Investment needed in football pitches is measured in billions of pounds. The FA's recent commitment to the cause looks sadly wanting, reports Corinne Hitching
Local football clubs up and down the land could be heard cheering when Arsenal boss Arsène Wenger complained about the state of Wigan Athletic's football pitch when his team lost to them back in March.
This time it couldn't be put down to just sour grapes as the pitch had played host to a rugby match just the week before, leaving it in an appalling condition and justifying Wenger's objections.
For thousands of club players, that same complaint is repeated week after week as teams struggle to play on pitches littered with pockmarks, divots and muddy patches. Poorly maintained pitches mean injuries are common and the idea of playing in a mudbath leaves many youngsters disenchanted with a game they will desert after they reach 16 years of age.
By the Football Association's own calculations in 2000, a staggering £2.2bn was needed to repair existing playing fields. But that was then. The FA now estimate that no less than £5bn must be ploughed into pitches to raise them to a state matching that of our European neighbours.
"That, sadly, is the state of facilities here," states Nigel Hargreaves, the FA's head of strategic development. "Significant money has been spent via the Football Foundation but we are scratching the surface, and need to invest a lot more."
Despite that comment, when the FA recently announced a £200m investment in grassroots football over the next four years, no extra money had been earmarked to go towards improving the state of our pitches. Instead, the money is earmarked:
1. To grow and retain participation
2. To raise standards and address abusive behaviour
3. To develop better players
4. To run the game effectively.
Supporting these four goals are two other key areas of focus - a skilled workforce and improved facilities, which simply means continuing to put £15m into the Football Foundation, a pledge they made when setting up the Foundation in 2000.
The FA may have reportedly described the pitches on which most people play football as either 'poor' or 'awful' but, while Premiership players' fees continue to rise and more money is being poured into retaining and recruiting more referees, the standard of public playing fields on which most of us play the game remains dismal.
In the FA's own document - 'The National Game Strategy' - in which the Association announced its grand plan for the game, it was refreshingly honest about the scale of the task ahead.
"We must improve the quality, quantity and accessibility of training and playing facilities. As the game grows, a greater number of facilities may be required to sustain and increase participation in football. We need to invest in new and improved facilities in schools, clubs and on local authority sites to deliver this National Game Strategy."
Where is the funding coming from?
The FA goes on to list its 'Challenges':
• Improving the quality of an access to existing facilities to support grassroots football
• Understanding what is needed to meet the demand for quality facilities in every local authority area
• Addressing increasing costs to clubs of hiring facilities for training and playing matches
• Campaigning against the loss of playing fields
All fine words, as is the pledge to 'develop 150 artificial grass pitches to FIFA and FA standards to increase opportunities for coaching, leagues, competitions and more flexible football formats.' But what is needed is a seismic shift in the scale of investment.
Football is big business - currently 1.5 million people take to the playing fields in England every week and 470,000 children between 5-15 years old play for clubs, with another 3.4 million playing 'kickabout' football. Despite this huge grassroots participation, football faces a clutch of major challenges, including the fact that thousands of kids between of ages of 16 and 20 drop out of the game and that there is a distinct lack of qualified match officials, largely due to abuse.
For these reasons, the FA intended its £200m investment to concentrate efforts on developing the game through improved infrastructure, courses, coaches, more and improved referees and increasing the number of skilled players. Much of this money will be fed into the county football associations to enable them to lead and develop the game locally.
But the prospects of more cash for grounds care remain bleak. "I am not aware of any more funds becoming available for pitch care than is already available through the Football Foundation," says Kevin Tharme, county development manager for the Sussex Football Association. "We are provided with a budget by the FA that we use to help set up new clubs and, as a result of the new investment, we have also received some funding for new people, including a referee development officer."
All counties across the country were encouraged to create a blueprint for the next four years and the Kent Football Association was one of the first to set out their own strategy for tapping into the available funds. The strategy was prepared to ensure the county stood a chance of gaining much-needed funds to improve pitches, ensure grounds have changing rooms, retain referees and to prevent the decline of 11 versus 11 football.
Barry Bright, chairman of the Kent FA, says: "Kent FA's strategy really interlinks with the FA's and that is clear to see the issues such as respect, facility improvements and referee recruitment are all part of it. We purposefully went before them in relation to the Thames Gateway development as we will be looking for additional funding to ensure there are sports facilities available there. We need to ensure we can get local authorities to tap into this money and make sure Kent gets its fair share and we will be working hard to do this."
Bright continues "We need to make our case and make it strong and, hopefully, investment will follow from it. You do not have to go far in Kent to realise there is a need for investment and if we can get that into the county that would be great. If we can get the schools open to sport that would be a great base where we can begin to create something."
One element of Kent FA's strategy is to improve and sustain the quantity and quality of football pitches and facilities throughout the county, and to increase the number of pitches and facilities to take account of the regeneration and growth taking place in the county. However, the funding for this initiative will come from the Football Foundation.
The Foundation continues to do a sterling job and, since its creation in 2000, has invested in no less than 5,000 projects worth £650m.
At the same time as the FA was announcing its £200m investment in grassroots football, the Foundation also announced its continued funding deal with the FA, the Premiership and the government. In addition to the £15m/a that these three provide, the Foundation has managed to deliver a £5 to £1 return on the funding partners investment, which means it has leveraged an additional £335m to supplement the grants. Good work but still falling far short of the billions needed nationwide.
Among available initiatives, the Facilities Scheme gives grants for projects that improve facilities for football and other sport in local communities, sustain or increase participation among children and adults and help children and adults develop through participation in sport. The types of facilities it gives money for embrace the improvement in grass pitches, including drainage and the creation of artificial turf pitches.
The maximum grant available from the Foundation for each facility project is £1m, although applicants are requested to find as much funding from other sources as possible first, as the Foundation will only pay a maximum of 90% towards the project costs, although that much is only awarded in exceptional circumstances where there is a strategic need.
A number of clubs have found it difficult to obtain funding for facilities improvement and the Foundation says the main reasons they will not provide funding is if there is no community access or if there is no child protection plan.
"Applicants need to make sure they tick all the eligibility boxes before approaching us,"said a spokesman for the Foundation. "They can get all the help they need from their county FA and that means when we receive the application it can be approved straight away."
Stonebridge Recreation Ground in north London, for example, is one facility that has been transformed with the help of a £1m Football Foundation grant awarded to the Hillside Housing Trust. The site now boasts state-of-the-art facilities, comprising a new four-room changing pavilion, housing a mini gym, a café, a multi-purpose hall, training rooms for coach and referee education and a viewing terrace.
The site also has a refurbished full-size grass pitch, full-size floodlit 3G artificial grass pitch and a multi-use games area, used for netball, tennis and other sports. As the jewel in the crown of Harlesden's urban renewal programme, the Stonebridge Recreation site is an example of how a sports centre can help regenerate an entire community.
By the FA's own estimates, pitches need massive investment in them to ensure they provide workable standards for grass-roots football. With no sign of an increase in funding anytime soon, millions of die-hard participants are consigned to struggle on sub-standard, poorly drained surfaces.
Attempts to raise standards at the grass-roots level perhaps should start with more attention to what is, literally, the root of the problem.