This month, we spoke with former England and Arsenal defender Martin Keown – who is an ambassador for McDonald’s grassroots football programme – to discuss how a buoyant national team boosts grassroots football participation.
On the back of a hugely challenging eighteen months for society and football, we chat about the heroes of the FA and McDonald’s Grassroots Football Awards, McDonald’s Fun Football initiative to give kids free access to football and why there are exciting times to come for the game.
TGP: After eighteen very tough months all round, why is grassroots football more important than ever?
Martin Keown: Right now, it is impossible not to feel a renewed passion for football across the country. Grassroots is the lifeblood of our sport. It is where all football journeys start.
The last eighteen months or so have been such a challenging period, during which the football calendar has been suspended, clubs have had financial difficulties and an impossible situation on logistics.
But thanks to the extraordinary hard work and commitment of individuals and groups, football has adapted to the challenges of the pandemic and there is nothing more exciting than seeing the buzz around a football pitch now.
Exercising and playing sport is so important for both mental and physical wellbeing. And with kids facing eighteen months of disruption with lockdown and home-schooling, getting them active and playing with their friends again is critical.
I started playing grassroots football when I was eight years old. Despite starting off as a striker rather than a centre-back, I never looked back.
However, the lessons of grassroots team sport aren’t limited to children. Whatever age you may be, social interaction and team bonding through football really does offer a sense of belonging and the happiness and confidence it brings with it.
TGP: What kind of impact do you think England’s run in the Euros can have on grassroots football? Do you think we’ll see a spike in participation?
MK: Whilst it was penalty heartbreak for the Three Lions once more at the final hurdle, the national team has made giant strides under Gareth Southgate. Both in terms of on-pitch performance but also in its connection with the public.
The England job has long been seen as an impossible one, but Southgate leads by positive example and the way he communicates and conducts himself has resonated with the fans.
When you have teenagers on the world stage, several of whom were playing grassroots football just a few short years ago, it is easy for other young people to recognise them and be inspired by that.
Grassroots has a cyclical relationship with the professional game. Participation spikes when the national team does well. In turn, this fuels the game at an elite level – more interest, more attention and more players.
We are already seeing that spike in participation come through. Fun Football, McDonald’s programme run in partnership with the four UK FAs to provide free football sessions for five-to-eleven-year-olds, has had to react to that demand and put on extra sessions.
What is really exciting is that registrations from [i]new[i] players, who are taking their first steps in football, increased by more than double following the Euros final, spiking at 111% after England defeated Denmark to make the final.
For me, I fell in love with football in the summer of 1974 inspired by Kevin Keegan and John Toshack at Liverpool and Johan Cruyff’s Netherlands at the World Cup. Now, up and down the country, children in playgrounds and fields are dreaming of becoming the next Kalvin Phillips or Ellen White.
This country is ready to host the Women’s Euros next year, which is another tremendously exciting event to be looking forward to and its potential impact is, again, huge. I really hope the whole country unites behind the Lionesses and we can be involved in another final at Wembley again.
TGP: McDonald’s Fun Football delivered its five millionth hour this month at Wembley Stadium. That is some milestone.
MK: This was a truly special day. As well as the excellent McDonald’s Fun Football coaches, I was part of a team of former England internationals which included Casey Stoney, Frank Lampard and Sir Geoff Hurst who helped to lead drills for more than a hundred children throughout the day on the Wembley pitch.
Between their grins, the kids I spoke to told me they were inspired to take to the field by their heroes at the Euros. The focus of the programme is on creating a safe, fun and inclusive football environment and for these young people to be playing under the Wembley arch will be a memory they cherish forever.
Not every child who begins playing football is going to turn professional – and at that age we shouldn’t be putting pressure on them to do anything other than express themselves and enjoy the game.
More than 300 centres nationwide will host McDonald’s Fun Football sessions this autumn. Importantly, the programme is completely free to families and is working to help remove barriers of access to football.
The McDonald’s Fun Football programme launched in 2018 and the 5,000,000-hour landmark was reached a year ahead of schedule, despite the pandemic. This really is a remarkable achievement and all thanks to the work of the coaches, staff and the families who take part in making it happen.
Like any successful team, the hard work does not stop here and McDonald’s has vowed to deliver another 1.5 million hours of free Fun Football over the next twelve months.
TGP: You presented awards at the FA and McDonald’s Grassroots Football Awards. Why is that something that’s important to you?
MK: McDonald’s has been a supporter of the FA for the last nineteen years – it’s the longest standing investor in grassroots football in the UK. The partnership has supported thousands of grassroots clubs, including those that started the careers of our national team.
The FA and McDonald’s Grassroots Football Awards are a chance to champion community football. As well as players and coaches, it’s a chance to turn the spotlight on the organisers, officials, volunteers and grounds teams who play a vital role in creating possibilities for others.
I had the honour of presenting the Grassroots Club of the Year Award to Omonia Youth FC from North London. The team were recognised for their terrific work beyond the pitch, helping 450 children to handle life through lockdown with online coaching sessions. The team has also introduced four new girls’ teams and delivers speciality coaching for disability coaches.
Another award-winner who stands out is Dr Sarah Griffiths, who has combined being a full-time doctor with founding a disability football team in Oxfordshire focused on creating opportunities for young people with cerebral palsy to enjoy themselves through football.
I always leave that event feeling so inspired and humbled by the work and commitment put in by the winners. Huge congratulations to all of the award-winners for changing the lives of so many people.
TGP: You’ve won Premier Leagues, FA Cups and gone to World Cups. What advice would you give to anyone looking to take their first steps in grassroots football, as a player, coach or volunteer?
MK: My advice for anyone who wants to be involved in football – as a player, a coach, a volunteer – is that this is where it starts. Whatever your ambitions in the game, you can nurture your love and grow your experience at the grassroots level.
So, pack your boots, your oranges, your raincoats; there is no better place to start than your local grassroots community and no better time to be involved than now.
Find a McDonald’s Fun Football session near you at: mcdonalds.co.uk/football