In the final part of our look at the Future of English Football, we’re turning our attention to the grass roots of the game, where everyone starts to play, first gets interested, develops their skills. In part 2, we discovered that one of the reasons that Premier League clubs have so few English players in their squads is that the levels of technique and tactical ability are higher in youngsters from abroad. With this being the case, is it already a lost cause when a youngster reaches the age that they may be being scouted for a professional club? And if so, what is going wrong?

The FA have already made strides to at least make the grass roots game for younger players more technical, with smaller pitches and goals, more touches of the ball, rules to encourage playing out from the back, and less focus on the bigger lads pumping the ball up the pitch. I remember being about the age of 11 or 12, when we would play on full size pitches and games and leagues would be won by the teams with all the big kids – losing 20-0 to teams like that did little to develop my skills, in addition to pretty non existent coaching. But the FA are also relying on clubs, coaches and parents to buy into such changes and work with them to change the mentality – and a visit to a park on a Sunday morning shows just what a hard job they have on their hands.

A big issue that I first heard raised after England’s dismal showing in the 2010 World Cup, was I remember featured in Gary Lineker’s excellent documentary where he looked into the reason for England’s struggles. He spoke to various experts in the game at home and abroad (plus Martin Samuel), and one of the statistics that came out is the number of UEFA B (FA Level 3) coaches in the UK compared to the likes of Spain and Germany. At the time of the report, England had less than 3,000 UEFA B qualified and above. Spain at the time had nearly 24,000, Italy nearly 30,000, Germany nearly 35,000. The problem here is less at a professional level, but more at grass roots, which is vital in the development of players before they get into the arms of the professional clubs. Part of the issue, which has been recognised by the FA, is that coaches in grass roots are generally voluntary, and unless that individual is keen to learn and develop themselves, and most clubs only insist on having the basic Level 1 qualification, there is little desire to develop their knowledge and skills further due to time and finances. I’ve said previously that not only is the Level 1 certificate incredibly easy to pass, but it also does little to teach coaches to actually coach. It enables coaches to put on sessions using pre defined exercises. Personally, I would advocate the use of methods like that of Coerver Coaching, focusing on the improvement of technique in individual and small group situations. Encourage more coaches to develop their skills, offer more bursaries to help with the huge expenditure that coaching courses now require. There are undoubtedly some brilliant coaches out there, but currently there is little incentive for them to develop.

Clapham Common Football Facilities

Clapham Common’s “Facilites” – photo courtesy of Club Website

Then of course there’s the facilities available for younger players at grass roots. I’ve attended a number of coaching sessions at Fulham’s Motspur Park Training Ground, and every time I go, their facilities have improved. The latest addition was what could only be described as a tent over their 3G training pitches. This enabled sessions to take place whatever the weather outside (wet and cold at the time I attended!). The chances for younger kids and those outside the professional clubs are unlikely to be so attractive. So many times I’d seen kids on Clapham Common in horrible muddy conditions on temporary pitches set up in the flattest area that could be found, usually somewhere where people had been walking their dogs all week. Clapham Common is a prime example of an area that could be developed into an excellent sporting facility, but which is in a shocking state of disrepair – most clubs don’t even bother with the so called changing facilities provided. I have no doubt that such facilities are replicated across the country (and reading David Conn’s follow up book, Richer Than God, it suggests facilities in Manchester definitely are), so what hope is there for developing good technique, let alone attracting more to take part in the game rather than watching it on TV or replicating it in video games.

Even those with access to reasonably decent facilities have to pay a premium for them due to the lack of supply. Surely some of the vast amounts of money flooding into the game at the top end could find its way to the grass roots, to assist both clubs and coaches? Unfortunately, this is always going to be a problem while the game is powered  by a small group of elite clubs, rather than a separate entity like the FA. Either that or the leading clubs need to see the bigger picture of how money invested further down the scale could actually benefit them in the long run. Unfortunately, as with a lot of issues in football, the short term view usually wins. The clubs will also ask the question of the current government who seem only too happy to cut back on spending money on such things, but the point here is that the government at the moment in a struggling economy is pretty skint. Whereas football is in boom time, so why not invest in the future of the game?

I really hope for the good of the English game that when Greg Dyke and friends sit down and start discussing, they actually get to the root of the problem, or should that be the grass root of the problem. It’s all very well dealing with the number of foreign players or developing our elite players in a different way, but unless the basics are there in the first place, it’s always an uphill struggle. Check out other countries where sporting facilities are decent and cheaper, where coaches are appreciated and paid well for what they do and where good technical and tactical ability are developed. The start of the commission and those chosen has been less than promising, I can only hope that at some point they discover what’s been going wrong for years and put in place a programme to change things. It won’t happen overnight, but at least might put English football back in the right direction.