ON Monday February 13, I received an email from Neil Atkinson; could I do the second ever recording of the new AFQ Football podcast at 5pm that night? Obviously I said yes, I’ll say yes to anything that sounds like it’s going to be interesting and enjoyable. And then I worried. Worried that the questions would finally expose my complete lack of knowledge about the game that we love and spend our time talking about. I may have made this point before, it’s a returning, relentless paranoia that I have; that eventually everybody will realise that I don’t know what I’m talking about.
Listening to the first episode didn’t help: Melissa Reddy, Paul Cope and Mike Nevin, all sounding as erudite and informed as you would expect. This would be the one, this would be the ‘Great and Mighty Oz’ moment, the moment where the curtains are pulled back and the illusion shatters.
It was no such thing. I survived, again. It was a damn fine show which managed to answer at least 10 of the 154 questions that the Facebook group of TAW Player Subscribers put forward and the final question, which you’ll have noticed forms the title of this piece, allowed me to expound on a subject I feel fairly strongly about. It’s a subject that I’ve expounded on previously, possibly here, possibly elsewhere, but it hasn’t changed so I’ll gladly revisit it in the vain hope that somebody, somewhere, with some kind of authority, is listening. It’s a subject that sprung to mind again in the wake of Everton’s transfer window throwing up the kind of purchase that we seldom see.
Is grassroots football dying? Simple answer; yes. But a simple ‘yes’ doesn’t make for an article.
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Grassroots football is dying at the expense of the big business that football has become, dying at the expense of a concentration on building the brand that is the self-professed ‘greatest league in the world’. It’s dying at the expense of the continuous need to compete, no longer to win trophies but simply to remain at the top table where the riches rest; a need that sees academies heavily populated by youth talent that has been purchased from elsewhere while the playing fields a few miles down the road which, mere years ago, could have housed talent which clubs were failing to harness now serving as home to fewer and fewer leagues, teams and players due to a combination of neglect of care on the side of councils and organisations and the apathy that comes from youth football players reaching a certain age where they know that their ambitions will never be met, that a future in football cannot come, that it’s too late for them. Unfortunately, that realisation now comes when they’ve barely scraped into double digit age.
The sad truth is that, due to the structure of the various club academies, if you haven’t been ‘discovered’ by the age of 11 then the likelihood is that you never will be. If you’re exceptional at 12 then you may still be spotted. If you’re a teenager then it’s highly likely that you’re now playing football for the fun of it. The kids know this, as a parent I know that the kids know this. And it doesn’t matter how many times you tell your children that, ‘it’s never too late’, it doesn’t matter how often you claim that talent and ability develop at different rates and different ages in different people, your kids aren’t soft, they know that the clubs aren’t looking at it that way. So, by the age of 15, they’re looking at the twin distractions of Playstation/Xbox and girls and the prospect of getting up at 8am on a Sunday morning when you’ve been playing FIFA’s weekend league until 2am so that you can go and play football in the cold and the wind and the rain on a pitch covered in dogshit and broken glass begins to pale. You start to ask what you’re doing all this for.
— BBC News (UK) (@BBCNews) February 13, 2017
There are those that make it. Of course there are, where would the footballers of the future come from if none were ever discovered? Lads that my son played alongside have been picked up by academies, spent time at clubs, some are still at those clubs, some are thriving. One may well make it to the top level of the game. But there are those that were released; released for not being big enough yet, not being strong enough, not being fast enough. Released with no second chances because once you’re 13 you’re too old, you’re not being watched. Football isn’t built for you any longer.
And then an exception comes along which can present a glimmer of hope.
It’s not often that we take space here to speak positively of our neighbours across Stanley Park but Everton’s January transfer window threw up something unexpected and quite possibly spectacular; the blues’ signing of Ademola Lookman could possibly, just possibly be something that changes our, and hopefully, crucially, the FA’s, view of what grassroots football at slightly later ages can provide.
