Support Grassroots Football: Cultural shift affecting pathway for players to step up a level

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Next year, England will celebrate the 50th anniversary of winning the football World Cup. That triumph at Wembley Stadium brought jubilation to the streets and a little star to the England football shirts.

However, many feel that single star will remain on its own for years to come, with the national team well behind its counterparts across the world following years of decay to the grassroots game.

The Harrogate Advertiser Series is leading a campaign to support the local football clubs and volunteers across the district that spend hours ensuring a pathway for players away from the highest echelons of the game.

The number of adult footballers across the West Riding has fallen by almost 15 per cent in the last six years. The drop-off rate from youth football into the senior game has reached striking levels and several clubs have complained about a lack of funding opportunities when the price of football is increasing.

The standard of pitches and the lack of technology enhanced artificial surfaces have also come under scrutiny.

These problems are not insurmountable, and over the next few weeks the Advertiser will highlight approaches that are being taken by clubs and the West Riding County Football Association to .

First, however, they must be brought to light.

FACILITIES

West Riding County FA spokesman Daniel McGeachie told the Harrogate Advertiser Series that the standard of pitches was the “main gripe” with clubs.

Postponements have meant that some teams spend more than two months over the winter months waiting for their next fixture, and it is the lack of continuity that many managers believe stops turns people away from the game.

The invention of 3G pitches has created more hours of playing time and has seen the rise of six-a-side leagues across the area over the last 20 years.

However, England has just 639 of the latest full size 3G public pitches, each costing £550,000.

Germany has 3,735.

In Harrogate, there are two facilities with artificial surfaces available to football clubs in Harrogate with 3G at Rossett High School and an old-style Astroturf at Granby.

Wetherby High School also has an old-style Astroturf surface but the school pulled out of plans to secure a 3G facility in collaboration with Harrogate Town last year.

Town have reverted to training in Doncaster over the winter months to access 3G facilities. Tadcaster Albion train at two sites in York, and Harrogate Railway have transferred their winter training indoors at Askham Bryan College over the last two seasons.

Railway have planning permission for a 3G facility next to their Station View home, but the club’s plans have been stumped by funding .

Chairman Nigel Corner said grants were available for the club, but it required up to £250,000 in match-funding, money many clubs at semi-professional level are unable to raise.

“If you haven’t got £125k in the bank, it’s not going to happen,” he said.

“It is a shame the Premier League and the FA cannot put something in place to create sustainable income for clubs in step four and below.”

Such problems are also felt at amateur level, with council pitches.

Councillor Pat Jones, Harrogate Borough Council’s Cabinet Member for Culture, Tourism and Sports, said, while the council wanted to help, there was not enough money to support improvements to facilities.

She said: “ We are always junior clubs looking for space. There’s just never enough money. We do our very best to help all clubs with funding whenever there’s grants available.

“Everybody is always asking us but there’s very rarely any money coming up.”

FINANCES OF FOOTBALL

Kenny Saunders, founder of a national Save Grassroots Football campaign that has launched a petition to the government, told the ‘Advertiser Series the lack of investment to the grassroots game was an “embarrassment”.

The Premier League currently spends £168million nationally on community programmes – a small fraction of the money made from broadcasting rights.

A football task force set up in 1999 said the Premier League would contribute five per cent of its revenue to support grassroots.

However, less than one per cent of such revenues are actually spent on the grassroots. Saunders argued that most of that money was being swept up by Premier League club’s community programmes, rather than volunteers.

The league, the Government and the FA have each cut contributions through the Football Foundation from £20million a year to £12million.

Since 2000, the Foundation has developed nearly 2,000 facilities with grants worth £400m.

However, only 87 of those grants (worth just short of a total £1million since 2000) have been delivered to the Harrogate district, less than 0.1 per cent of the national grants.

On average, that amounts to seven cases and and less than £70,000 to Harrogate and District clubs a year.

Also, in that timescale, only nine grants have been provided from the Football Stadia Improvement Fund to the district in the same timescale.

Claro League secretary Tony Pedel said his league relied on sponsorship to control costs of the league administration.

“I have not seen anything come from the West Riding County FA or the national game,” he said.

“Companies in Harrogate area have been absolutely fantastic in sponsoring to keep it at a bare minimum in costs.”

However, the league is currently considering dropping to two divisions next season, a decade after it had five.

“I just don’t know what we do now,” admitted Pedel.

“The biggest problem a lot of teams are having is the people with the appetite to actually run clubs. The unsung heroes of the game are a dying breed. We don’t have enough people coming through.”

YOUTH TO ADULT PROGRESSION

There are 161 junior teams in the Harrogate and District League, five times the number of senior teams operating across the area.

“It’s probably one of the best youth leagues in the north of England,” said Harrogate Town under 21 boss Lewis Atkinson.

“But when you come out of under 16s football, where do you go after that? Many grassroots football clubs have no avenues.

“We have a fantastic youth set-up in Harrogate, but no other outlets for players to go into.”

Atkinson manages Town’s U21s in the newly created West Riding County FA league.

The league has expanded in three years from one division into three across the area, with shorter matches played for 70 minutes on 3G facilities provided by the FA.

“We have seen the league grow massively since it started,” said West Riding County FA Spokesman McGeachie.

“We have done a lot of work around the product to make it appealing.”

CULTURAL SHIFT

Local league managers have labelled working habits and advancements in technology as the main difficulties in recruiting young players and retaining the current squad.

Claro League Secretary Tony Pedel said: “A lot of people now work five out of seven days rather than the normal Monday to Friday jobs.

“Playing weekend football is a lot to commit to.”

The County FA are proposing a new 11-a-side idea, the Flexi League, that it believes will alleviate those problems.

But tackling youngsters’ craze of the latest technology over kicking a ball in a field poses different problems.

In backing the Advertiser’s campaign, Harrogate Railway boss Billy Miller said “football hubs” had to be created where players can have the right environment and spirit.

He said: “The big problem is parents are having to work harder and there’s not as much time in the week. Those issues need tackling first. I don’t think it’s through a lack of trying.

“There’s going to have to be a big push to make sure what’s on offer is appealing for the kids to get involved in the first place.

“We have to create hubs where people can get into the right environment and where the spirit is the winner than worrying about which under 7s team won.

“Winning is important, but it has to be fun.”

Atkinson added: “We need to be encouraging more kids to get off their backsides, off their Xboxes and play football.

“Twenty years ago, we didn’t have mobile phones, we had to get up and do something.”

Save the Grassroots campaigner Kenny Saunders believes the issues are more deep rooted.

He added: “Football used to be 3pm on a Saturday. Now it can be on everyday of the week. That is what has killed football.

“In 1992, the Premier League was set up to improve football and our national game. It has failed.

“Now there are less than 30 per cent home grown players, and that’s only going to get worse.

“We have to set the precedent from the top.

“You don’t build a house through the roof, you build it through the foundations. Grassroots are the foundations.”

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