On the day when Greg Dyke announced a £230m 3G revolution in grass-roots facilities and coaching, with £10m of that allocated to Sheffield, I was standing on U-Mix’s roof at Lowfield Park in Sheffield, watching the media circus unfold below.
Thirty minutes earlier I was sitting in a coffee shop discussing the impending launch with my ex-colleagues and asking them if they wanted to attend. Although they had worked with me on grassroots football across Sheffield – the £3m, externally funded U-Mix facility I was stood on is one example – for many years, none of them did; they were just happy that the hard work they had put in had finally borne fruit, even though they had been cut off the local authority tree.
When, in an interview with Greg Dyke, the Sheffield Star reports:
“Between us we’ve worked out this scheme – that’s why we are here in Sheffield.
“We were discussing it with two other cities but they moved so fast in Sheffield we thought we would do the pilot here.”
It is timely put the record straight. Sheffield being chosen as the city to pilot the initiative is no coincidence, or last minute manic effort to submit. It was the culmination of 15 years’ work. In fact, the current crisis in grassroots sport was identified as far back as 1970 in the: Outdoor Sports and Facilities and Open Spaces report, presented to Culture, Economy and Sustainability Scrutiny and Policy Development Board.
In 2005 Sheffield adopted the first (pilot) Playing Pitch Assessment and Strategy (Playing Pitch Strategy) in the country. Since then the collaborative work has continued between Sheffield City Council, the FA, and Sheffield and Hallamshire County FA,to implement the recommendations in the strategy.
Well before the unprecedented local authority cuts, Sheffield has been striving to find ways of sustaining grass playing pitch quality, in a climate of decreasing budgets. Working on the premiss that everything that could make money has been sold off, and that which is left is unprofitable and remains as a public service, this simple equation, from Sheffield, shows the difficulty many local authorities face.
Income from pitch allocations 2014 – 2015
£260,000 (average of £2,000/pitch x 130 pitches)
= £209,000 loss.
Although the true costs are hard to find, it is likely to be much more than this due to hidden costs, such as: clearing fly-tipping, erecting vehicle barriers, and repairing vandalised facilities etc. And all this to produce poor pitches, which are frequently water-logged, with an estimated 25% of matches being cancelled.
The real costs of maintaining a football pitch are far higher and range from £6,000 for a minimum standard, to the £12,000 needed to produce a good, consistent surface.
When Dan Roan, of the BBC, quotes Greg Dyke as saying:
“There’s a degree of crisis in what’s happening in grassroots football. Facilities are being lost and local authorities have come to us and said ‘what can we do about it?'”
This wasn’t actually the case for the often titled, City of Sport. Sheffield’s approach to the FA was more along the lines of: It’s your game. We can’t afford to maintain and subsidise football pitches. Our solution is to stop doing anything – no grass cutting; no pitch lettings; no putting up and taking down goal posts. Nothing. If people want to play football they can organise it themselves and play where they want. We just can’t absorb these cuts and continue to provide grass football pitches. It’s lights out. This is how it started.
However, in the main, this is not how the reasoning behind the funding announcement was reported. The Telegraph’s Henry Winter pulls out the issues of: the decline of English players making a start in the Premier League. And a Woeful World Cup. While others major on the troubled attempt to create a Premiership B League.
With this, top of the pyramid, stuff being popular journalism there is a danger of the message getting lost. In Sheffield, it is not so much about transforming football, as making sure there are facilities to play it on. To spell out the blindingly obvious: number 1, we need something decent to play on.
The significance of this announcement is a landmark change in the way grassroots football is provided for and played in England. It is a much needed and radical departure from a model established when the first pitches where provided in public parks in the late 1800s. It means: no more water-logged pitches and up to the knees in mud; no more cancelled fixtures;no more diving in dog shit; and no more peeing behind bushes. There will be lights and lights are good. Somewhere to change and go to the toilet. And, if you are lucky, a toilet roll. Further sophistication may result in a cup of tea.
Then, maybe, boys and girls from the age of 10 will be technically good enough and Arsène Wenger will be happy *1
*1 Henry Winter, Daily Telegraph interviewing Greg Dyke: “I remember when I first got this job Arsène Wenger saying to me: ‘The trouble with English football is that your boys from the age of 10 are not technically good enough.’