How to improve Grassroots Football in England

The English FA’s initiative to increase investment in grassroots football as well as formal recognition for the need to concentrate on helping referees, improving training / playing facilities and training the coaches is much appreciated – as any such initiative from a governing authority would be.

The strategy outline can be downloaded here (8MB, so download it instead of opening in a browser and thus crashing it) – it makes for interesting reading – but if you want the Twenty20 version summary, here it goes.

In the words of the FA:

  • It’s a big problem and we realise that. Respect for referees, governing methods, training standards, quality of facilities, all of these need to be improved.
  • We talked to tens of thousands of people to ensure that we got everyone’s point of view.
  • We’re going to a) invest more money, b) create better standards, c) ensure that our efforts are recognised as being successful (that’s what they said).

Will it work? Everything the FA has talked about will undoubtedly improve, but ‘will it work’ is a massively open-ended question with different answers for every individual. A better question would be:

Is this good enough?

And by good enough, I mean:

  • Will this enable England, in 5 years time, to produce kids who are measurably better in technique and skills than the kids of today?
  • Will this improve player-referee relations?
  • Will we have more qualified referees in England?
  • Will English training facilities improve and become comparable to training facilities in Europe?
  • Will the international demand for English coaches improve (a good way to measure their quality)?

The answers: I fkn hope so, doubt it, we need this to happen, improve yes, comparable no, and probably not.

Overall – it’s about time the FA did something, hopefully they’ll get something good done and looking at their track record, it’s probably not going to be enough.

There are two areas where the FA have fallen short – and this does not include carrying out these steps a decade earlier (better late than never, eh?).

One, the investment is NO WHERE NEAR enough

200m to be invested on coaching, retaining / recruiting referees and improving governing / organisational standards, plus another 300m to be invested in improving facilities. A major undertaking, but it falls shorts of what’s needed to properly improve standards and facilities.

The FA, to their credit, admit that they are just scratching the surface here (to give you some perspective, the FA would need to spend several billion pounds in the next 4 years to achieve the sort of impact people are expecting – and even then that willl not produce a generation of Ronaldinhos overnight). They need help, and regardless of what critics will say, even the Premier League does not make the kind of money that could fund such a venture.

The coaching and the referee situation can be dealt with within a few years – the facilities, well, that will take a few decades.

Two, weak leadership accomplishes very little

Why the fuss over their “comprehensive” survey? Will they really learn something new from interviewing 29,000 – after they’ve interviewed the first 1,000? Do you really believe that consensus-building is the way forward? Is this a particularly English failing or just a downside of democracy?

The FA need to stop pandering to consensus and push forward with strong leadership. They know what the problems are – 80% of the major problems are both inexpensive to fix and clearly understood by the general public, let alone the media or football authorities. What would it cost the FA to get the best minds in football and business together for a day of brainstorming? Considerably less than what it cost (time and money) to survey so many people.

The FA need to focus more on success than the perception of success. Here’s a direct quote from their strategy overview:

Ensure The FA Charter Standard kitemark scheme is recognised as the measure of quality across grassroots football.

In the words of the inimitable George Carlin…what the fuck? This approach to improving grassroots football in England is not going to work. What does the FA care about more – success or recognition of success (there is a difference and the latter does not automatically translate into the former)?

A simple, effective plan for success

There is little gained in muddling the message – stick to the simple and few directives that the FA knows it must work on (refs, coaches, facilities, administration). Set measurable, realistic and concrete benchmarks, raise them by 50% and circulate them internally as hard targets. Cut the same benchmarks by 50% and make them public. Give the media and the fans and the people involved the ability to monitor progress – and (this the FA has done, kudos to them) get the people passionate about football involved in improving it.

Social ventures (such as the Fugees Family) and charities are often the best ways to generate investment in football. Let’s say there are a million people in England playing a minimum of kickabout football. Surely everyone can put in a quid (if not 10 quid) per month? There’s your 12m-120m / year right there.

It’s not just the FA in charge, everyone with an interest in football – the fans, the players, the coaches, the trainers, the people making money off it – they all have a stake in improving the game. Why not give everyone responsibility?

After all, we all consider ourselves authorities on what needs to be done. Perhaps we should put our money where our mouth is?

Further Reading:

Resilient Tottenham damage Chelsea's title chances
Lazio 3-2 Roma: Derby della Capitale Goes to Lazio, Are Roma's Scudetto Chances Now Really Over?


  1. Oliver Fowler 20 March, 2008
  2. Dave Black 26 May, 2009