Lookman, in case you weren’t aware, is 19 years old. Everton paid Charlton Athletic £7.5 million for his services; a fee which will rise to £11m given time and progress. Lookman, if we take his Wikipedia page as accurate (and we have no real reason not to) joined Charlton in 2014. He was 16 years old. His only previous club is listed as Waterloo FC, a youth club playing in the London Borough of Lambeth. In less than three years he has risen from youth football to first team football, to representing England at both under-19 and under-20 level, to his Premier League debut and, within minutes, his debut goal. There is no downside to this story; a boy who has bypassed the accepted model of rising through academy ranks from an early age, who was selected for an FA representative side for the best players in South London, who was chosen to play against Charlton’s under-16s in a match that happens each year and impressed.
It’s luck. It’s obviously talent combined with luck but it’s the luck of being in the right place at the right time and taking the opportunity provided. He’s a boy who has been missed throughout the period that clubs generally recruit their academy players and, but for Charlton playing that representative side each year, could have quite possibly faded into obscurity. Instead, he’s a Premier League player with the possibility of a club and country future. And Charlton stand to be £11m better off for taking the chance to sign him on a scholarship at the age of 16. On a sporting level, on a business level, this is a fantastic model.
And do you want to tell me that Lookman is the only talented 16-year-old that has slipped through the net while clubs concentrate on the boys already at their academy?
There was a lad who played alongside my son a few years ago; a forward who could play through the middle or from the flanks; a blinding turn of pace, excellent control and a devastating eye for goal. He was, without doubt, the most complete player that my father and I had seen play in his age group. And we had seen a lot of players across the seven years that we watched our Matt progress through that age group. To my knowledge, this forward spent a short time at Tranmere before moving on. Who is to say that the short period that he spent there wasn’t the wrong period? Who is to say that it wasn’t the wrong time in his progress? What if his time there had been six months earlier or six months later? What if the scouts who saw him originally saw him again now? What if he were in a representative side against a professional club’s under-16 side?
In reality, the only route available for the majority of youth team players who, for one reason or another, don’t make the grade at professional clubs is a return to local football; to return to playing simply for the love of the game.
And we’re back to the fading away, back to the distractions. We’re back to a world where teams are vanishing because the facilities aren’t there, because the facilities that do exist are exorbitantly priced, because, in a time of Tory inflicted austerity, they can’t expect their members or members’ parents to pay the costs required and can’t attract the sponsorship that would otherwise compensate.
I’ll focus on my local area because it’s obviously the area I know most closely. You’ll recognise the area that I’m going to talk about though. You’ll have seen it without realising.
Buckley Hill playing fields lie on the edge of Bootle; the road that edges the field leads to Litherland and then out to the more affluent areas of Crosby, Formby and ultimately Southport. Buckley Hill, though, is as basic and rudimentary a playing field as you will ever see. You know this field. You know it from the video for The Farm’s 2004 official England Anthem version of All Together Now. The motto, ‘The Farm No Alla Violenza Portugal 2004’ still adorns the wall of the lone building that occasionally serves as changing rooms. In reality, the kids change at home or in parents’ cars as the building itself isn’t in great shape. The pitches, looking bare and ill kept in the video, are no longer even at the standard that they once were. Our experience of matches there has been having to contend with the remnants left behind by dog walkers, broken glass deposited by late night drinkers, mole hills, potholes and the tire tracks of the scallies who were racing scramblers around the fields not so long before, and occasionally while you were hanging the nets on the goal posts. In other words, it’s exactly like the one that’s down the road from you, wherever you are.
Because the money isn’t there for its upkeep. The exorbitant fees pay for the barest level of maintenance and serve as a method for local councils to take in money that is denied them in other areas.
Steps are being taken to attempt to rectify all this, of course. In August 2016, Sefton Council published a ‘Strategy and Action Plan’ aimed at improving playing pitches across all sports in Sefton. It recognised that lower pitch hire costs in both Liverpool and West Lancashire meant that 168 football teams had been displaced from the local football leagues in 2014-15 and noted that there were now only four leagues catering for under-14s to under-16s and nothing above that. ‘Insufficient youth pitches to meet current demand’ meant that under-13 to under-16 matches were being played on adult pitches. This is obviously no way to develop ball skills or control in smaller areas. If academy scouts were to be looking out for the second chance that they might be able to provide, they would find that the players who might show the ability that they were looking for were being forced to play at a different scale to those that they would hope to play alongside.
