Departing Norfolk FA chairman Richard King on the state of the game at grassroots level
- Credit: Archant
Richard King is a reassuring sort of chap. Ask him a question and you know that the answer will be carefully considered, and therefore pretty close to the mark.
When the state of health of football in Norfolk is up for debate, the county FA's out-going chairman has no hesitation: ''We are in a very good state at the moment, because we are forward thinking, I think we are ahead of the game quite frankly.'
King doesn't do hyperbole. If it's very good, that's what he means. No more, no less. But as someone who is taking a step back – albeit a small one – from chairing an organisation that employs 27 people and represents 15,000 footballers in the county, there is a sense of pride that all is well on the home front.
Football is changing; no one doubts it. There are the pressures from other social and recreational attractions; there are financial issues for mums and dads and players to consider. There is, although it's hard to believe, life outside of football which can draw players away from the game.
Football, or the running of football, is a game which can be congested with statistics, but one which the 70-year-old King highlights stands out: a staggering 39pc of 16-year-old footballers hang up their boots rather than compete in the adult game. A generation of players is in danger of being lost – and with them there is the risk that teams will disband, that clubs may follow, that the vital administration staff like the venerable club secretary, will become more and more difficult to find.
The hope in Norfolk is that the problem can be nipped in the bud nice and early with the formation of an Under-19s league under the auspices of the Norwich & District Sunday League. That way, the 16-year-old who is dithering between playing or hanging out with his mates doing nothing much in particular has a more attractive option of playing with his peers, rather than a nasty introduction to the world of being kicked from goalpost to corner flag by a brute of a defender twice his age.
'It is an issue, with the figures we came up with,' said King. 'We employed someone whose job it is to promote 11-a-side football and it is going to take a while. The Sunday League next season hopefully will bring on this Under-19s league and there are other people interested, but it probably won't be until the following season that the Anglian Combination or another Saturday league takes on this role.
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'The intention is to give them a stepping stone into adult football.
'They are not taking the step – there is a social side, work commitments going to university etc, and also because of the physical aspect of playing with older and more experienced players they feel inhibited, for want of a better word. That is one of the main reasons – a 25- 30-year-old who has been around and some little lad is running around him. What's going to happen next? He is going to kick him up in the air.'
King has spent three years as chairman, following a similar term as deputy. His experience in the game as player, referee, administrator means not many people are unaware of him.
'It has been nice to shake peoples hands and say a few words at various functions,' he says with a smile. 'I have found I had to be very diplomatic. People tend to bend your ear over certain things. But I have seen how close knit it is and how it is not just about playing football on a Saturday afternoon or a Sunday morning. It is about things that go on behind the scenes, the fund raising and things like that which clubs have to do, because football is getting so expensive to play.
'Pitches at Sloughbottom Park on a Sunday are £55 and you have the referee's fee on top of that, which is maybe £40 or £50.
'The problem is there are fewer volunteers. We have to accept that people's lifestyles in 2013 are far faster than what they were 20 years ago. It is a time factor - you need administrators to run a football club, you need a good secretary and people are reluctant to take roles on. Acle (Anglian Combination champions) are a great example of a well run club, like Blofield - there are some really well run local clubs, self sufficient, but have to work at it..
'The problem is finding people to run it, the Sunday clubs in particular. You can't exist without administrators. We as a county FA have recognised this and we have something called Cutting the Red Tape, which for instance makes modern technology easier - doing things online rather than form filling, which no one likes.'
King had 15 years as Norfolk FA's football administration manager, a role which included looking after disciplinary matters – with the income from fines rivalling that from national FA grants as the main funding.
'We took a decision this season to register players - we never knew, no one knew in the country – how many players we had,' he explains. 'We have 15,000 players registered, 3,000 with Sunday clubs, 12,000 with Saturday clubs – and that is just adults. Registering players has cut down on the red tape because clubs always had to register them for cups as well. But it has cut down our income - because if you played a player in a cup match who you didn't register it was £20. We used to take about £3,000 a year on that.
'Income is mainly from disciplinary, but it's also FA grants now – people moan about the Premier League, but the TV deals and the money which goes to the FA is being put down to grassroots football. What we receive varies, but it is well over £100,000 a year - and it is about £120,000 a year in fines.'
One of the jewels in the Norfolk FA crown is the Football Development Centre at Bowthorpe. And it's caught the attention of top teams as well as the national FA organisation.,'
'We've had Stoke City, Ajax, the Serbian Under-21s – all of them have trained up there,' says King, with pride. 'I had occasion to show David Bernstein, the head of the FA, around there, He is a lovely fellow. When he got back he got on to the manager of St George's Park at Burton and told her to get herself down to Norfolk and see the FDC. Our chief executive, Shaun Turner had to show her around, so that is a matter of some pride.'
King now hands over the reins to Michael Banham, chairman of the Norwich and District Saturday League, but he won't be gone – he has three years as immediate past chairman.
'It's in my blood,' he says.