How football could be part of the solution of a nation’s ills.

By Tony Attwood

Investors are being urged to put money into building networks of football coaching academies across the country.

That opening sentence may have taken you by surprise.   Unfortunately this is not in England, where investment in grassroots football is now in total terminal decline due to FA bankruptcy and government starvation of funds for local councils.

No, that statement comes from China where the desire to sort out the growing mental health problems among their young has spread, as I mentioned previously, has now encompassed giving youngsters more and more opportunities to get away from mobile phones, tablets, and an inactive lifestyle, by encouraging them to play football.

A recent report in England shows growing number of children are self-harming or have regular suicidal thoughts.  Indeed it said that 55% said they had experienced a large increase in cases of anxiety and stress – while more than 40% reported a big increase in cyber-bullying.

As a result our overstretched hospitals are put under even more pressure as they report a surge in number of children admitted to Accident & Emergency centres for self-harm.  Schools can’t cope either as 65% of schools said it was becoming ever more difficult to access mental health care support for these youngsters.   53% of schools that referred youngsters to Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services said the services they encountered were “poor” or “very poor”.

Of course no one says that giving youngsters football pitches will solve all the problems of facing a rapidly changing world, ludicrously high expectations of parents, cyber bullying, inactivity, an obesity epidemic etc etc etc.

But football’s basic rules haven’t changed much since 1925 – before the internet, before the mass use of cars, before TV, before electrification of the country… a remarkable achievement in a world where virtually nothing else has remained the same.  And that longevity says a lot for its attractiveness and durability.  An investment in football is an investment in long-term well being.

And it remains the most popular sport, one that both sexes enjoy, one that only needs a simple pitch… It won’t attract every youngster of course, but it will give lots and lots of them a chance to enhance their physical activity, develop an enthusiasm, stop worrying about who is saying what on Facebook, stop eating junk food, stop watching TV.  It is of course not the only element in solving the problem, but it is one part of the solution and it is so easy to implement.

As everyone working in mental health will tell you if you ask, “Early intervention is essential.”  And this is what China has seen – having taken the country to the top rank in terms of academic learning, it now, like the UK, has an epidemic of mental health problems, and it is using football as part of its solution.

So just as the Chinese have been breaking their own transfer records week by week in bringing European players to China, and just as they have been buying up parts of clubs from Atlético Madrid to Manchester City, they are using football as a way to solve the mental health epidemic by building multiple facilities for their young in every town and city.

Already in China the top clubs are getting crowds of 40,000 plus.  Investors are encourage to put money into building networks of coaching academies across China – and these are fed by the grass roots clubs that attract youngsters who are just there for the fun of it.

So what is happening in Britain?   In March 2014 Sport England cut the amount of money it was giving to the FA for grassroots football by £1.4m because the FA had not used it for the right purpose.  The FA’s excuse was that the weather had been against them, and to their eternal discredit the media printed that pathetic explanation in all seriousness.

Meanwhile throughout the country councils are cutting their provision of pitches on which football can be played as the government implements austerity cuts and spends money elsewhere.

The Local Government Association  which speaks for 400 local authorities in England and Wales, says the current spending on developing the game at lower levels is pitiful.  Councils have seen their budgets cut by more than 40 per cent since 2010, making it impossible for them to maintain local pitches.

Now the LGA is calling, as are others, for the Premier League to fund grassroots football.  The trouble is, fans are also calling for the Premier League to cut prices.  And fans (Arsenal fans are no exception) are calling for more money to be spent on transfers.

Plus clubs are spending vast sums on building new stadia.  We’ve got ours, Tottenham, Chelsea, Everton etc etc all want theirs.

Oh yes, and we want top players at our club so let’s pay them top wages as they demand.   The talk about a salary cap has vanished, but a salary cap is really the only way to stop money pouring into players’ pockets, and from there…  Well, 35% of Premier League players are bankrupt within five years of stopping playing football so that tells you quite a bit about where the money goes.

So yes, maybe we should take money out of the PL and give it to grassroots football – but maybe we should do that along with other reforms, such as isolating the FA from any involvement in anything other than the FA cup.

Some people do try and link the issue to the failure of England to win any trophies since 1066.  Sorry 1966; we lost in 1066.   But that is surely a side issue compared to the mental well-being of our children.

I am not saying that providing lots of football pitches would result in an end to mental illness among children, of course not.  I am saying it is one obvious way forwards, because not only is playing football fun, it is also healthy, and once you start doing something healthy there is a tendency to stop eating junk food and get away from a life of inactivity.

But what we have at the moment is the opposite effect.   Grassroots football participation is falling. The number of 16-year-olds and over playing football declined by about 2 million in the last ten years, and as pitches are torn up, so that number is growing.   44% of people playing adult 11-a-side football cite ‘poor facilities’ as their greatest single concern or the reason why they stop playing.

