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The Football Foundation column: Investing in the future

England manager Graham Taylor once pointed out, “If you think about the ultimate football icon of the last ten years – David Beckham – where did he come from? Like everyone else, it was through the grassroots.”

Each week over 2.1 million people put on their boots to play the national sport – 1.6 million of these representing the junior and youth categories.

With such a large pool of people playing regular football at the grassroots, it should be possible to unearth hidden gems that could be successful at the highest level of our professional game.

However, there are a number of challenges to overcome, to ensure that youth players leave the grassroots and enter academies at a comparable level to their rivals abroad.

The need to bring outdated facilities up to an acceptable standard is one of these challenges – something the Football Foundation strives to address. Pitches that resemble swamps are hardly equipping English players with the technical ability to compete against those on the continent.

Natural ability

In fact, research has shown that it is the major barrier to participation; meaning those with the natural ability may never reach elite level.

While the Football Foundation’s core objectives are centered on using football to improve communities, this investment has a significant knock-on affect to the professional game.

Walker Technology College recently secured £102,000 worth of funding towards a new floodlit 3G artificial grass pitch - one of the Foundation’s most popular builds.

The ribbon of the new facility was cut by Toon legend Peter Beardsley (pictured), who currently works as football development manager at Newcastle United.

Speaking at the opening, Beardsley said: “When you look at facilities like this it gives kids a chance to play and from our point of view being selfish, it gives us the chance for our scouts to have a look. We’ve never had anything like this before so hopefully it will increase the chances of getting players through."

'Great surface'

Thirteen-year old Mckenzie Heaney, who attends the school and has recently joined the Newcastle United Academy, said: "It will be great in the winter because it means I can play and train more regularly on a great surface rather than being stuck on muddy pitches.

"It's a perfect surface to help me practice skills and will hopefully help me develop as a player."

Heaney was described by former professional footballer Stuart Elliot - who currently heads up the football academy at the school, as someone with a “very bright future."

Elliot believes the new pitch will play a central role in the players development and his chance of reaching the top level: “Instead of being on a boggy pitch where you can’t play and can’t express yourself; this it is the nearest thing you can get to grass, so it gives the perfect opportunity for him and others to practice their skills and play games on a regular basis."

Projects like this are taking place up and down the country, providing the chance for budding youngsters to reach their full potential and develop their skill base.

Investment into grassroots sports facilities

Nevertheless, historically investment into our grassroots sports facilities has been neglected and England significantly trails its European counterparts.

The FA estimates that as many as 1.5 million children and adults are still not playing football because of a lack of facilities, while artificial pitches in London are reportedly over-subscribed by up to 40%.

Sport England’s Active People survey underpins how football has the largest potential to drive participation, as football has by far the biggest latent demand of any sport – i.e. football has the largest number of potential participants that are currently unable to play.

So, the task remains a work in progress, albeit heading in the right direction; but there are examples that show the system working.

Gateshead Redheugh FC in the North East received Football Foundation funding back in 2011 for a new sports pavilion and pitch improvement work.

Scouted while playing mini-soccer

Andy Carroll was scouted from the club whilst playing mini-soccer by Newcastle United.

Carroll went on to make his debut at the age of 17 and was an instrumental part of the Magpie’s promotion back into the Premier League.

Following a prolific start to the 2010/11 season, scoring his first hat-trick and being handed the captaincy armband, aged just 21.

Carroll was signed by Liverpool for £35 million, making him the most expensive British signing of all time.

The reality is that without the existence of grassroots clubs like Gateshead - and the support they receive from grant giving bodies such as the Football Foundation, home-grown talent will remain undiscovered.

More accomplished

Improved facilities encourage better technical ability at a younger age, resulting in players entering academies at a more accomplished level.

The link between grassroots football and the professional game is a vital one to strengthen.

Although not a ‘quick fix’, by providing the right facilities, and enough of them, we could witness a resurgence of national talent, with the hope that the ‘years of hurt’ for glory on the European and World stage can finally be put behind us.

Last season over 700,000 people played sport at sites that were developed with money provided by our funding partners – The FA, Premier League and Government.

Since its launch in 2000 the Foundation has invested £420m into community football projects across the country, which it has used to attract a further £520m of partnership funding into the grassroots game.

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By Richard Faulkner

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