FA Commission report outlines plans for huge 3G expansion to improve grassroots football facilities
Grassroots football in England received a shot in the arm this month when the FA launched plans for a revolution in grassroots facilities and coaching, including the creation of hundreds of new 3G pitches and 150 new football ‘hubs’ in 30 cities by 2020.
As his England Commission published its second report, FA Chairman Greg Dyke spoke of a “radical new approach” that will see a 50 percent increase in 3G pitches nationwide and a 130 percent increase in urban areas at a cost of £230m over the next six years.
The news will be seen as long overdue for many in the grassroots game, who for years have struggled with poorly maintained and under-funded public facilities (83 percent of all grass pitches in England are publicly-owned). Club Website reported on the parlous state of grassroots facilities back in 2010 and cuts to local authority funding as a result of government austerity measures since then have made the situation even worse.
As costs continue to rise, the standard of facilities has got worse and when the usual British winter weather arrives many pitches become unplayable. A 2013 FA survey revealed that 49 percent of players had more than five games cancelled per season, predominantly due to unplayable pitches.
“We have a big problem in grassroots football because of facilities,” said Dyke. “I wouldn’t say it’s at crisis point but we have to do something about it.
“We all know that the maintenance of facilities, particularly the local authority ones, has declined over the years. We’ve had two terrible winters. The advantage of the artificial pitches is that you can play on it 60 to 80 hours a week whereas the average grass pitch is four to five.”
The FA admits that grassroots football is over-reliant on publicly-owned facilities and so it has set out to its stall to reverse the trend and get football back in control of its own destiny with lots of first class artificial pitches used year-round and managed through a sustainable business model.
But what exactly will this involve? Here are the FA Commission's key proposals for revolutionising our approach to grassroots football in England:
Facilities - by 2020 there will be:
* More than 150 football 'hubs' in 30 cities, increasing the number of top-quality artificial grass pitches (AGPs) in urban areas by 130% to over 500.
* A 50% increase in the total number of full-size, public 3G AGPs in England, to more than 1,000
* Hubs to be run by trusts or football organisations, supporting the delivery of FA and pro club youth development and coach education programmes
* Over 50% of all mini-soccer and youth football matches - about 3,750 per week - being played on the best quality AGPs
Coaching - the targets for the next three years are to:
* Recruit 25 more full-time FA coach educators
* More than triple the number of Youth Award Level 3 coaches from 800 to 3,000
* More than triple the number of Advanced Youth Award holders from 200 to 750
* Increase Pro Licence holders from around 200 to 300
* Significantly increase the number of qualified coaches from black, Asian and minority ethnic (BME) backgrounds and others who are under-represented, including female coaches
Having established the commission to address the shortage of English players playing in the Premier League, the reasons behind the FA's grassroots plans are straightforward: more and better pitches plus more and better coaches should mean more players and, in the long term, better players.
The ambitious proposals for both facilities and coaching will merge at the central hubs, which will put a large focus on youth football, but will also be shared by adult clubs and leagues, schools and community programmes for matches, training and coaching courses that fit in with national coaching strategies.
Built on local authority land and leased to private trusts or "football organisations" - whose members could include the local professional club, County FA or the local authority themselves - the hubs would require councils to invest capital up-front to get them developed, but would then substantially reduce their running costs in the long term.
The first hubs will be built in Sheffield as a pilot trial, while plans are in place for Liverpool and Birmingham. The number of hubs in a city will vary depending on size and demand but, if the plans come to fruition, most cities will have between five and 20.
By targetting 30 cities, the hubs will get to work in the greatest catchment areas and will significantly improve football provision for 30 percent of England's football-playing population by 2020, in areas suffering most from cuts to public subsidies.
The hubs will be music to the ears of anyone living in a city with a love of football. A group of high quality pitches at a first rate facility, available in all year round in your local area - what's not to like?
Of course, such an ambitious project doesn't come cheap. The FA estimates that completing phase one of the project - building the hubs and 3G pitches - across all 30 cities will cost a total £230 million spent over five years.
With not much change out of £50 million a year, the commission's report admits that "the scale of funding required to deliver this radical new approach is well beyond the means of the FA."