It is a desperate state of affairs.  Goodness knows how it will ever be sorted out.

Untold Arsenal

7 Replies to “How football could be part of the solution of a nation’s ills.”

  1. I can atest to this being manager of an under 12’s team in the minor league, it’s a real shame. Hardly an pitches are marked out let alone goals, even worse the parks have just become a dumping ground for some our degenerate youths with fixation for narcotics. This is a crime and any other developed nation would be a major discussion.

  2. There is no doubt that exercise and activity is good for all of us, for general well being in addition to mental health – and a correlation has been shown between exercise being important in the prevention of diabetes and alzheimers as we get older.

    For children/teenagers it is infinitely better for them to have a balance between study and exercise/sport – rather than spend too much time on the laptop etc. Football (and other sports) has a big role to play in this – unfortunately the dorks in the FA and in government have not got the wit to invest in the future of the national game.

    OK money is tight – but could the FA spend it more wisely – definitely yes!

    The other way to look at this is – spend money on sport and exercise encouragement for all ages – and save a lot more money in consequently reduced requirements for the NHS.

    I contribute to a charity which specialises in bringing young people from deprived areas into fishing – where their energies are directed into a hobby rather than spent on the destruction of their neighbourhoods. Football traditionally provides a similar outlet – but much more should be done – unfortunately the FA have no inclination to so do.

  3. Sadly, it seems as if every green space on housing estates, in London at least, where youngsters used to play football, is being covered with luxury housing, far too expensive for most people to afford, which is being sold as an investment.

    And instead of building enough schools for all the children, school buildings are filling up the playgrounds so that yet more children can be crammed into the ones that already exist.

    There was an article in yesterday’s paper about Delli Ali and how he developed his skills by playing constant unsupervised spontaneous football outside with his mates. How is this to happen if there is no space to play in?

  4. Football suffers from a number of myths;

    1)It is an inexpensive sport……not so, the proper fields cost between 10,000 and 30,000 sterling to setup and at least that to maintain year around.

    2)Kids can just get a ball, their boots and someone to referee them and all will work out well……not so, perhaps pick-up games will happen and be enjoyed but when they begin to want to play proper Football, they’ll need a good coach and the paraphenalia that comes with competitive Football.

    3)The FA’s are the best qualified to manage grassroots Football…..DEFINITELY not so, they are bloated top-heavy stuffed suits….just like the MAFIFA who proclaim themselves the best institution to govern world football!

  5. I am responsible for nearly 100 kids in a youth football club. One of our (Council) pitches has been unavailable for nearly 3 months due to waterlogging. Some of our teams have only played once or twice in that time. The pitch in question, in a local park, was simply some lines being marked out and goal posts put up. Result? Kids are dropping out in frustration.

  6. Tony

    Great piece.

    Reading this the heart just sinks.

    Not just because of it’s content and the way it highlights just how desperate the situation with grassroots football has become, but more so, how it makes you realise just how pathetically complicit our media is in all this.

    Rather than admit to, and face up to, this dire situation, we are constantly battered with the idea that all our footballing woes are due to the invasion of those pesky foreigners.

    Every piece of misleading or blatantly fictional imformation released by the FA, PGMOL, et el is swallowed by our media, hook line and sinker, without a murmur.

    Where are the proper journalists?

    Where are the journalists that want to expose the sad, scandalous truth of all this?

    All we have are hacks such as Howard in the Sun or Reade in the Mirror, to name but 2, who want nothing more than to slag of Arsenal and Wenger on an almost daily basis.

    If these guys put in one tenth the effort they put in to abusing Wenger into investigating the scandalous systematic dismantling of grassroots football something might get done.

    As it is blaming the foreigner’s and abusing Wenger seems about the limit of there journalistic ambition.

    I am English/British and proud to be so, but I think when it comes to football (and a few other things as well to be honest) we are jingoistic, self righteous, deluded, backward thinking, and it is a mind set fostered on a daily basis by our media.

    When all is said and done, when it comes to football journalism, it is inept, incompetent and frankly, an embarrassment.

  7. Great article Tony. Pete makes a crucially important point. We desperately need investment in proper 4G football facilities. The modern 4G pitches are incredible, and a far superior use of space. One pitch can replace 10 grass pitches. They can be used ten times in a weekend (more with lights), regardless of weather, whereas grass can be used between 0 and 2 times per weekend, depending on weather. They can also be used for hockey, rugby, general fun and much more. We also desperately need to increase participation amongst adults and girls. Sport works best in a club environment. Children will play sport when they see adults, particularly their parents, playing. I live in a country that constantly frets about its mental and physical health, loves football, yet seems blind to the solution staring it in the face! A lot of our fans would feel a lot better right now if they could run off some frustration on a football pitch! Come on you English!

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