Original Article: Grassroots football in crisis, part 1: The kids
It’s a quarter to nine in the morning, and the sun is out, which is a relief because it is no fun trying to build a goal in the rain.
Before anyone can score a goal for the Under-12s in the Primary Boys Football League (PBFL), based in Tolworth, on the London-Surrey border, they have to construct one. The Football Association no longer allows this age group to use full-size goals, which is progress, but councils rarely install small permanent goals. So every Saturday morning parents and players are to be seen trying to rebuild the portable ones, working out which post goes in which socket, before stringing up the net. Once built, the goals are carried 100 yards to the pitches. Then, when the matches are over, it is all done in reverse.
Meanwhile, over on the under-eight pitches, Dave Webb, the U8s league manager, is marking out the touchlines with cones. Like many councils, Kingston upon Thames has subcontracted parks’ maintenance to a private company, Quadron Services in this case. QS is big, with a glitzy website, but as far as the PBFL is concerned it does “the bare minimum, and often not even that”. The pitch QS has marked out for the U8s is way too big for six-and-seven-year-olds playing five-a-side, so Webb has to reduce it with cones. There is a similar problem with the U14s, who have to play on a full-size pitch as coning their one off is impractical.
Still, at least the referee can see the cones. As elsewhere in the borough, QS painted the lines at the start of the season and then cut the grass, thus taking off most of the paint; not that it painted all the lines. The Respect lines, which are supposed to keep parents five yards back from the touchline, have, as usual, not been marked, nor even, on some pitches, the centre circle. Although it pays the council for this service, the PBFL has had to buy its own paint and line-marking machine to plug the gaps left by QS’s neglect.
Welcome to the front line of grassroots youth football, whose ills Greg Dyke, the FA chairman, is due to addresses on Friday when he publishes the long-awaited second report of his England Commission.
The PBFL is one of those marvellous organisations you occasionally stumble across and wonder why the people who matter, like Dyke, are not helping it. For more than 40 years, it has been providing safe, organised football for boys and girls from six-to-16 – hundreds every Saturday morning, all run by volunteers. It is David Cameron’s Big Society in operation. It is the sort of operation that should be held up by the professional game and politicians as an example for all. Yet it is ignored by both camps as it struggles on from year to year, just pulling together enough cash to keep going. Each Saturday around 450 kids play here. Some are decent – according to legend, alumni include Wayne Routledge, Neil Sullivan, Justin Edinburgh, the current AFC Wimbledon manager Neal Ardley and one of his emerging players, Will Nightingale. However, very few will become professional footballers; that is not what the PBFL is about.
Nick Yellop, the chairman, explains: “There are no trials, we take kids of all abilities, including those with disabilities. It was started by a group of dads who had been told their kids were not good enough for little league selective football, hence the ethos of taking all-comers.” That approach continues with players, whatever their ability, guaranteed to play a significant part of the match (a half to two-thirds).
This is, by many measures, a wealthy area, but there are still plenty of families who have to count the cost of everything and the PBFL keeps fees to a minimum. Indeed, our conversation is interrupted by a parent asking to pay his son’s season’s subscription in instalments. He offers a fiver.
“We are incredibly cheap,” says Yellop, “much cheaper than Sunday football, and everything gets ploughed back into kits or equipment.” Players pay £50 to £60 for the season. Match fees are usually a pound or two to cover treats such as a Christmas trip to the nearby bowling alley and pay the referees. These are mostly teenagers, many of whom first joined as players. Chris Banks, 17, played from the age of seven to 16, combining that with refereeing in the later years, and now helps run a team. He played for Kingstonian on Sundays, a higher level, but says: “I always enjoyed playing as it was a fun thing to do with my mates. While the standard wasn’t so good, it made me more understanding of other players. Refereeing has helped me be more confident.”
Building self-belief is one of sport’s great benefits (along with combating the obesity crisis). Hannah Davies, a nurse whose son Rhys, seven, plays, says: “It is the highlight of his week. On Saturdays, he has his football kit on before I even open my eyes. It’s built his confidence as he feels he’s really good at something.”
But the number benefiting is declining as the PBFL has been losing players. Ten years ago it had nearly 600 boys and girls every Saturday.
“The common thought is that more kids sit in front of an Xbox,” says Yellop, a retired police officer and now a full-time carer. “I think it is more complicated than that. More parents work Saturdays and then you look at our facilities. When we get adverse weather, we struggle to play.”
Last year, there were no matches for nearly three months because of waterlogged pitches. The previous year, frozen pitches were the problem. Yellop adds: “The toilets are disgusting, the showers are awful. The kids tend to arrive and go home in their kit, but we are getting more and more girls down here now playing to U16 level and there are only grotty toilets for them. It is very poor.
“The pavilion was built in 1962 and needs essential basic maintenance. Nothing gets done. I don’t think there are any votes in sports fields but we are a ‘distraction activity’ for the local authority. We are taking 450 kids out of trouble every morning, encouraging structured behaviour, playing football or refereeing. We pay for the pitches [£7,800 last year] and it costs them nothing.”
The press office of Kingston upon Thames borough council issued a statement on behalf of QS, which said: “Kingston is a borough that supports and promotes sport at all levels. We have to operate within a tight budget. Our contractors do respond to requests from PBFL and we want clubs to enjoy good facilities.”
However, Lyndon Johnson, the PBFL’s liaison with QS, said at times he has to complain on a weekly basis. I myself have been involved at the PBFL for four years and I’ve not seen any evidence of QS providing more than the most basic service.
There has been no help from the professional game. Attempts have been made to forge a relationship with Fulham, whose training ground is just up the A3, but relegation from the Premier League seems to have put a halt to that. When you have spent £11m on Ross McCormack, there is presumably not much cash left to spare.
The admirable work of the Football Foundation does not reach this part of the grassroots either. The PBFL does not own the land, so it is not eligible for grants to improve the drainage, or construct a 3G pitch. A Premier League official has been coaxed down here, and was impressed, but nothing more has been heard.
There is very little help from the county or national FA either. “We are a bit unique and that is a problem,” says Yellop. “We’d like to have more managers take coaching courses, but cost is a problem. I know the FA want all teams to have Level One coaches, but that is a bridge too far for us, we struggle to get enough managers as it is. It is basically dads and other relatives.”
We are sitting in the pavilion [a fancy name for an outbuilding that resembles an air-raid shelter], which is filling with the smell of chips being fried in the canteen area. Outside in the sun, hundreds of children are running around chasing a ball. The air is full of shouts of joy and encouragement.
On days like this it is a great place to spend a Saturday morning. But when the rain comes, and the pitches turn to clay, and there is no cover on the touchline for sodden substitutes and parents, it is not as much fun. That is when the attraction of a morning in front of the Xbox increases, for parents too, as they think of being soaked, then mud-caked children getting into their car after a game.
It is a moral crime that the game, and the Government, ignores places like this. Friday brings Dyke’s report, next spring the various party manifestos will be issued ahead of the election. It is to be hoped that there will be proposals in both to invest meaningfully in grassroots sport. However, down on the touchline at Tolworth, no one is holding out much hope. They know they are on their own.