The Football Association’s task of raising the standards of grassroots facilities continues apace, Steve Williams, the FA’s Football Services Division’s National Facilities Manager, tells Sports Turf, Amenity & Leisure
The Football Services Division has ambitious targets under a four-year strategy and £300 million investment programme: “Our main aims are to improve the access and quality of facilities, to find out what is needed to meet the demand and to campaign against the loss of playing fields to sustain what is currently played,” says Steve Williams.
The FA also seeks to promote football learning and coaching, working with bodies such as Sport England and the IOG to raise the bar across the board at grassroots level.
Williams is keen to bring sports facilities up to speed to meet the demands of players and referees. “With years of under investment, a big problem is that the provisions available are just inadequate for the volume of use,” he says. “We are looking to strategically develop 150 artificial grass pitches across the country, too, to attack our lack of training facilities, given this latent demand.”
He continues: “With increasing demands for housing and retail development, the levels of outdoor provision is diminishing as a result. With over 80 per cent of all football played on public sector sites, including schools, the FA feels it is duty bound to protect those playing fields which are at the core of football.
“One of the tasks is to look at what is most needed and strategically right when new or refurbishments to existing facilities are requested,” he explains. “It’s about individual circumstances: how many the facility will cater for; whether it is a youth club or a school; and the volume of play across all areas of the game. With the continuing emergence of the girls’ and women’s game as well as mini-soccer, we need to also concern ourselves with the future! ”
Although real turf “cannot be beaten”, artificial grass presents a better option if the natural pitches are in a poor condition or if there is a need for a high level of use, Williams believes. “We do not like to say one is better than the other - it is all down to local circumstances.”
The FA’s strategy also focuses on where best to channel spending. Expenditure currently comprises 44 per cent on changing rooms, 21 per cent on artificial pitches and 10 per cent on grass pitches - the remainder is taken up with infrastructure such as consultants fees, car parking and access roads, he explains.
The spend on changing rooms seems significant, against which some may argue. “The growth of the women’s game and the issue of child protection mean there is mounting demand for changing facilities to be both safe and fit for today’s world, and this means potentially spending more money on them. Some of the facilities are pretty disgusting.”
More may be injected into women’s football, Williams maintains. “The FA is looking to develop an elite league by 2011 comprising eight teams. They would play through the summer months with an attempt to showcase the game to a wider audience.
“Youth football accepts a lot for not much in return,” he argues. “Many sporting sites have poor shower and toilet facilities, for example, and it is important these are brought up to scratch because youngsters especially are more likely to want to get involved if they have good facilities.”
The Football Foundation works “especially closely with the FA” to work in and develop areas in most pressing need, such as inner city sites, local parish communities and youth clubs. “Many of these attract large participation but have inappropriate facilities,” he says, “but we have much to be proud of and are witnessing big developments in youth clubs across the country, notably at Mowbray Rangers FC in Leicestershire and Walls End Boys Club - where Alan Shearer started.”
The need to train groundstaff within the non-league game in a bid to ensure club pitches are maintained to a higher standard is also a priority.
“We have begun to develop a new training course with the IOG that is better suited to today’s grounds professionals. The course will cover such topics as how to mark out pitches correctly, the best products to use, equipment maintenance, end of season renovations, understanding quotes or estimates from contractors and how to maintain pitches through the summer months. We hope to make the course available from March 2009.”
The FA’s commitment to grounds personnel stretches back some years, he notes. “Under our aim to improve the knowledge of staff working in the lower football leagues, we have held the Groundsman of the Year awards at IOG SALTEX for the last seven years, celebrating the groundsman who has obtained the best results with available materials and money. We wish to recognise the groundsman not the pitch, so the judges have a job on their hands to ensure the right answers are obtained!”
“With experts calculating that you need to spend around £8,000 a year on a pitch to keep it in good condition, it is important that groundstaff know how best to spend their money and the right times to do it - even if the majority of clubs don’t have that sum to play with.”
Williams adds: “The issue of standards and the number of public pitches is one that we care a great deal about,” he declares. “We actively lobby central and local Government when there are plans to sell sports pitches for housing or other development, and we work closely with Fields in Trust [formerly the National Playing Fields Association] and Sport England on such matters.”
Given that the money spent so far on grassroots development is just 15 per cent of the overall investment needed into grassroots football facilities, Williams says it is clear that the Football Services Division still has a long way to go to achieve its goals. But he is optimistic and if grassroots football is `coming home` for 2012, he suggests the spiritual home of the game will be ready.
- The current FSD programme, announced in October 2008, adds to the £500 million already ploughed into grassroots development by the FA since July 2000.