SUNDAY was a notable day for local players in the north west of England. At 1:30pm, Scouser Jon Flanagan was leading out Liverpool as captain for the first time. A few hours later an 18-year-old striker from Wythenshawe was scoring the winning goal in the Manchester Derby.
These players show there is still talent being produced in this country if managers are willing to give young lads an opportunity. It also shows that we live in an area that produces much more than most.
This is partly because of the rich history of local grassroots football clubs in the North West. Marcus Rashford (below) started not at Manchester United but Fletcher Moss Rangers in West Didsbury.
This small club’s incredible list of alumni also includes Wes Brown, Danny Welbeck, Ravel Morrison and current prospects at both Manchester clubs, including Tyler Blackett and Ashley Smith Brown. Clubs like Fletcher Moss Rangers are often the forgotten starting point for many of this country’s superstars, a fact often also ignored within the game itself.
As Fletcher Moss Rangers’ Academy Development Officer David Horrocks told us: “Certain senior people in the FA think grassroots football is schools of excellence and academies. You wonder where they think these kids come from originally. They think they are just transported to Carrington in the blink of an eye.”
Grassroots football starts much earlier than that. From a parent playing football with their child in the garden, to the kid dodging dog dirt practicing his skills in the park. David was rightly bullish about the “intrinsic” role football clubs like his play in a young person’s football and social development.
John Coleman, manager at League Two Accrington Stanley, has played and managed at every level along the way, including in schools. He believes grassroots football is vital to help children learn to love the game.
He told TAW: “Local clubs are often where the kids enjoyed playing football. They were playing with their mates. I think unfortunately the element of youngsters enjoying playing football is going. It’s becoming more of a chore or a job for them. When do you ever see kids organising a game of three-and-in on their own? Playing for the love of it.”
John also thinks too much academy football can be damaging for a young footballer, that grassroots football is where children learn how to be creative and think for themselves. He questions whether academies are producing rounded footballers who can compete and excel at all levels:
He added: “The problem that you’ve got is you’ve got an academy programme that teaches kids to play in a certain way, but only a small percentage of them will make the breakthrough.
“The rest of them have to go and play somewhere and they end up playing somewhere like League Two or the Conference and it’s a different sport. It’s akin to doing an apprenticeship as a plumber and then trying to get a job as an electrician. Something needs to be done about that — they need exposing to all different types of football.”
Based on this, it is no surprise to me that many who do make it have some experience in the more street-wise grassroots level. Be it at a club like Fletcher Moss, Jamie Carragher banging them in for Bootle Boys, or Steven Gerrard captaining Whiston Juniors as a youngster.
The question then is whether football is doing enough to protect these clubs that are such a rich source of players with the attitude and the will to succeed.
Horrocks thinks not. He spoke of the £260million the FA have announced they are investing in grassroots football with frustration.
Much of this cash has been promised to develop pitches and facilities. But David thinks it will be very difficult for clubs like Fletcher Moss to access the pot of money because Manchester City Council make them lease their pitches season by season and funding applications want to see proof of “longevity”.
Fletcher Moss, like many clubs, are in a catch-22 situation. Without a long-term lease and a developed site they can’t access the funding they need to secure a long-term lease and develop a site. But should it need FA funding anyway when the Premier League is so awash with cash and so many Fletcher Moss graduates are earning millions from the game they learned on the fields of West Didsbury?
Horrocks would like to see rules introduced that mean grassroots clubs are fairly compensated by Premier League sides who use their players.
Pointing to the tax relief they could receive, he would also like to see the players themselves encouraged to donate wages each year to the clubs that started them on the pathway to success. Horrocks says those that keep the club running often speculate on what a month’s wage of just one of their famous graduates could do for their fortunes.
Horrocks hopes that the recent interest in his club will help secure their future and allow them to develop more future stars. But as he pointed out, there are 119,000 football teams in England all needing greater access to funding and support.
If we want to see more Scouse captains of Liverpool, it’s in our interest to help them in anyway we can.