AS a boy growing up in Kirkby, John Coleman played football on one of the best and most natural academies that the English game has known. The pitches at Brookfield School produced not one but two European Cup-winning captains in Phil Thompson and Dennis Mortimer, giving the largely unheralded playing fields a unique place in football. Now when Coleman goes back to the place where he first fell in love with the game, where he spent hour upon hour learning what would later become his trade, he encounters a very different scene.
“On any given day I could walk over the road from my house and there were six or seven school pitches where I could play,” the former Accrington Stanley and Rochdale manager recalls. “I’d use their goalposts, me and my brother would play against the crossbar and have shots against one another and stuff like that. If I was to go there now there’d be houses to the right, I’d have to climb over a massive fence and there would be no fields. I think there would be one pitch over the far side and an AstroTurf pitch but you wouldn’t have access to them.”
It is a picture that is replicated throughout the country as grassroots football comes under increasing threat, with multiple causes creating a perfect storm that threatens its survival. If it’s not playing fields being sold for development by cash-strapped councils, it is Premier League games being played throughout the weekend, drawing players away from amateur football to watch the professional game. Increased lifestyle options and changes in working practices are also having a negative impact and that’s before the malign influence of a double – and perhaps even triple – dip recession is taken into account.
Jim Davies, a respected voice in Merseyside football circles and a man who lives and breathes the game for no reward other than his own love for it, has claimed that amateur football is “dying”. “Merseyside, once one of Europe’s biggest hotbeds of grassroots activity, is seeing shrinking leagues and empty football pitches,” he wrote in an impassioned article in the Liverpool Echo recently. “Twenty years ago there were three times as many amateur football leagues operating throughout the region as there are now, with almost five times the amount of teams playing regular football.
“Leagues are having to merge or downsize just to continue and this isn’t something that is specific to our area either. I have spoken to teams from Glasgow, Newcastle, London and Wales – and they all tell the same tale of woe. At its peak the Liverpool & District Sunday League had 13 divisions. It now has three.”
The situation is similar and actually worse in neighbouring Kirkby. “If you look at it when I was growing up, there were leagues all over the place so I could play on a Saturday and a Sunday but that changed and the last bastion was St Kevin’s until houses were built on those playing fields,” Coleman says.
“Now there’s no football getting played in Kirkby. If you’d have said in the 1960s and 70s, when the likes of Thompson and Mortimer were coming through, that there’d be no organised football in Kirkby 40 years later people would’ve thought you were mad. Football has grown massively as an industry in this country, so why is the base of that industry being ripped apart? It doesn’t make any sense. It’s like building a multimillion-pound property on sinking sand, if you don’t have the right foundations eventually it will collapse.”
It was this growing concern, that English football is in danger of cutting off its own supply line, that brought together like-minded individuals at a Liverpool hotel last week. There, they launched the Save Grassroots Football Campaign, which calls upon the game’s governing bodies to recognise and deal with the problems that they are encountering. Their main demand is for the Premier League to increase its minimum contribution to the grassroots game from 5 per cent proportion of its annual income to 7.5 per cent.
“We are calling on the Government to ensure that grassroots football receives financial support from the Premier League,” Kenny Saunders, the organisation’s founder, said. “Government cuts mean that local authorities are no longer able to fund grassroots football. Fees for basic facilities are climbing to the point where ordinary people are being priced out of our national sport.
“This is at a time when the Premier League continues to grow in popularity around the world. Domestic broadcasting rights for 2013-14 to 2015-16 have been sold for £3 billion, combined with global rights the Premier League could bring in as much as £5 billion over the next three seasons. The cash boost must not be wasted on ever-increasing wages for players when grassroots football is struggling.”
Outlining the rising cost of amateur football in increasingly challenging economic conditions, Davies lists fees for kit, pitches, league registration, affiliation and player registration among many others. That’s without even mentioning additional expenditure for transport, kit cleaning and first aid. “It will cost you at least £10 as a club member to attend a game,” he says. “Subs, petrol and kit costs mean lads have to pay to play and with unemployment on the rise some people do not have this to give on a weekly basis.”
While the PR machines of the FA and the Premier League continue to spew out story after story of their own good work – some of which, it must be said, are deserving of the self-congratulation – the anecdotal evidence offered by many of those who play, coach, manage and support amateur football teams is far less flattering. The picture being painted is one of ordinary people being priced out of football.
“It’s becoming quite an expensive business,” says David Crausby, the MP for Bolton North East. “It’s affordable for people in full employment, for people who are in good jobs, but it’s not affordable for people in other circumstances and that’s not acceptable.
