring. Are we to do nothing with it until after the final whistle of the General Election is blown?