SHAFAQNA – The Football Association has unveiled ambitious plans to build more than 150 new “football hubs” across the country by the end of the decade that it claims will transform the sport and the way it is played across England. The chairman, Greg Dyke, vowed to deliver a “radical new approach” to grassroots football that would reverse years of neglect of shabby, waterlogged municipal facilities by investing £230m in new 3G pitches and overhauling its approach to youth coaching.
But Dyke also admitted that the big idea unveiled in the first part of his England Commission report – the introduction of B teams into the Football League to improve opportunities for young homegrown players – had effectively hit the buffers.
The plan to drastically increase investment in building more than 600 new all weather 3G pitches, focused on 30 of the country’s biggest cities, over the next six years has been welcomed as a belated recognition that the English game has failed to invest satisfactorily in facilities down the years.
“We clearly haven’t got enough coaches when you compare us to other European nations, or good facilities compared to other European countries and we haven’t won as many tournaments as they have,” admitted Dyke.
There are 639 high-quality publicly available artificial pitches in England compared with 3,735 in Germany. Whereas grass pitches tend to be used for four to five hours a week, with matches often cancelled due to inclement weather, 3G pitches can be used for 70 to 80 hours. They also promote better technical skills at a younger age that, combined with a new approach to concentrating funding and the best coaches at younger age groups, Dyke hopes will improve the quality of young footballers coming through the system. “I remember when I first got this job Arsène Wenger saying to me that the trouble with English football is that your boys from the age of 10 are not technically good enough,” he said.
But the plan, to be road-tested in a pilot project in Sheffield unveiled on Friday, still has to be fully funded. “In the end it’s about money and we don’t control the bulk of money in football,” admitted Dyke. “It’s going to take some hard choices.”
An extra £50m a year will be required for the one-off investment programme on top of the cash already invested in the Football Foundation, which receives £12m a year each from the FA and the Premier League and £10m from the government.
Dyke admitted it would require cuts in other areas at the FA, where he has launched a wide ranging review of its funding priorities in an effort to find extra cash. The FA currently channels around £50m a year to the professional game and Dyke admitted there would be some “hard choices” about its priorities. It is hoped that the Premier League, which has broadly welcomed the new plans and is contributing to the pilot in Sheffield, will match the FA’s funding and that central government will also contribute given the potential for community and school use. The Premier League, which will make £5.5bn from its existing three-year TV contracts, has been under pressure to increase its investment in grassroots facilities and community programmes.
The FA hopes to persuade local authorities, which have been reducing investment in sport and recreation in the face of swingeing budget cuts that have led to worsening facilities and rising costs, to put up around half the money. Dyke is hopeful that local authorities can be persuaded because they can make a one-off capital investment in the new pitches and then hand over the running of them to a new trust that would seek to operate them at break even and reduce the need for ongoing subsidy.
The vision is for so called “football hubs” that could host a mixture of school and community sessions during the day, youth coaching and matches in the evening and weekends and profit-making “pay as you play” sessions in the evening.
The hope is that the hubs will be self sufficient, with their own bars and facilities, and in time could come to resemble those on the continent long coveted by some who have lamented the feeble record of under-investment in public facilities in England.
“I think the Premier League will come along and say ‘Yes, we agree with this and we will put some money in. The government will do as well,” said Dyke, who will also seek funding from the private sector and trust funds. The FA said Liverpool and Birmingham had already begun consultation exercises.
Sports minister Helen Grant welcomed the plans: “I am keen to see what more we can do to help further improve the nation’s facility stock, putting 3G pitches in places that need them most, and I am continuing discussions with the football authorities on this front.”The commission’s report also highlights the fact that there are far too few qualified coaches in English football, which “seriously lags behind” European competitors.
There are 9,548 B-licence holders in England, compared to 21,731 in Germany and 37,742 in Spain. At the very top of the game, there are only 205 Uefa pro-licence holders, compared to 2,353 in Spain and 1,304 in Germany. It also found that coach education and coach development were not properly joined up and identified a lack of ongoing support for coaches. It proposes a new coach education organisation led by a technical director, likely to be the current director of elite development, Dan Ashworth.
“This is a fairly radical change in coaching, with the way that it is run,” said Dyke. “And if we can meet these targets and find the money to do the football hubs in the cities, I think we will transform football and the way it is played in those cities.”
Premier League chief executive Richard Scudamore welcomed the findings. “Getting this right is imperative to the good health of the game at all levels – players like Raheem Sterling and Calum Chambers have to start off somewhere,” he said. “The Premier League and our clubs will keep playing our part to help ensure that the provision of top quality facilities and coaching is delivered where it is needed most and will have greatest impact.”
But the FA chairman conceded that proposals introduced in May by the 10-strong commission – which includes Rio Ferdinand, Roy Hodgson, Danny Mills, Howard Wilkinson and Dario Gradi – had received a mixed response. The flagship idea to introduce Premier League B-teams into the Football League provoked a furious reaction from lower league clubs and fans. If it happens at all, it will only be in much more limited form in the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy.
While the FA has consulted on new work permit rules that would restrict the number of non-EU players entering the English game, that too is only likely to have a marginal effect. But Dyke said phase one of the report had stimulated debate and would, he hoped, prompt the Premier League to change its rules to require more homegrown players in matchday squads.
“The problem is still there. Everyone recognises a problem, but no one wants to solve it. There are still discussions going on about B teams, strategic loan partnerships,” he said. “We are still actively looking at the sytem of homegrown players in the Premier League which I think would make a big difference, but that is quite complicated.”
The FA chairman insisted he did not regret the way he had gone about trying to force change.
But he admitted that more still needed to be done to address the “blockage” between 18 and 21 that is preventing homegrown players gaining crucial experience and breaking into Premier League teams.
Dyke had warned that the England team risked sliding into irrelevance if radical action was not taken to improve the quantity and quality of homegrown players playing in the top flight.
The latest statistics show that, if anything, the problem is getting worse. Among the 17 clubs in the Premier League that were also in the top flight last year, there is a 7% drop in English players in their squad. Among the top six, the number of English players starting in the first six matches of the season dropped from 28% to 25%.
The key recommendations from both parts of Dyke’s report
– The introduction of Premier League B teams into English football.
– The development of “strategic loan partnerships” between clubs.
– Overhaul of visa system to reduce number of “mediocre” non-EU players.
– Maximum number of non-homegrown players in matchday squad reduced from 17 to 12.
– Invest £230m over five years in 150 new football hubs in 30 cities.
– 50% increase the total number of full size, publicly accessible 3G pitches in England to more than 1,000.
– Target 50% of all mini soccer and youth football matches to be played on 3G by 2020.
– Bring together FA’s coach education work in single new department.
– More than triple number of youth coaches within next three years.
– Increase number of pro-licence holders from 200 to 300.
– “Significantly increase” the number of coaches from BME backgrounds and the number of female coaches.