Ben Burgess column: Football not worth losing childhood for

Ben Burgess
Ben Burgess
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Another good week of results for Blackpool leaves them just three points off the play-offs.

Tuesday’s win over Stevenage, while not being the most spectacular, was certainly important to keep the momentum going.

Stevenage went into the game unbeaten in nine matches, so Mark Cullen’s winning goal could prove crucial come the end of the season.

Something else that’s crucial is grassroots football. My son has just turned five and has gone from showing zero interest in football – he even fell asleep watching me at Wembley – to being completely obsessed with it, even to the point of sneaking a ball to bed every night to get extra practice in.

All this is obviously welcomed by myself, although my wife isn’t particularly keen on the prospect of traipsing around watching football every week.

This sudden interest in the beautiful game, allied with me being a teacher, had me thinking about the state of grassroots football in this country.

My conclusion is that we have things completely upside down and the priorities are all wrong.

Billions of pounds are sloshing around in the Premier League, with the ‘best’ young players getting the best facilities and being pampered from as young as five years old.

I heard a story last week about a Premier League team signing a five-year-old because he had good basic movements and was quick. The boy could barely even kick a ball!

I drive past local playing fields and pitches and the grass is long, the posts are rusty – if there are any – with dog dirt everywhere and holes in the pitches.

Has the Premier League forgotten where its players have come from?

No young player is born into an academy, despite how young they start. Everyone starts at the bottom – playing in the park, playing at their local clubs, playing at schools.

Sadly, there is a huge gap in funding for these areas.

Parents and volunteers give up their own time to coach the kids, often at their own expense. They provide kit and ferry them around.

Surely, just a few million pounds could make a huge difference to the grassroots side of the game.

How many local sides go weeks over winter without playing a game because of their pitches?

My other ‘gripe’ with children’s football is the age at which some young kids are picked up by academies.

Yes, the coaching may be better, but some of my best footballing memories were playing with my school- mates at the park and then talking all about it in class on the Monday.

Football for kids should be about improving, having fun and most of all enjoyment.

There’s plenty of time when they’re older to get ‘serious’ and feel the pressure of earning a contract every year.

Already, at six years old, some children have had to deal with the rejection of being released from clubs.

I dealt with that rejection at 28 and that was hard enough!

There’s too much onus on being too professional, too early.

There are obviously lots of benefits to being in an academy, but often the demands clubs put on the players are pretty extreme.

They expect them to be training and playing with them three or four times a week.

This means they miss out on playing with their mates, they miss out on playing different sports and, most worrying, they miss out on being a kid.

To become a professional footballer requires huge sacrifices in all areas of your life, but we shouldn’t be aiming to produce burnt- out robot footballers with no realisation of the things around them.

Mental health issues are on the increase among footballers, especially those retiring because they feel football is all they have.

And sadly that is because football is all they’ve ever known.