Whilst the FA will aim to trim some of its own costs to find funds of its own, Dyke is relying on the Premier League and the Government - their Football Foundation funding partners for the last 14 years - to also step up the plate and contribute their share.
"The Premier League and our clubs have a long-held commitment to investing in and supporting community sports facilities, sports participation projects, and schools football," said chief executive Richard Scudamore.
"We were consulted by the FA Chairman’s England Commission as part of its research into the provision of grassroots facilities and coaching and welcome proposals to enhance both areas.
"Getting this right is imperative to the good health of the game at all levels – players like Raheem Sterling and Calum Chambers have to start off somewhere. The Premier League and our clubs will keep playing our part to help ensure that the provision of top-quality facilities and coaching is delivered where it is needed most and will have greatest impact."
To what tune the Premier League will "play their part" is unclear, but Dyke is confident that they will back the plans with increased investment. Some will argue that, with annual revenues of over £2.5bn, the Premier League could fund the entire project themselves many times over.
On the other hand, the Premier League redistributes more income than any other league in Europe and can point to contributing over £1.3bn in tax revenue to the Exchequer.
What's to stop the government using a little bit of that to help support local authorities in the development of hubs and to help tackle the growing obesity epidemic while they are it?
Sports minister Helen Grant said: "I'm keen to see what more we can do to help further improve the nation's facility stock, putting 3G pitches in places that need them most, and I am continuing discussions with the football authorities."
We can only hope that these discussions produce a positive outcome and one that sees government place a just and proper value on good quality sports provision within the community.
The Government's current annual £10m contribution towards grassroots football facilities is nothing short of derisory. The £12m contribution to the FA and Premier League Facilities Fund (FAPLFF) by its two title sponsors is not enough, but for the Government to come in below that amount, at half of the annual £20m contribution originally made by each of the three partners, is shameful.
Since they launched in 2000, the Football Foundation, who run the FAPLFF, have been doing amazing work with the limited amount of money at their disposal, supporting more than £1 billion of grassroots facility projects in that time, usually centered around 3G pitches.
Their stats have consistently shown that good quality football facilities get more people active. New Foundation-funded facilities demonstrated a 9% increase in football participation last season and a 12.4% increase in multi-sport participation. Despite all this, the Foundation's funding has been slowly eroded over the last 14 years.
Its three funding partners all have a responsibility to the grassroots game but they have became stuck in a triangle of inertia - nobody taking the lead and all seemingly happy to steadily reduce their investment in facilities over this time.
So fair play to the Football Association. They often have their critics but credit where it is due. Whilst the commission's report has no guarantee of success, the grassroots facilities story was slowly drifting towards an unhappy ending for many clubs, teams and players.
It needed someone to put themselves forward, take a bit of a punt and hope that others followed suit.
Football has woken up belatedly to what many have been telling them for years - that 3G pitches are the way forward and significant investment is needed, as demonstrated by our European neighbours for years.
“When you look at the facilities in Germany and the Netherlands, we think we are behind in this country," said Dyke, doing his best Monty Python impression of stating the bleedin' obvious.
Even if the FA Commission's targets are met and they can increase the number of 3G pitches to over 1,000 by 2020, it will still be just over a quarter of the 3G pitches that Germany has today, and who knows how many more they will have added to their current 3,735 by then.
So we're playing catch-up, but we knew that. To catch up, we at least need to try something new and fresh and the FA's plans are certainly that.
Who knows, inner city football hubs could be the breeding grounds of generations of future England stars. At the very least, they should give a large chunk of our youngest footballers a decent pitch to play on every week.
They might take some time to reach beyond our major cities, but improving facilities for almost a third of the country's footballers in just six years would be a big step in the right direction.
It feels like this is a moment that must be seized for the long term health of the national game. If the FA's ambitious plans get the backing that they seek, then who knows what good it could do for football in England.
Let's hope all of the game's key players want to play ball at the new football hubs.
Dan Pope, Club Website editor
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If you want to read every last detail of the FA Chairman's England Commission second report, please download the full report. (PDF file, 5.2MB)
Alternatively, if you'd prefer just a short summary of the report's key findings and proposals, please download the executive summary. (PDF file, 800KB)