Fylde grassroots football: What more can be done?

A junior game at Common Edge, Blackpool
A junior game at Common Edge, Blackpool
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Thousands of Fylde youngsters will this weekend take part in the ‘beautiful game’. But the FA says grassroots football is in crisis.

WILLIAM WATT speaks to those in the know to find out if we are lagging behind the rest of Europe.

It happens every four years.

Greg Dyke

Greg Dyke

England’s national side crash out of a World Cup sparking heated debates over the state of the country’s youth systems.

But what’s to blame for the country with arguably the best domestic league in the world failing so dramatically on the international stage?

Is it down to failings at grass root levels, the game’s academy systems or the amount of overseas players flooding the market?

Well that depends who you talk to.

The Football Association’s latest campaign involves a “radical new approach” to the game at grass roots level to reverse the many years of neglect.

Chairman Greg Dyke states his plan will lead to major changes, including investment of £230m over the next five years to create 150 new ‘football hubs’ across 30 cities, a doubling of the number of publicly accessible full-size 3G pitches, and a tripling of qualified youth coaches within three years.

It all sounds well and good, but with £835m being spent by Premier League clubs in the last transfer window, is £230m anywhere near enough?

Some people in the game have different ideas.

“It’s great there’s investment going into coaching and grass roots, but there needs to be a huge change in culture in the game,” said Richie Kyle, Blackpool FC’s head of youth.

“At the moment football has such a short-term mentally which isn’t helping getting young players through the system and into first teams. First team football is now all about quick results and managers are under so much pressure to deliver.

“If the average manager in the Championship lasts just nine months in a role, why would they bother nurturing and bringing a young player through the system in the team, there’s just no incentive.

“It’s no coincidence the likes of Crewe, Manchester United and Arsenal have been the most successful at bringing players through, all having long-term managers in place.”

Kyle’s point is as relevant as any, but without dramatic changes to the rules surrounding sacking managers, it would be almost impossible for the FA to force the culture shift which is clearly needed.

Instead they are concentrating on grass roots coaching, something which England is way behind their European neighbours.

As it stands there are just 205 pro-licence holders in England, as opposed to 1,304 in Germany with Spain, Italy and France also boasting superior numbers.

Something which Dyke is more than aware of.

“We clearly haven’t got enough coaches when you compare us to other European nations, or good facilities compared to other European countries and we haven’t won as many tournaments as they have,” he said.

“This is a fairly radical change in coaching and if we can meet these targets and find the money to do the football hubs in the cities, we will transform football.

“English football is a tanker that needs turning.”

A major reason for the shortage of qualified coaches in this country is the sheer cost of gaining those credentials.

Although the price of an FA-sanctioned coaching badge starts at £150, ambitious coaches must pay £1,500 for a UEFA A licence.

Jamie Milligan, who has played and coached at Blackpool FC and runs his own soccer school, said: “I’d say that’s the main reason we don’t have more coaches.

“I know a lot of people who want to do their Level One badge and can’t afford it. If we want more coaches, there should be more help for people who want to become coaches.

“Another problem is that coaching jobs aren’t very well rewarded, unless your are at a top club. Lower down the structure, the wages don’t make it worth the cost of doing the courses. It all means that a lot of ex-players with the potential to be good coaches go off to do other things instead.”

And as you get to grass roots level, the very foundation of the game, the question of resources and funding becomes all the more pressing.

On the Fylde coast thousands of children play each weekend in organised leagues, a system many feel doesn’t get the funding or attention it deserves.

AFC Blackpool U15 boss Martin Baird said: “Some of the pitches we’re asked to play on are abysmal. What I don’t understand is how the FA talk about kids playing the beautiful game and developing, but they don’t play on beautiful pitches.

“If you go to places like Boundary Park kids are playing in three inches of mud.

“Why haven’t we got a 3G facility in a place like Blackpool?

“There’s one up in Lytham but that costs a lot of money for us to use, why isn’t there one available to the community?

“We just have to make the best of the facilities we have, it’s not the kids’ fault. We work on fund-raisers and things like that, we just do what we can.”

Then there’s the cost.

With the Premier League drowning in cash and players earning eye watering amounts in salaries, should more of that filter down to the grass roots?

Paul Gregs, vice chairman as Fleetwood Town juniors certainly thinks so.

He said: “My biggest problem with youth football at the moment is the cost of it.

“Personally I think we are pricing a lot of good kids out of football.

“In some cases parents just can’t afford for their kids to join a junior football club.

“We are trying to introduce free football for all kids under the age of £8, but it’s difficult.

“When I played as a kid it was £30 for the season, now at some clubs it can be as much as £300.

“Unless you’re part of an academy or something no-one seems to be bothered about you.

“I think the clubs aren’t interested about grass roots, they just come and pick the best players and give very little back.

“You look at some of the facilities we have to play on and there’s no wonder why we haven’t got much of a chance.

“The fees on playing on the local parks go up every year from the council, but they are doing less and less each year to maintain it.

“King George’s field in Fleetwood is a perfect example, they didn’t bother taking down the posts until July this summer and did no work on the pitches.

“Because of that they are in such a mess they still aren’t ready to be played on now.”

It remains to be seen how much of the new funding announced by Dyke will filter through to the Fylde coast, but Lancashire’s FA are more than doing their bit, as coach education manager Colin Greenall explained.

“We work closely we all the grass roots clubs in Lancashire with the aim of having a qualified coach in each team at all levels.

“That might sound easy but it’s a huge process which involves thousands of teams.”

Greenall, who played for Blackpool, Preston and Wigan 
before moving to coaching went on to say: “Most of the coaches we deal with are 
parents and volunteers 
who just want to help out 
their local team.

“If we can improve their 
knowledge and help give 
them the skills to improve 
the kids then that’s great.

“We are doing some great 
work on the Fylde coast at 
the moment, whenever we 
hold courses they are 
always fully booked.

“It’s a long process and 
one which is never ending 
really, but we’re making progress.

“We are doing some great
 work on the Fylde coast at the moment, whenever we hold courses they are always fully booked.

“It’s a long process and one which is never ending, really, but we are making progress.”