Words and Interview by David Hillier.
There are questions asked many times. But, what are the government doing for grassroots football? What investment does it receive from The FA and The Premier League. The Football Foundation is where the three combine in a bid to transform grassroots football in this country.
2020 has seen the Football Foundation celebrate twenty years of success and £1.3 billion of investment in new pitches, pavilions and gleaming new goalposts, as well as the announcement of a detailed roadmap to giving the country the infrastructure it deserves. Every community in England now has a bespoke plan, outlining the facilities they need. We caught up with Rory Carroll, their Head of Communications, to discuss how they have, quite literally, changed the game.
THE GRASSROOTS POST: Hey Rory, the Football Foundation is celebrating its twentieth anniversary and you’ve been with them fifteen years. What has changed in this time?
RORY CARROLL: The profile of the grassroots game has massively increased. It was a niche issue before but we’ve raised its importance and profile within Westminster, Whitehall and the media. I think there’s now a real concept of the power of football. When we build a facility, it’s not just somewhere to play the national game: it’s a place where people can improve their physical fitness, their mental wellbeing, develop lifelong friends and improve their communication skills and self-esteem.
And you’ve had some big news to share recently?
Yes. Another major change has just taken place that will transform the landscape of grassroots football over the next decade. We’ve just completed a bespoke Local Football Facility Plan for all 318 local authority areas across England. These plans were drawn up with local clubs, councils and County FAs. They set out exactly what pitches an area needs to cater for football there. So for the first time ever, we have a roadmap to deliver the quality football facilities our grassroots game deserves across the entire country.
The women’s game has come on several leaps and bounds in this time, hasn’t it?
For a while now the women’s game has been the fastest growing participatory sport in the country and we’re providing the infrastructure for that. We’re seeing the fruits of that labour at a higher level, too, with the success of the England Women’s team.
What’s driving this? Is it societal or has the game itself changed?
It’s never just one thing, but stigma is being broken down. We’ve worked with [former England Women’s international] Rachel Yankey several times. As a youngster she would have to dress up as a boy to be able to play football! Thankfully, those stereotypes are disappearing and it’s not just a ‘man’s game’ anymore: it’s everyone’s game. Society has also changed for the better, but there’s still work to do.
The Football Foundation is a partnership of sporting and political powerhouses: the Premier League, The FA, the Government, Sport England. How do you keep everyone happy?
It works because it’s a partnership. I think it’s unique in the world and it’s invaluable: the top league, football’s governing body, the government plus Sport England, literally sitting round the same table for the good of the game.
How has the Football Foundation been helping teams during the coronavirus pandemic?
We put out a Pitch Preparation Fund during the first lockdown [£7 million was granted to 2,902 clubs and organisations]. Pitches had become unplayable due to the social isolation and they are the one fundamental thing you need, so the partners came together and provided that pot of money. We then followed that with a Club Preparation Fund that enabled clubs to ensure their facilities were pandemic-safe.
The Football Foundation has given out over £1.3 billion to community sport projects. What advice would you give to a football club or team manager who wants to apply for a grant?
I’d direct them to the website – https://footballfoundation.org.uk/. There’s loads of helpful guidance and small grants available for refurbishment like showers or goalposts, right up to larger projects. We’ve also created the Groundskeeping Community on there. It’s like a Facebook for volunteer groundskeepers, where you find guidance from your peers. It’s so important to have good surfaces and once you go into November onwards things can get difficult.
Have you seen any trends in grant applications?
We saw a spike after putting out the Pitch Preparation and Club Preparation Fund. Maybe it was new people coming into the game. Maybe they had been a bit put off before…or maybe they just had more time on their hands!
Are there any projects you’re really proud of?
There’s a new facility at Gunnersbury Park [the Gunnersbury Sports Hub] which is a goalie’s kick from Brentford’s new stadium. We’ve contributed £4 million of a £14 million total project cost and are working closely with Ealing and Hounslow Councils on it. There’s going to be a full multi-level sports centre, eleven-a-side, nine-a-side and seven-a-side pitches, all-weather pitches, cricket pitches, tennis courts, cafe, training rooms. The all-weather pitches have been open about a year but finishing touches to the sports hall are being done as we speak.
That sounds like a real legacy project.
It is, but there have been projects all over the country in our twenty years. We’ve done 1,200 pavilions, approaching 1,000 floodlit all weather pitches, 6,000 natural pitches. We are having to address many decades of neglect, but from 2000 onwards there’s been such a huge change.
How would you compare the grassroots game here to other European countries?
The biggest difference is that those countries have federal systems. Local government tends to look after them but we don’t have the same sort of system here. There isn’t the same need for a Football Foundation.
Putting COVID-19 aside, can you give us any insider tips about the future of UK grassroots football?
With an ageing population I think we’re going to see a big growth in walking football, with retirement-age women taking it up too.
Finally, what do you most enjoy about working for the Football Foundation?
Definitely the most rewarding thing is speaking to people about the difference it’s made and the changes they’ve made in turn. I also think this country deserves a huge amount of credit for the delivery of community schemes through football. They are rocketing, and the breadth and sophistication of their scale is astonishing.
To find out about the plan in your local area, go to https://footballfoundation.org.uk/local-plans.