The changing face of grassroots football

Keith Pollard, Raiders Chair of Trustees looks at how grassroots football has changed over the last ten years and how he sees the future.

September 2007, Hemel Hempstead: My Berkhamsted Raiders U11s play their first game in the step up to 11 a side football. A 14-0 defeat played on a full-size pitch with full-size goals against a team with an athletic “big man” up front. He scored a double hat trick by running through most of our team.

That’s how youth football used to be at Raiders. We trained on a hard sand-based Astro in Tring. 7v7 went from U7s through to U10s. Then at U11, we jumped to 11 v 11.  League tables operated so that you could go the whole season suffering heavy defeats… or winning comprehensively. There was little notion of “Respect” by managers and parents.

Then, in 2012, there was a wind of change. The FA realised that it was time to catch up with the developmental approach being applied elsewhere in Europe. The aim was to:

  • Put the emphasis on learning and development.
  • Reduce the adult-driven pressure on kids to win.
  • Put the kids (not the parents) at the heart of the game.
  • Introduce age group age-appropriate size pitches and goals.

A change for the better

At the start of the 2013/14 season, the structure of English youth football was transformed – 5v5, 7v7, 9v9 and then 11v11. Pitches and goals were appropriate to the age group. League tables were phased out, child friendly competition was introduced and the FA Respect campaign was launched Traditionalists riled against it – “it’s not proper football”, they said.

And it worked! Youth football today is very different from the way it operated ten years ago. There’s no doubt that we’re developing better footballers, that more kids are getting involved because they enjoy the game more, and the “competitive parent” on the sideline has become a rare(r) beast.

The future of grassroots youth football

So, where next? Here’s my take on what we can expect (or aim to achieve) in the coming years.

Bigger clubs means a better player experience

Raiders with 1,200 playing members has become one of the biggest clubs in the country. So, does bigger mean better? Raiders fits the FA’s desired model of a “super club” that is able to offer professional coaching for all abilities of player, and can deliver  multiple formats such as walking football, disability football and futsal. Such super clubs are better run, better funded and have access to significant funding to enhance facilities locally. And the size of the membership means that they can influence local councils that are often a barrier to facility development. Across the continent, youth and adult football is focused around community sports hubs with a concentration of facilities and funding on one site. It’s a model that the FA is seeking to emulate.

Female participation

Across the country, the number of girls playing football has doubled in three years. At Raiders, we now have around 250 girls enjoying football and a “home” for girls’ football in Berkhamsted at Bridgewater School. The FA Wildcats programme is encouraging girls aged 5-11 to get involved in the game. Women’s football is gaining extensive coverage on TV and in the media. At Raiders, we aim to take the number of girls playing to 500 and beyond. In the longer term, we want to be running a Ladies team in addition to our current Ladies social football section. But it’s not just about players. We need more female coaches, team managers and referees to act as role models and boost participation.

Futsal

Read Sean Mackay’s blog, “Is futsal the future?”, for his take on the role of futsal. Futsal is growing fast. It’s a great format for developing skills in younger players. A new independent National Futsal League is being launched, an English Clubs Futsal Association has been founded and thousands of kids, until Covid arrived, were playing in futsal leagues every week. But currently, it lacks support from the national sporting bodies and is constrained by the lack of facilities. Every youth football club should be integrating futsal into its development and facility plans. The FA and the Football Foundation should be investing in the future of futsal.

Even more flexible formats

Child friendly competition and flexible leagues have worked well in the younger age groups. It’s time to experiment with such formats in the older age groups where kids drop out of the game because it’s become too focused on winning the league or the cup or they are placed in a league which doesn’t match their ability and suffer a season long series of demoralising defeats. Why not operate leagues for the teenage groups where there is the option to play in a traditional league format, or to enter a pool system that matches teams of similar ability, and pools are changed every 8 weeks or so?

Facilities

The biggest barrier to the growth of the game is the lack of or poor quality of facilities for playing and training. Football Foundation initiatives such as Pitch Improvement Grants have helped to improve the quality of some playing pitches. But, the failure of local councils to support the use of these grants for council owned pitches has been a disappointment.

3G pitches for both training and playing are clearly the future. Germany has five times the number of 3G pitches that exist in England. The FA and Football Foundation have set targets to create additional 3G pitches. Back in 2014, the FA announced its 2020 vision to create more than 150 new “football hubs” across the country by the end of the decade and to invest £230m in new 3G pitches. How many of those football hubs have become reality? We need to make these happen.

Local Football Facility plans such as the LFFP for Dacorum highlight 3G development as a priority. But finding a location for these new sites is a challenge, and many councils fail to make sport and leisure facilities a priority. A raft of facility assessments are undertaken, needs are identified, and strategies to expand provision are stated. But these plans and strategies are filed away and are rarely implemented.

Locally, we’re making some progress. A Dacorum Football Working Group has been created bringing together the Dacorum Sports Network, representatives of local football clubs, and the relevant officers from  Dacorum Borough Council. It’s working well and is a model that other councils might follow.

Keeping players in the game

The biggest decline in football participation has been in Sunday adult football. Nationally, over the last three years, another 3,000 adult senior mens’ teams have folded. Locally, the Berkhamsted Sunday League which used to comprise of 60 plus teams is now down to just 33 teams. Non-league football teams face financial pressures with low attendances and the burden of “player budgets”.

It’s a trend that is unlikely to be reversed. Society has changed. Adult players have moved to more flexible formats to enjoy the sport in a way that suits their family life and other commitments  – competitive 6 a side leagues and social football on 3G pitches. More adults are playing football. They’re unlikely to return to “traditional” Sunday football. Having said that, Raiders is working hard to keep its U18s in the game through a partnership with local Sunday side, Gossoms End FC and the running of a Saturday senior team that is run on a “pay to play” basis and where the focus is on player development not promotion.

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