I wrote this piece last month about grassroots and youth football in my mid Sussex village for the fine zine The Seagull Love Review.
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Its midday on a cold but sunny Sunday morning in the first week of December and i’m taking down the football nets on Chailey Common in mid Sussex. Surrounded by trees its normally the home of dogs joyously chasing and fetching tennis balls all over acres of grass. Today there’s still the smell of bacon sandwiches coming from the fallen down club house as the Common’s four pitches have been home to games featuring nearly 100 boys playing competitive football. All watched by a raft of volunteer coaches, refs and parents who arrived hours ago to mark pitches, place corner flags and clear up the odd tennis ball and anything else left behind after all that daily canine exercise during the week.
A group of lads from the team I coach are joking and shouting and continue to kick the ball about in the penalty area and I’m exchanging my usual banter with several of the unfortunate Palace and Forest supporting dads helping my carry balls and cones back to the carpark. My boys; the Chailey and Newick Colts have won 2-0 in our weekly match and are climbing slowly up the table in the lofty heights of the u11s Division 4 of the Sussex Sunday Youth League. A squad of 15 Kids from the local primaries who play mostly for fun not points, this a rare chance for them to get the experience and support to turn one day into a future Lewes FC first teamer, a new Solly March or Rohan Ince or more realistically spend their teenage years keeping fit and having a laugh.
The dreams however are now on hold. There’s a hidden group of victims who’ve fallen prey to this long long wet winter of gales, storms and rain. For three months now youth football in Sussex and the rest of the UK, where there are still nearly 35,000 youth teams, has come to a virtual standstill . Our Youth League website displays the words “Postponed pages 1-9” and I send out weekly emails with the subject line “GAME OFF – WATERLOGGED” to increasingly frustrated boys and parents.
In some ways, the FA has transformed youth football in the last decade. Nearly 400,000 volunteers now have the entry Level 1 qualification, me included, ensuring that teams with a qualified coach has risen from less than 1% in 1998 to 76% now. The FA have also in an unheralded move largely transformed how competitive football should be structured from an early age. Perhaps they were influenced by Spanish coaches such as a certain Oscar Garcia who outlined his approach to The Times earlier this month.
“During a training session in Spain, all the kids have their own ball. When you’re a young player, 5, 6 or 7 – you have to touch the ball as many times as possible because your technique will improve a lot. The kid has to have his own ball. Until 9 or 10, you play on your own the ball, practising technique.”
After 10 you can play small sided games on small pitches and after 12 or 13 you can move to 11 a side. If they play on big pitches, some will only touch the ball two or three times in 80 minutes. When kids are 5 they think they are the centre of the world. There’s no point in teaching them to pass at that age”
Progressive forces in football coaching, like Garcia, the overwhelming success of Spain and Germany in producing homegrown players has led the FA to gradually reduce pitch sizes and goals for younger age groups to encourage development. Changes such as smaller sided games of 7 players versus 7 at an early age, and then 9v9 , and only over 13s allowed to play at a full 11 a side on far smaller pitches should be applauded.
All U10s football in the UK now adopts the sensible Retreat Line Rule where players have to retreat to their half of the pitch forcing defences to play out from the back. The FA has, through courses and marketing, made some attempt to silence some of the shocking abuse from the side of the pitch targeted at young refs and even at kids from a minority of parents who should know better.
However an FA survey in 2013 found that 84% of people cited “poor facilities” as the most pressing issue for the grassroots game. Its a difficult conclusion to dispute. As my rail replacement bus wound its way through Sussex to Three Bridges last week on my way to the Millwall game I saw empty pitch after pitch strewn with puddles, mud but no players.
We are lucky enough at Chailey to practice once a week on one of the few local 3G or artificial pitches at a local school. Its been largely unaffected by the winter but there are only a handful in the county and under 500 in England. Not surprising perhaps when they cost nearly £500k to install.
The remainder of the county’s grass pitches are nearly all publicly owned and austerity’s impact on local government budgets combined with the now yearly extreme weather is an obvious constraint in our attempts to catch up with the kids in Barcelona or Madrid.
There is perhaps another place too look if as Greg Dyke insists; the premier league should give Roy Hodgson a greater percentage of English players to choose from. Although Premier League broadcast revenue is now an astonishing £5.5bn, a mere 1% of that goes back to the charity; Football Foundation; to improve facilities. Over time the government and the FA have in fact reduced, in real terms, their share of funding for the foundation.. Something for Dyke’s commission now due after the World Cup to ponder. One things for certain. Garcia’s vision of kids touching the ball many times in a match hasn’t happened much in the UK this winter. Due to the poor playing surfaces they haven’t in fact touched the ball in a competitive match at all.
Its now early March and I’ve just finished an evening coaching. The boys, now mostly adorned in replica Albion kit where a few years back it was all Arsenal, Chelsea and Utd, and they forlornly ask me if there’s a game this Sunday. The forecast this week says mostly dry. Promotion from Division 4 could be back on. Dyke’ et al might even deliver in a few months recognising that well funded decent public facilities and coaching is the answer. Who’d have thought it ? Sadly It will mostly come far far too late for those 100 boys at Chailey Common sat at home this winter playing Fifa.