Cllr Chris Whitehouse is Chairman of The Whitehouse Consultancy, and Secretary of the Conservative Group on the Isle of Wight Council.

Welcome boost for grassroots football gets two cheers, not three.

The Football Association’s recent announcement of a £230 million investment in facilities for grassroots football was welcome on its own merits, even if it is only part of the long-term changes needed to the sport if the England Team are ever again to win the world cup.

As I wrote back in July, Greg Dyke, Chairman of the FA, had himself identified areas that needed tackling if the technical skills of the next generation of our nation’s players are to be nurtured and given the chance to bloom. Dyke’s initial investigation found:

  • 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.

The FA has now set out a vision for skills “hubs” to be established in 30 cities, providing access for thousands of young players to “3G” pitches along with coaching support; many to be on the sites of currently dilapidated grass pitches which local authorities can no longer afford adequately to maintain.

“3G” pitches (short for “third generation”), made from artificial grass, require massively less maintenance than grass pitches and can typically be used for as many as 80 hours per week, compared to just 4 or 5 hours for a grass pitch, making them available pretty much all hours for a wide variety of use. This, argues Dyke, could lead to a “radical revolution” in the sheer volume of youngsters who can access pitch time and training on a regular basis.

For local authorities that are struggling to fund maintenance out of council tax revenue and dwindling Central Government finance, capital expenditure on establishing such a pitch makes sound economic sense since it decreases maintenance costs moving forwards.

The Professional Footballers Association has characteristically had a moan, trying to pour cold water on the development by suggesting that the 3G pitches are inadequate and could lead to an increase in sporting injuries. Dyke rightly rebutted that suggestion by citing evidence which demonstrates no difference in injury levels, and by pointing out that rules already permit the use of 3G pitches for Uefa and FA Cup matches and that the Football League is also about to change its rules so that League One and League Two can play on artificial grass.

There’s no doubt that this innovative development, if it secures local authority funding for pitch investment, and the support of Premier League funds (through sponsorship) for coaching, could be a real shot in the arm for grassroots football, even if it’s “artificial grass”-roots football. Over the coming decades, that can make a real difference to the skill levels and match-readiness of the next generation of national team hopefuls.

Sadly, what it cannot do, is address the other two fundamental problems with English football that Dyke identified earlier this year, namely:

  • 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.

Dyke hasn’t given up in his efforts to persuade the top levels of the sport that there should be opportunities for “B teams” to enter tournaments to increase competitive pitch time opportunities for players to develop their skills and acquire greater experience, but these suggestions have proved unpopular with the elite clubs, and without their buy-in the project seems a dead duck despite the great opportunities they would have delivered.

There are ongoing talks, we’re told, about the possibility of limiting the number of overseas players in the elite squads, and also attempts to influence Home Office work permit and visa policy to make it more difficult for overseas players to come to England, but I cannot see a groundswell of support for a move that would deny the ticket-buying and channel-subscribing public the chance to see global stars playing for English teams and succeeding in European tournaments by fielding the best players.

This all matters, not just as an issue of national pride, but in political terms because football is part of our nation’s character at every level: from grassroots to the Premier League engagement levels are high and commitment is passionate: if only we could say the same of the traditional political parties.

We should be doing all that we can to support grassroots sport, particularly football. There are votes in it. Ministers should seize the Dyke initiative and champion it to local authorities and the Premier League, rather than harping on, as they tend to do, as if the number of women in football club boardrooms is the measure of success in the beautiful game.

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