Of this insufficient number of pitches, the majority of pitches managed to reach the level of ‘standard’. Fifteen per cent of all pitches were classed as poor, mostly through lack of maintenance and poor drainage. There is no 3G pitch in the borough despite Sefton being the second largest borough for football in the North West, falling only behind Liverpool. The strategy plan concludes that there ‘may be future opportunity to apply for Parklife…’
May be. Opportunity. To apply.
Parklife then. On October 26, 2016, the BBC reported that the Football Association was “helping to invest £200m as part of a scheme to improve grassroots football in England.” (I think ‘helping’ and ‘part of’ are possibly quite vital in that sentence.) The BBC report stated that, “the ‘Parklife’ project will build new all-purpose facilities in 30 towns and cities by 2020, in a partnership between the FA, the Department for Culture Media and Sport, the Premier League and Sport England.”
There is a recognition from Danny Mills, who sat on the 2014 FA Commission whose brief was to report on ways to strengthen the national game that we lag behind Germany, who had five times as many full size 3G pitches as ourselves. That recognition extends to the fact that the solution that they provide and the investment being put forward isn’t perfect but that we have to start somewhere. Mills stated that he is an advocate of a summer league for younger players so that they can learn their trade while the pitches are in better condition while FA Chief Executive Martin Glenn was open about the fact that the muddy pitches that we see favour the stronger children while inhibiting the more skilful.
While the commission report may have put forward ideas that we will find contentious, such as academy sides featuring in the ‘EFL Trophy’, the fact that they recognise the need for investment in grassroots football, that the investment is still insufficient and that we still have a long way to go, is, at least, a starting point.
There is more that can be done, though. Greg Dyke’s ill-suited tenure as FA Chairman was heralded with his big ideas that England could win the European Championships and then try to win the World Cup and that both of these aims would be best served by the establishment of an under-23 league. Dyke came in with a 10-year plan. Ten-year plans are of no use at all. What was always needed was a 20-year plan; a 20-year plan that started by addressing the immediate need of the five-year olds taking part in organised football for the first time so that when they are in their early to mid-20s they have been the recipients of the best possible training at the best possible facilities.
This doesn’t mean academies, no matter how impressive their results can be. This means that every child in the country who wants to play football has the opportunity to do so to their utmost ability.
This means using the ridiculous riches that now exist in the game to fund development of the grassroots. A tithe on the TV deal would serve as the best possible start to this: if Sky want to bid increasingly outlandish sums to secure future deals (which they will as the game is now the backbone of Murdoch’s empire, read Adrian Tempany’s magnificent And The Sun Shines Now for the full terrifying details of the tactics involved in this) then there should be a clause negotiated that involves investment heading to the very base of the future of football. Have the TV deals, have the FA, have the league push money toward the maintenance of the public spaces that are needed for the roots of the national game. The councils can’t afford it, those playing can’t afford it, there is no will in the present government to free up cash for it when they can give tax breaks to billionaires instead.
Insist on club investment. Make it part of the ‘fit and proper ownership’ test. Ensure that clubs are investing in their local area. And when I say ‘investing in their local area’ I’m not simple talking cash. Have the clubs involved in coaching, have representation sent out to schools, to local leagues; have club coaches coaching the coaches who coach the kids. Hand expertise down.
And get the scouts out there. Get the scouts out to every single age group. Make sure that you’re accepting of the fact that sometimes development comes at different ages and that the skill that you’re looking for may not have been there the first time that you looked.
With investment, with improved facilities, with the hope that your ambition can be met at some point purely on the basis of your ability and not your age, grassroots football has a chance to thrive, has a chance to retain the numbers that are currently being ‘displaced’ and has a chance to give more back to the future of the game than it is currently able.
Sign a player for nothing at 16? Sell him for £11m at 19? Why would you argue with the benefit of business like that? Spot players who could be influential, who could provide goals, could win trophies for your team who you just happen to find at 15 rather than nine? Why would you not take that chance? Why would you not maximise every opportunity for success? Why would you ever stop looking for a way to improve?
How many Waterloo FCs are there out there with a Lookman on their books? How many South Liverpools have a John Aldridge, a Jimmy Case?
And for those that still don’t make it? They still get to turn out on a Sunday morning on a decent pitch and play the game that they love.