JAMIE Carragher. Jimmy Case. Phil Thompson. Steven Gerrard. Steve Heighway. And many, many more…
All Liverpudlian success stories in more ways than one. They could all be described as legends of Liverpool Football Club, but they also all made their way into the game playing at grassroots level for local teams on Merseyside.
The sad truth is the likelihood of local players making their way from the bottom to the top of the footballing pyramid, taking to the field at Anfield and holding silverware aloft in the red of Liverpool, is diminishing.
That is because grassroots football is dying — and not enough is being done to keep it alive.
Clearly, there is no absence of money in football. Premier League clubs spent a record-breaking £1.4billion in the summer transfer window. Liverpool themselves spent at least £80million of that.
The problem is that money isn’t filtering down. Clubs across Merseyside, and up and down the nation, continue to struggle against rising fees and inadequate facilities.
We recently spoke to Kenny Saunders, the founder of the Save Grassroots Football campaign, who detailed the issues that teams across Merseyside are facing and told us what compelled him to start campaigning.
“It’s going back nearly four years now, up towards Buckley Hill in the Bootle Junior Football League, kids were getting priced out of playing football,” he said.
“The council wanted to increase pitch fees from £150 a year to £600 for mini soccer, adults was from £350 to £1350.”
“…no showers, no changing facilities – The FA have turned their back on grassroots football.”
— The Anfield Wrap (@TheAnfieldWrap) 16 November 2017
That’s the same area in which Carragher made his first footballing steps, playing for Merton Villa in the Bootle and Litherland District League, aged seven.
Now, kids, and even adults, from the same area are being priced out of playing football.
But it isn’t just about those who could go on to be the next Jamie Carragher or any of the others mentioned previously. It’s also about keeping kids off the streets, from getting into trouble and encouraging an active lifestyle from a young age.
It’s about breeding the next generation of football fans — of pointing another age in the direction of the game that is our national sport.
In the last few years initiatives have been set up, led by the FA, to invest money into the grassroots game. The figure was set at £260m, which they hoped would improve facilities, coaching and increase participation.
The problem is, according to those involved in grassroots, that the money falls short of what is required and, in a way, creates more problems of a different kind.
Liverpool was one of the first regions chosen to receive what was described by the FA as “the biggest investment into grassroots football”. That deal was worth £17m, with the city council expected to cough up £4.4m of that, with another £12.6m coming from the FA and the Premier League.
There are question marks in the first place as to whether the council, who will be experiencing funding cuts of their own, should be burdened with having to invest millions of pounds as part of the deal.
Does just upwards of £12m really sound like a great deal of money given the astronomical figures being exchanged in TV rights for Premier League games? Or given that there are around 38,000 grassroots clubs up and down the country?
“It’s OK the Premier League and the FA saying ‘look what we’re doing’, but it’s 2017 and we’ve still got men peeing in bushes, no showers, no changing facilities,” Kenny told The Anfield Wrap.
“Some of the pitches the juniors are playing on the Dutch wouldn’t even graze their cows on. They’re that poor.
“We’ve needed support from the FA, councils and government for many, many years and they’ve failed. The FA run grassroots football but they’d sooner go and build a stadium which they can’t even fill.”
The “Parklife” scheme, which has been set up to build new all-purpose facilities in several regions up and down the country, causes some issues of its own.
The four hubs being set up in Liverpool will increase the likelihood of grassroots becoming elitist — a situation where only a select few clubs are able to afford the facilities.
Kids may be forced to travel across the city to these hubs if they are to get the chance to play football, which could have a knock-on effect for other local clubs trying to survive with inadequate facilities and decreasing interest.
That could be the case for clubs up and down the country. The current level of investment simply doesn’t stretch far enough.
“It’s not good enough,” said Kenny. “The FA have said themselves that to improve the facilities in grassroots football it would cost £5bn. So you look at £260m divided by 38,000 grassroots clubs; we need more than that.”
If you’d like to support the campaign, you can sign the petition here.
To listen to The Anfield Wrap special on grassroots football in full, and for free, click here.