As millions return to grassroots football after the most tumultuous period for the amateur game in generations, newly launched is The FA grassroots football strategy. We spoke with James Kendall, The FA’s Director of Football Development, about the current state of play and the challenges ahead.
What’s the new grassroots football strategy trying to achieve and how will it affect how the grassroots game is run?
We’ve been excited to announce our new four-year Grassroots Strategy after what has been an extremely difficult year. The strategy sets out our ambition to serve and lead the game, addressing the three stage challenge – survive, revive, thrive. We have set out a number of goals to revive the game by addressing the areas that require particular attention. This includes increasing opportunities to ensure that girls have the same access as boys to football in schools and clubs, and improving the quality of pitches, with the aim of seeing 5,000 good-quality pitches added to the current number by 2024.
The four-season-long strategy also takes a look ahead to ensure that the game thrives. Not only encouraging new participation at every age group and from historically under-represented groups, but also harnessing the power of digital to better connect participants to the game they love. It also means ensuring that the game is played in a safe, welcoming and inclusive environment. I’m confident that we’ll seize on the remarkable togetherness and resilience our national game has shown in the face of Covid-19 and use it as a force for good. We recognise that there is a huge amount to achieve, but we have set ourselves the challenge and look forward to delivering on this strategy which puts players at the very heart of everything we do.
Tell us about the challenges the grassroots game was facing pre-Covid?
The quality of facilities always tops the list of challenges when we survey participants, and rightly so. Without a pitch, no-one gets to play. And without better-quality pitches, it’s really tough to improve. That’s why improving facilities, in the form of 5,000 new good-quality pitches in the next four years – with a particular focus on grass pitches – is one of the key areas in our new strategy for the grassroots game. For this reason, we were delighted to see the £25 million investment announced by the Government in the recent budget, the first part of their £550 million commitment which will transform grassroots football facilities in communities across the country.
In addition to facilities, supporting the recruitment, retention and development of the grassroots workforce, particularly all the volunteers who put their time into the game, has to be up there as one of our biggest challenges, even pre-Covid. The role of volunteers cannot be underestimated and it’s crucial that we retain and grow the workforce as they are the lifeblood of the game. It’s also worth highlighting that whilst a very significant number of men and boys are playing the game, there is still work to be done to encourage retention, particularly at the ages and stages of life when they might consider dropping out. Addressing this is another feature of the strategy.
And as we restart, what are The FA’s biggest challenges across the grassroots game?
At this moment in time, dealing with the impact of Covid-19 is currently our biggest challenge, for multiple reasons: the financial impact on clubs; potential loss of appetite to play at grassroots level; and ensuring that our volunteers feel safe and want to return. Our immediate challenge, therefore, is to get grassroots football back on its feet. This means continuing to focus on providing financial and business support to those that need it most whilst ensuring that football can continue to be played in a safe and secure environment through The FA’s Covid-19 guidance.
We know that grassroots clubs and volunteers require financial support and that’s why we have committed £2.5 million to support teams with their affiliation fees this season and next. Through the Football Foundation and alongside our funding partners, the Premier League and the UK Government, we committed £9 million to support pitch and building maintenance. And with the support of Sport England through the Lottery, we have just committed a further £2.1 million to support clubs and community groups in the most deprived parts of the country to return to football.
What aspects would you say were on the right path?
The women’s and girls’ game has gone from strength to strength over the last few seasons. The Gameplan for Growth doubled participation, growing from 6,000 affiliated teams to over 12,500 affiliated teams, mini-soccer groups and adult recreational groups over the breadth of the country in 2020. We are really proud of this progress and excited to be growing the game and making it as easy as possible for women and girls to get into football, no matter their ability level, background or community.
Our accreditation scheme (FA Charter Standard) which is open to all grassroots clubs and leagues is also worth a mention and we’ve set ourselves some ambitious goals to increase the proportion of affiliated teams playing within FA-accredited clubs in our new Grassroots Strategy. In adult clubs, we’re targeting an increase from the current 49.7% to 70% and in youth clubs from the current 87.6% to 90%.
Finally, delivering on our Grassroots Strategy requires the seamless collaboration of one team, comprising The FA and the County FAs. Collectively, our role is to lead and serve the game nationally and locally and the relationships we have established are stronger than ever. At the heart of our partnership is the same shared ambition for the game, with different roles to achieve it.
Pitch improvement, as you say, is a huge part of the new strategy. With grassroots football and its facilities often falling foul of the elements in winter, have there ever been any discussions about moving the season to a different time of year?
We are always considering options to improve the football experience for the many millions that enjoy playing the game up and down the country. Changing the season is a complex topic and there is a need to consider conflicts with other sports, in addition to alignment with school holidays, facility availability and the professional game, to name just a few. I think the more immediate challenge for us is to address the issue with pitches, something we are committed to doing. We want to make the playing experience enjoyable for everyone who plays the game and improving the playing surfaces is fundamental to that aspiration.
With so many different steps and leagues and needs, there’s obviously not been a one-size-fits-all solution to restarting the grassroots game. How difficult has that bee
The past year has certainly been a challenge for everyone, including The FA and the fifty County FAs across the network. Our primary concern has always been for the safety and welfare of clubs, players, staff, officials, volunteers and supporters during the pandemic. That’s why our return to football guidance, which has been reissued multiple times over the past year as lockdown restrictions have been introduced or eased, has always followed Government advice and the relevant safety protocols. In light of the ongoing impact of Covid-19 on grassroots football, and ahead of the most recent return, there was a need to consult all involved in the game to gather feedback on how the current 20/21 season should be finished and their appetite for football during the summer. We analysed the results of this survey which received 11,057 responses and acted to extend the 2020-21 grassroots season until the end of June in order to provide additional flexibility and time for leagues to complete their fixtures this season if they wish to do so.
We will always look to put players at the heart of our decisions and, although we recognise that there’s not a one-size-fits-all solution to restarting the grassroots game, hopefully by providing this flexibility, we’ve accommodated an extended return for those who want it. I know the County FAs and leagues up and down the country have been working incredibly hard since the return date was confirmed to find the best solution for their local players and clubs.
For further information on The FA’s new grassroots strategy, please visit: https://www.thefa.com/