Posts Tagged ‘Grassroots’

For many years children, teenagers and adults have taken to parks and pitches on a Saturday and Sunday morning, the length and breadth of the country, to partake in the ‘beautiful game’. A ritual almost. Enthusiastic players, card-happy referees, and managers barking instructions as if their job hangs on the line. . .

It is the start of a new season and players have convinced their parents to separate with the best part of £100 for brand new, shiny boots they see their heroes wear on television, trying to emulate their success.

The parks and pitches are green after a summer of inactivity as the council have taken the goal posts away; new players have arrived as others departed and teams are either looking to build on last season’s success, improve on last season’s failure or playing because it is football. There is the new season feel.

Fast forward four months and the new season feel has been replaced. Replaced with the numbing feeling of winter. Mud up to your ankles and aching neck muscles as the ball flies overhead, defenders not contemplating playing out from the back on the marsh-like surface. Head to toe in mud; it is meant to be ‘character building’.

Even when the surface starts to harden it brings about all the crevices of the pitch. We have all been there right? A ball is passed out to you on the wing, you take a glance, survey the options available to you but just as you go to control the ball a horrible bobble lifts the ball over your foot and out of play. The look of disapproval from your players and coaches, while you can hear the sniggers of mockery and derision from the opposition. Embarrassing.

It’s about time this changed.

Parks and pitches all over Britain do not receive the regular required maintenance to keep them at their best. Instead most are neglected, minus a cut and re-lining every now and then. This is compounded with substandard drainage systems and over-use, with most towns and cities not having the requisite number of pitches in relation to the number of teams in the area.

The answer is in artificial surfaces. Not the ones that your school have invested in which are covered in sand – you finish playing and empty your trainers of what looks like half of Copacabana beach. But 3G (or even 4G) surfaces which are flat and infinitely better than the majority of natural surfaces that grassroots footballers have to deal with week in week out.

North of the border Henry McLeish discovered in his investigation of Scottish football the game needs investment from bottom to top. And the insightful David Conn has recently looked into the situation of Grassroots funding in England. Adequate investment in artificial pitches needs to feature high up on the priorities. The benefits will be plentiful, short, medium and long-term.

I may be simplifying the matter but a better surface will encourage better football which produces better footballers. Players will know that they can play football, pass and then move without worrying about divots, bobbles or any undulating features of a grass pitch.

Having played on a 3G pitch earlier this season, when all other games in the league structure were off, you could see the benefits. Our team have two 6 foot plus centre forwards so when the surface gets tough we have an appropriate and useful out ball. But this game, despite the height both teams possessed, was largely played on the ground, culminating in arguably our best performance of the season. In fact there is no arguably about it. We went through the midfield and down the flanks. We won 4-1 against a team a division higher. It proved we could play football. The surface gave us the confidence to play football.

Our captain, a couple of months shy of 22, is a fierce advocate of direct football. ‘Traditional football’. Growing up watching the lower leagues of Scottish football does that to you. But even he was full of praise for the surface, eager to play on it again.

These pitches may have their sceptics but once you have played on them you will never want to go back to a public park. The surface allows you to get your head up and search for a pass while still dribbling or waiting for the pass to reach you. No worries about unexpected bobbles. The sceptics then might say it is ‘unnatural’ to play on a surface so flat it is like you have went into your living room and started spraying the passes about on your carpet as if you have taken over Andrea Pirlo’s ‘regista’ role in the Milan midfield. But if professionals can play on carpet like pitches why can’t we?

After all both Stenhousemuir and Alloa Athletic, Division Two in Scotland, play on artificial pitches as do Spartak Moscow in their Luzhniki stadium while Novara Calcio in Italy’s Serie B are the first professional side to install an artificial surface. However after Queens Park Rangers installed a ‘plastic pitch’ in 1980 the ‘un-true’ bounce brought about a number of criticisms and the type of pitch is still held in disdain by many. But times and technology have changed, drastically, since then.

I should make it clear that I am not saying artificial pitches should be implemented in professional football at the top level. Clubs have the means and the funds to look after and maintain their pitches to an immaculate standard. Artificial pitches should be implemented for grassroots, amateur, senior and lower league football.

Every time England fail at an international tournament or a debate arises about the quality of Scottish football, player’s technique, or lack of it, is at the crux of the argument. But if youngsters are given the facilities and the surfaces these pitches possess it will encourage greater focus on passing and the retaining of possession that has so often been lacking in British teams playing on the international scene or clubs participating in Europe. The opportunity is there to combine our traditional energy, strength and determination with a finer touch, passing and control.

Weather has played havoc with the football calendar over the last two seasons, especially at grassroots level, increasing the volume of those calling for summer football. There is nothing you can do about Arctic conditions and when these will strike, anytime between November and March. However rain often forces postponement as pitches are easily waterlogged due to inadequate drainage. Properly built and properly maintained artificial pitches lessen the chances of cancellations and postponements considerably while still providing a quality surface.

A traditional calendar can be followed and consistent cancellations can be a thing of the past allowing players to do what they are desperate to do; play. It allows for use all year round which benefits the whole community. Stenhousemuir and Alloa, along with their partners, invested significantly in their surfaces. It is an investment that is being returned as the surface allows activity seven-days-a-week for most of the year.

It is not just the clubs that are reaping the benefits, other football clubs and other sports can make use of these facilities.

For these facilities to take shape and become common in towns and cities throughout Britain significant investment is required. As Conn alluded to in his investigation for the Guardian here and here, the Premier League, despite all the riches they receive from TV rights which have been increasing, have stagnated if not regressed in their funding to grassroots football.

It is solely not their prerogative to fund the grassroots game but, along with clubs in Scotland and the rest of Britain, it is in their best interests to provide finance to the grassroots level. After all this is where they will be getting most of their academy squad from. As I have mentioned higher up, better pitches can encourage better football which in tandem can help mould better players. So by the time they arrive in the academy squads they are at a more advanced level than they are at just now entering the system.

It can’t be said that better facilities and better pitches are the be-all and end-all to instantly changing the players for the better. For a start better coaching is also imperative. But better facilities are just part of the puzzle as British teams and players look to close the gap on their Brazilian, Argentinean, Spanish, French, German, Italian etc counter-parts.

If football clubs and their national organisations combine along with funding from charities and local councils to provide better pitches and facilities it may encourage children, teenagers and adults back into the game who were fed up getting changed outside or playing on a neglected pitch covered in holes or dog muck. It should increase better football. It will increase enjoyment.


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