Change must be in the air to halt grassroots game’s decline
- Credit: Copyright: Archant 2017
Are people falling out of love with the beautiful game?
It seems a strange question to ask when BT has just committed to spending £1.12bn for the rights to show Champions League football over the next four seasons.
But whilst the land of milk and honey in the higher echelons of the game shows no signs of abating, it is a different story as you look down the football pyramid.
When you get as far as grassroots football it is a very different tale indeed. Managers and secretaries at that level tell a story of countless, worried phone calls or texts on a Friday or Saturday night, trying to ensure they have a bare XI players to fulfil their fixture the next day.
Albert Einstein said that the definition of madness is doing the same thing and expecting different results so, to that end, Norfolk FA embarked on a survey looking to spark debate and affect change over how to stop the grassroots game from dying.
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A decent sampling of 911 responses came back and chief executive, Shaun Turner, hopes it can ignite a change, to slow the concerning decline.
'The traditional 11-a-side game continues to dwindle so we felt it was right and proper to undertake a proper survey,' said Turner. 'Is there anything that we've missed that we should be implementing? We want to be as proactive as we can. The majority of the factors are out of our control – people's work commitments or family life are obviously things that we can't affect but there are things we can highlight and try.'
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Turner believes there is still a perception issue around the grassroots game with the survey saying that the top reason for the decline is cost.
Too many individuals think it is okay to play without paying, leaving clubs to foot the cost of the shortfall, which is unsustainable.
There needs to be a cultural change in how people view playing football at grassroots level, argues Turner.
'People have got to remember that football is a hobby – you choose to play it,' he said. 'Unless you are of a certain standard then you are not going to be paid to play.
'If people pay for the sport then they will value it more. It's too easy for players to say if they don't pay anything in advance that they don't fancy playing today. It's like going to the gym – you've paid your direct debit so people go.
'Football is not expensive if everyone pays their way. If 14 lads turn up and pay their £5 along with a signing on fee at the start of the season then there is more than enough money to run that team for the year.'
A small majority of respondents said that the FA disciplinary system isn't fit for purpose and, whilst out of Norfolk FA's direct control, Turner has approached the national body for it to be brought up as a debating topic at the annual FA Disciplinary Conference later this month.
'The disciplinary issues are out of our control but in my opinion they are not fit for purpose.
'If you're an out of shape, slow player who commits a late tackle and you get a caution – should you have to pay the £10 fine? I think it should be reviewed.
'In the small sided game you get a blue card and you get sin binned. Is it time we considered that more broadly?'
Turner wants to look at alternative ways to keep people in the game, citing the small-sided game as an example, which gives time-pressure individuals their football fix.
'Gone are the days when someone could spend all day on a Saturday playing football. Some people now look to get their football fix for an hour in the week. We have got to come up with ideas for people who don't have time to do that.
'Could we set something up for a league to play at one of our facilities? We need to offer something different and come up with ideas.'
One idea in the survey which struck a chord was the merging of all five of the District Saturday Leagues and possibly integrating them into the Anglian Combination structure. Fifty-three per cent of respondents were in favour of this and an email has now been sent to all Saturday League secretaries and team managers for their thoughts.
'It's easy for me sitting here but we've got the Anglian Combination and we've got five district leagues under that.
'That means every weekend we've got five or six secretaries all doing the same thing. If we could merge them all together and still find roles elsewhere for volunteers with clubs or somewhere else then that can only be a real positive.
'Football can't stand still – it needs to evolve so we can keep, and attract, more people into the game.'