Don’t blame grassroots football for England’s World Cup failure

Grassroots football facing tough competition? emsef, CC BY-NC-ND

England’s worst ever performance at a World Cup inevitably provokes a critical post mortem of what went wrong and how to ensure the team’s future success. As well as the performances of the current crop of players and manager, it’s worth also considering the next generation of English football – the grassroots of youth development.

There is a longstanding perception that the provision for grassroots football is at best inadequate, and at worst in decline, doing little to serve the elite interests of the national game. Along with the rampant commercialisation of the English Premier League and the influx of foreign players purportedly limiting opportunities for the best English talent to gain playing experience, grassroots provision is cited as a contributory factor in prolonged failures to develop home grown talent.

Indeed, Patrick Vieira, now Manchester City’s Elite Development Manager, has suggested English grassroots football is the fundamental issue hindering national success. Inadequate facilities and poor coaching standards are highlighted as the most significant symptoms, combined with a fear that football is becoming a less popular hobby of choice for England’s youth.

The widely publicised reduction in public funding by Sport England has given further traction to widely held perceptions of decline. Grassroots football provision lost £1.6m of funding across age ranges for not meeting participation targets. Undeniably there are issues within grassroots football provision, but I want to highlight that there is little evidence for these widely held assumptions.

Numbers problem

There are many caveats to the perception of decline in grassroots football. Firstly, participation is measured only at the 14+ years. Having recorded over 2m participants in 2006, current Active People Survey data suggests that participation in grassroots football has fallen from 1.94m to 1.84m between the periods of April 2012 – October 2013. This makes it still the most popular team sport, and 4th most popular sport overall.

Many working within grassroots football perceive the traditional adult (18+) 11-a-side game to be the real area of decline in the context of changing lifestyle behaviours and the rising cost of hiring increasingly dilapidated facilities. Given that the withdrawal decision was made on figures on participation at least once a week every week during the latter quartile of data collection, the APS figures may not represent a true reflection of grassroots participation.

Second while there are no official participation figures below this age range, many local football officials working out of County Football Associations point towards what they perceive as an expanding number of teams, and therefore participants, in the 5-11 age bracket. Indeed, the FA suggests approximately 7m people participate in grassroots football at all ages and in a variety of formats.

Yet, while participation statistics are the yardstick by which many gauge engagement with a particular sport, we know very little of the quality of experiences of those operating within grassroots football and why it may be that participation doesn’t appear to continue through to 14+ years. Indeed, other than FA’s own consultation, little research has been undertaken to investigate the sources and consequences of these issues. There is an emerging body of research which suggests that sporting habits are formed out of earlier experiences than at this age range – in early childhood in fact. This questions the wisdom of measurement at the 14+ age range as an indicator of participation.

It is unlikely that a reduction in funding from Sport England will have much impact on further decline. The figure withdrawn represents only 0.5% of the FA’s turnover of £318m to 2012 and 10% of the £43m total funding the FA redistributes to grassroots football annually towards participation. These figures have even prompted a petition for even greater redistribution of funds from the professional game to the grassroots.

Developing the grassroots

Footballing authorities have begun to devise ways of remedying some of the longstanding issues afflicting the grassroots game. On the issue of facilities, partnership funding from the FA, FA Premier League and Sport England has awarded 2,025 grassroots facility development projects more than £1 billion of investment since 2000. They are set to invest another £102m between 2014-2016.

Such investment through this public-private partnership has become more pressing in recent years due to central government funding cuts to local councils who own and operate 80% of the facilities used in grassroots football. There does appear to be push for grassroots clubs to take more ownership of the development and maintenance of their football facilities, with funding support from football’s governing bodies.

In terms of developing players, the FA has revised the format of mini-soccer to be played on smaller pitches, with fewer players. The assumption is that this should allow for a greater number of touches of the ball and therefore more opportunities to develop skills and technique. Plus, smaller and more frequent competitions are replacing the traditional league season and knockout cup formats in an attempt to remedy what is perceived by the FA as an over-emphasis on winning by coaches and parents. This has been accused of stifling development and enjoyment for young people.

The FA’s consultations revealed poor behaviour by overzealous coaches and parents were the main cause of young officials and children dropping out of football altogether. This has been targeted through the Respect campaign. In parallel development, grassroots coaches are to be supported by FA coach mentors, and required to gain coaching qualifications and commit to continuing professional development on the FA coaches pathway, in an attempt to educate coaches more adequately to improve player learning.

Implementing these initiatives is largely dependent on the willingness of 400,000 volunteers and parents to engage with the changes. With assistance from County Football Association staff, they must commit more time, and bear the increasing cost of engaging with the initiatives for them to be successful. Perhaps the most significant challenge for footballing authorities is to get all involved to buy into new ways of operating – going against the historically embedded ways that the grassroots game has been organised.

Ultimately, we should be wary of emphasising the idea that grassroots football in England is in decline and therefore the source of the national team’s tournament woes. There is a lack of real evidence when it comes to even measuring participation in a way that matters.

Part of the obsession with measuring participation levels stems from the now widely disparaged traditional understanding of sport development. A wide participation base was presumed to singularly lead to elite level success.

The fact is that many nations with a smaller population size than the grassroots participation base in England itself have consistently performed better on the international stage. Costa Rica, for example, has a population of 4.8m. This would point towards a wider set of cultural and societal processes at play, in addition to a broader set of governance problems that more specifically related to elite football in England.