At BRFCs we want to expand our writing pool to include people who can write about wider football issue, with that in mind we are delighted to welcome Stuart Grimshaw to our writing team, he will be focusing on Grassroots Football.
Even before the gentlemen of Sheffield FC laid down the rules of soccer that we know today, there has been grassroots football. Whether it was Shrovetide football, kids in the street with jumpers for goalposts or one of the larger local clubs with a team or two for each age group, a committee and hundreds of volunteers. People have always gathered to kick, carry or throw a ball at a goal, and even though the opportunities to play are becoming fewer, it remains the most popular activity in many countries.
"Football is for everyone and can be played anywhere and everywhere. Football is a school of life that is also fun. Let the kids be kids." No, not a Guardiola, Mourinho or even Allardyce quote, this irony-free statement comes from the fine, upstanding citizens of FIFA.
Considering they say it can be played anywhere, their videos of techniques being demonstrated are all filmed on finely manicured grass, by kids in kits that don't have holes in and with footballs that haven't been chewed by that dog that invaded the pitch that time.
Grassroots football has always been the poor relation to professional football, it's never basked in the warm glow of sponsorship, sugar daddies and TV money like its older brother Premier League which has more money than it knows what to do with (Don't believe me? What about Andy Carroll to Liverpool for £35m ... Robinho to Man City for €42.5m?) it feels worse than ever. The closest a grass roots club gets to a sugar daddy is when one of the players dad's stumps up £300 from his building firm to buy a new kit.
Austerity has councils under huge pressure to slash budgets; Blackburn with Darwen Borough Council's budget for Leisure, Culture & Young People was cut by £2m from 2015/16 to 16/7. They don't have funds to maintain pitches, even basic maintenance such as cutting the grass as often as is needed, or marking out the lines; never mind proper maintenance like renewing the grass over the summer or improving drainage so the pitches can be used more during the winter. It's not unusual to turn up to play with one of the crossbars, much like Rovers’ back four under Owen Coyle, hideously bent out of shape.
Schools have long since sold off their pitches to cover short term gaps in funding, and those that are lucky to have a new 4G pitch as part of their redevelopment are hugely overpriced or hugely oversubscribed, sometimes both. There's no money to buy new land for pitches, there's no money to buy new equipment for the pitches, there's no money to pay for improvements to pitches.
What little funding is available is so sparse that very often only 1 or 2 teams actually benefit. How many times have you seen your nephew's posting on Facebook or Twitter asking you to vote for their club to win part of some company's community fund? Like greasy Lords of the Manor handing out alms to the poor as if it absolves them of any blame for the fact poor people exist at all.
I haven't even touched on the fact that kids don't (can’t...won’t?) play in the street any more, and any patch of grass worthy of the name, will have a "No Ball Games" sign planted in the middle.
What are we to do when one end of the football spectrum has never had it so good and the other hand has never had it so bad?
First we need to understand what grassroots football is and what it's for. It's not for finding the next £10m player, it's not Darwen FC or Padiham FC, non-league football is as far from grassroots as it is from the Premier League.
Grassroots football is 15 kids kicking a ball in their local park, the game ends when the kid who owns the ball has to go home. It's clubs like Blackburn Eagles, Clitheroe Wolves, Lammack Juniors & Wilpshire Wanderers, Saturday and Sunday morning football for kids under 16. It's weekend football for your local pub team (if they even have one any more) or local village side. It's booking a 7-a-side pitch after work every week and playing against your friends. Each one of these different types of football faces its own pressure, but they all boil down to money and not enough of it making its way down the football ladder.
The answer is clear. Professional football needs to support grassroots football. It's not a government problem, FIFA quite rightly says that football associations should be apolitical. Professional clubs need to do more than send an injured player, shuffling at the front of the class with his hands in his pockets like a naughty child and say that they contribute to their community.
The community football they run often costs a fortune, their academies and development squads are often treated like profit centres charging a small fortune for players to go and get coaching, all the time softly cooing to parents about how their child might make it.
Look at any British player in any team around the world, but especially playing for British clubs and they will have started out age 8 or 9 for a grassroots club, none of them went straight into an academy. I would say it's in their interests to support grass roots because that's where they get their players from.
There's currently a petition urging the government to put pressure on the Premier League to honour its commitment to spend £1 billion of the 2016-19 TV revenues deal on grassroots facilities. Most of the money goes on "solidarity" payments to the lower leagues though.
If little Jonny or Gemma plays any kind of grassroots sport, I urge you to sign the petition. https://petition.parliament.uk/petitions/200094
In my next article, I’ll run you through the life of a grass roots football coach.