“When I was a child, playing football wasn’t in any way related to living standards or money. All you needed was a ball. The pitches were there, the fields were there and the streets were there. Now it’s completely changed and my worry is that if we take a chunk of our young population out of the game of football then we will pay a very expensive price in the long term. Not just in the sense that we won’t have the kind of great footballers that we had in the past, but also that society will be a poorer place because football is a very good way of developing our young people.
“We need to put real pressure on the Premier League to deliver and if they’re not prepared to deliver then politicians right across the political spectrum have a responsibility to come up with solutions. Obviously, that’s not the right course. The right course would be for the Premier League to volunteer some small portion of its huge assets to support and maintain grassroots football.”
Like Crausby, Ian St John, the former Liverpool and Scotland forward, is a supporter of the campaign. “I’ve got three grandsons, aged 8, 9 and 12. My son has had to fork out for them to be involved in their local club and when he told me the cost I was shocked,” he says.
“The club isn’t making money off the kids. They need that money to keep going. It’s a huge expense. My lad can afford to have three kids involved but what about those families who can’t? The lads I know who run teams are telling me that families are running up debt.
“When I think about the money that is rolling into football, I cannot believe that we can’t have cost-free grassroots football. Maybe the kids could pay a quid or something but does it really need to be any more than that?
“My mother was a widow so she couldn’t have afforded to pay for me. I played football with the school, the Boys’ Brigade and the youth clubs and it cost me nothing. I never had to pay anything. What would happen to a boy in a similar position today? He might not even stand a chance.”
“It is supposed to be the working man’s game but it’s no longer accessible to everyone,” argues Coleman. “I’ve always been a great believer in enjoyment being the first thing that you play football for. Not everyone can be as good as a Steven Gerrard or a Wayne Rooney but that doesn’t mean that you can’t aspire to be like them or that you can’t enjoy playing as much as them. But the way it’s going, that is being taken away from children.”
The catalyst for the campaign was an announcement by Sefton Council last year that it intended to increase pitch fees for under-11s from £180 a season to £750 a season. A series of protests, including one in which 8,500 children gathered at the Buckley Hill playing fields in Netherton, led to the proposals being shelved. But for the grassroots campaigners it marked the beginning rather than the end of their crusade.
“The rise in pitch costs in Sefton was the thing that got it all going,” said Neil Sang, a licensed Fifa agent who also runs youth teams in Liverpool. “The sad fact is that a lot of families can’t afford to pay for their kids to play football because it’s money each week for subs, for referees, sometimes for pitch hire and so on.
“It’s just about saying to the Premier League, to the FA and people in the game in general that they should lend support to these kids because the likes of Steven Gerrard and Wayne Rooney came from grassroots football and we need to preserve that legacy.
“What the Premier League have to realise is a lot of these kids have been priced out of going to games as fans. If they are priced out of playing as well then they will go and find another sport. There is a very real chance that the numbers playing football could dwindle in the years to come. That’s why the authorities have to do something now. Football has gone beyond being affordable for a lot of people and that can’t be right.”
When St George’s Park was opened by royalty four months ago, the FA’s new facility was heralded as the future of football in this country. There was nothing that the new centre will not do – from revolutionising coaching to churning out a generation of players that could take the English national team to a whole new level. Even for a Scot like St John, it is a welcome, if overdue, development but it is one that he fears is akin to buying the best and most fancy curtains for a house in urgent need of repair.
“St George’s Park is the top of the pole, for England’s elite squads at various age groups. What about underneath?” he asks. “It’s all right boasting about that and talking about what they’ve done with the money, millions of course, that’s fine. But what are they going to do about the other problem, what about the big picture?”
If the pristine pitches of St George’s Park produce two European Cup-winning captains, as the playing fields at Brookfield School once did, then the £105 million that was invested in it will be money well spent. But even in the unlikely event that that does happen, there are those who believe passionately that English football is restricting its own lifeblood to such an extent that any progress prompted by St George’s Park will be undermined by a failure to nurture the grassroots.
“My worst fear for football is already coming true,” says Coleman. “You don’t see kids playing football on their own and organising games on their own. When I was growing up you played football on the fields with your mates but now the fields have gone. If you haven’t got that then you have to play in an organised league but not everyone can afford to pay for pitches, kits, subs, referees and stuff like that. If that goes as well, where is the next step? Where does the kid who isn’t going to be Premier League standard or even Academy standard play football? How does he play his football? I’ll tell you what he does, he doesn’t play and football becomes a spectator sport instead of a participation sport.”
* The Save Grassroots Football campaign has set up an online petition calling on the Premier League to give 7.5 per cent of its income to the grassroots game.