Going back to our roots

THE Football Association announced plans to invest £200 million in a bid to help the game s seven million players, 125,000 teams, 1,700 leagues, and 400,000 volunteers. The five-year project will oversee the recruitment of coaches and referees and aim t

THE Football Association announced plans to invest £200 million in a bid to help the game's seven million players, 125,000 teams, 1,700 leagues, and 400,000 volunteers.

The five-year project will oversee the recruitment of coaches and referees and aim to improve the behaviour of players and spectators. It will also look to ensure high-quality coaching for every player regardless of age and ability, strengthen the women's game, and bid to improve youth football.

The initiative represents the largest programme of development for football in England, with about £44 million per season put aside for improvement - a rise of almost £10 million a year.

But how will the investment affect those in North Herts and South Cambridgeshire?

Steve Walker, manager of Fowlmere, who play in the Cambridgeshire FA's BIS Division 1A, is one of a number of people who have welcomed the plans.

He said: "I think the investment is a great idea, but where will the money go?

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"Personally, I feel that the biggest problem at grassroots football is the standard of its facilities."

It is a concern that is echoed up and down the country. But the amount of money the FA is putting into facilities is not increasing - and it will stay at £15million a year.

"That is very interesting," said Walker.

"Most grounds in Hertfordshire and Cambridge are of a reasonable standard, but I think a lot of clubs would agree that there needs to be a massive development in facilities.

"During the winter it's particularly difficult for clubs, with training almost non existent. There are not too many places for teams to train and when you do find something, it's often oversubscribed.

"I know that a lot of people would like to see some money pumped into a couple of all-weather pitches, and I think Royston would be the ideal location for something like that.

"And an investment in facilities would immediately open the door to better coaching. The FA says it is looking to develop coaching, but with limited facilities, how are they going to do that?

"You can have the best coaches in the world, but if you have nowhere to train it doesn't mean a thing.

"Hopefully they will have a bit of a re-think, because I know it would help clubs like us no end. I also believe it would take a club like Royston to a higher level."

Royston Town president Alan Barlow, whose experience at grassroots level spans more than 40 years, said he too, welcomed such an investment, but was also concerned as to where the money would go.

He said: "Everything that I've heard sounds great. However, I just hope the FA doesn't make it too difficult for clubs at all levels to tap into.

"I particularly welcome investment in supporting referees, because without them the game would die. Football has a real problem in keeping hold of referees, and at the moment it's losing thousands.

"However, I do think the FA has been doing very well in promoting the women's game, and the recent success of the women's national team has created a lot of aspiration among young girls.

"One of the biggest drawbacks the women's game faces is that in some quarters their game is still not taken seriously.

"That is not the case in Royston. In fact, our women's team is an integral part of our club - which should be the case everywhere."

And Mr Barlow is also well aware of the need to invest in grassroots facilities.

He said: "At Royston we have a constant battle to upgrade our facilities in meeting the ground status requirements. We're currently applying to the Football Foundation for help with improvements to floodlights and spectator seating.

"Our biggest project lies in the refurbishment of our dressing rooms, as we have to meet the Grade G guideline by March 2009.

"It's something we've needed to do for years, but it's proved very difficult."

However, Royston Town players are among the fortunate ones, with 38 per cent of the country's public pitches without changing rooms.

Russell Drury, who lines up on Saturdays for Great Chishill, said: "It does happen, but I can only remember a couple of instances when I've had to change in the car park!

"The thing with playing at grassroots level is that you should be prepared to expect these things.

"Generally though, as long as you've got a room to get changed in, a pitch, ball, and goalposts, I think you'll find most players are happy!"

Mark Thorp of Steeple Morden FC, a club that has been running for more than 100 years, said: "Recently there has been an improvement of facilities in the South Cambridgeshire area.

"However, from my own experience I have found that it is the larger towns and villages that have received the majority of the funding, especially for changing facilities.

"Steeple Morden is an exceedingly well-run club, and we're currently raising funds for new or re-developed facilities.

"Unfortunately, we're finding it almost impossible to meet the funding criteria.

"We make the best of what we've got but an expansion is needed, not only for our current players, but also to attract the next generation of footballers.

"The youngsters shouldn't have to travel outside the village in order to play football."

Jonathan Dundon of Bassingbourn FC said: "The FA needs to invest, and if it wants our nation to compete at the top, it needs to start with youngsters.

"They need to get them interested in playing football again.

"I'd also like to see more coaches and scouts.

"It's very hard for a player to be spotted, and without the right coaching, how are players ever going to improve?"

And the development of youth football is perhaps the main area of concern, with fallout figures in England among the highest in Europe. With the national team's failure to reach Euro 2008, it seems like those in power have finally realised that success at the top depends on strong foundations at the bottom - with the development of tomorrow's stars now hopefully of paramount importance.

Dave Voller of Buntingford Cougars certainly thinks so.

He said: "Of course our young players are important - they are the future of the sport, and we need to take great care of them."

But it's not so easy for clubs like Buntingford Cougars and the other 450 clubs who play in The Royston Crow League.

The Cougars have more than 250 youngsters signed on, with teams running from under-six to under-16.

And in recent years, it seems to have got harder, rather than easier.

Dave said: "It's getting increasingly difficult and the cost of running all of our teams is approximately £40,000 per year. It's an expensive game, and people forget that we have to pay for pitches, kits, training equipment, coaching courses and referees.

"We even have to pay for the white paint for the lines on the pitch!

"We have to be very tight with the money we have, and have to work out what we can say 'yes' to and what we have to unfortunately say 'no' to.

"Ideally I'd love for every player to have a football each at training, but when balls cost around £20, it's virtually impossible to do that.

"At the moment the game is not seeing enough young players coming through.

"We've lost a couple of players to professional clubs over the years, and we'd like to see a bit more of that, because that's what it's all about.

"But that also comes down to coaching, because we need to get the best out of the players, and a plan needs to be in place to make sure the coaches do that.

"It's difficult because we're running teams as well as doing full-time jobs, so it's hard to find the time to complete coaching courses.

"Ideally, the best thing for us would be to have professional coaches come in and coach us over a few months. The benefits of that would be endless.

"If something's not done soon a lot of clubs could be in real danger. I've seen a number of teams fold in recent years because they just can't cope any more. Thankfully, our club is very fortunate.

"And as long as we can keep going we're going to be dedicated to developing our boys as best as we can.

"But if we're to produce boys capable of playing semi-professionally and professionally we're going to need more help.

"So I'd definitely like to see a major investment in youth football. It's needed and I think it's coming at exactly the right time."

The overall state of grassroots football in North Herts and South Cambs appears to be in a tenable position compared to many parts of the country, and if for a little tweaking and investment in the right places, football will move forward.

Karl Lingham, county development manager for Herts FA, said: "Each county is providing its own targets and highlighting what needs to be done.

"We're certainly looking at growth and retention, and making access to football available to all.

"We're committed to raising disciplinary standards and conduct, and identifying how players can reach their full potential, particularly young players.

"Over the last four or five years we have seen £11million invested in Herts, and significant funding has taken place in the North Herts area.

"We already have strategies in place for further development, and we have two or three interesting projects already bubbling away.

"For years football has often been neglected, however it now appears to be moving in the right direction.