The first of thirty proposed new all-weather football facilities opened in Sheffield last Wednesday, as part of the FA’s ‘Parklife’ scheme.
£200million is being invested to improve grassroots football in England, funded by the FA, Sport England and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.
On paper, the large sum, which is to be invested across the country by 2020, is a good idea. England interim-manager Gareth Southgate hailed the project, saying: “We will benefit for decades”. But the reality is rather different. The scheme will have some effect, but is not so profound and revolutionary as it seems.
Clearly, thirty new quality areas to play football is not a bad thing, but the fact that there are only thirty is the first major issue. England as a nation are still miles behind other European countries in terms of providing artificial pitches – in 2014, there were 700 in the country, compared to 4,000 in Germany.
Having pitches that don’t cut up during the winter helps players develop technique – muddy, boggy pitches are most suited to those players with the most strength. Artificial pitches also mean less matches postponed over the winter, so football can be practised all year round.
But the greatest issue is cost. It is fine to say that these facilities are available, but at what price? Norway – hardly one of the superpowers of international football – have provided 3G (artificial) pitches free of charge for people to use for years. In England, it could easily cost more than £30-an-hour. For a group of friends playing football after school, that is simply too much.
If the new facilities are only available to those who can pay, or only attainable for clubs to train on, the benefits of having them are severely limited. Coaches and referees can learn in a high-quality environment, but young players will gain much less, because they are priced out of using the pitches as much as they want to.
Having 3G pitches for use free of charge means more children will play. Hiring out to clubs who use the facilities for training is different – they have the funds required. Not limiting the pitches to clubs makes far more sense in football terms. The more children play, the better the standards will become.
You can guarantee that if high quality facilities were available for people to use, say after school or at the weekend, people would use them. The decline in street football (a free activity to participate in) is because it is no longer safe – having these facilities open for free would counter that, and get more people involved in the sport, keeping fit and having fun.
The Parklife project is a start, granted, but there is still a long way to go before we get children playing football more frequently. If the FA want to make a real difference, providing these facilities for anyone to use at any time would be a good place to start.