We at Sportside are a positive group, always seeing the good that can come out of any situation – and in the immediate aftermath of the European Super League fiasco it is still possible to find that some good can come from it for the game of football – and in the sports world in general.
The elitist group of 12 football clubs who proposed to create their own protected league threatened to inflict untold damage on the game of football at all levels in England and across Europe and the fact that their plan has unravelled at the first hurdle is the first positive that we can take from this.
The fact that there was universal condemnation of the proposals from leading figures in the game from HRH Prince William to the game’s self-styled shop steward Gary Neville and from managers like Pep Guardiola to players like Jordan Henderson, Raheem Sterling and Marcus Rashford must have showed the ESL ‘founders’ that they were going to face stiff opposition to the their plan.
But ultimately it was the supporters who had their say and changed the minds of the clubs’ owners. Because, as it has been said many times, the professional game of football is nothing without its supporters. Professional sport is nothing without its supporters.
Because these supporters are also the ones who, by and large, make the game happen at grass roots level.
Quite apart from the ludicrous non-spectacle that the ESL would be – with irrelevant games being played out by ‘Big Six’ English teams who could never be relegated from their own league – and the immediate impact it would have on their Premier League colleagues, the most worrying aspect of the ESL plan was that it threatened to cut off millions of pounds that currently gets pumped through the football pyramid to support the grass roots game.
Ajay Gore, co-founder and Chairman of Southall Athletic FC, who play in Division One of the Middlesex County League, summed up the anger felt by teams lower down the pyramid when he told the Mirror:
“Big football clubs, if they start playing matches abroad and not in their local areas, it takes the heart out of football. With us being a local team, we’ve really seen the importance of supporting your community football team.
“People are going to become disinterested and ultimately it is going to have a massive impact on lower league clubs.”
“If the ESL goes ahead and less money is filtered down in community centres and other facilities, like sport pitches, those prices will inevitably go up. Who has to pay for that? It is the players.
“It will get to the point where it is not sustainable for us as a club to put on any sort of sport without people having to fork out a small fortune to play.
“Whatever money is trickling down will dry up as well – it is going to make that situation worse.”
Gore was right, and he was simply voicing the concerns of millions of football followers up and down the country who were mortified by the proposals, not least the Football Association, who had only weeks earlier announced a new strategy for grass roots football in England.
The FA’s plan – announced as lockdown came to an end at the end of March – has been mapped out to be implemented over four seasons and addresses short, medium and long-term challenges for the game.
The strategy – titled Survive. Revive. Thrive. – outlined seven objectives to achieve by 2024:
- Male participation: Modernised opportunities to retain and re-engage millions of male participants in the game
- Female participation A sustainable model based on a world-class, modernised offer
- Club network: A vibrant national club network that delivers inclusive, safe local grassroots football and meets community needs
- Facilities: Enhanced access to good quality pitches across grassroots football
- Grassroots workforce: A transformation in community football by inspiring, supporting and retaining volunteers in the game
- Digital products and services: An efficient grassroots digital ecosystem to serve the administrative and development needs of players, parents and the workforce
- Positive environment: A game that’s representative of our diverse footballing communities, played in a safe and inclusive environment
The strategy also highlighted the immediate challenge posed by Covid-19 which, like so much else in its path, had threatened to destroy grass roots football.
The FA strategy included providing financial and business support to those that need it most while ensuring football can continue to be played in a safe and secure environment.
A big part of the plan also includes increasing opportunities to ensure girls have the same access as boys to football in schools and clubs, and improving the quality of pitches, with the aim of seeing 5000 good-quality pitches added to the current number by 2024.
The FA also wants to see new participation at every age group and from under-represented groups, as well as using the power of digital to connect players to the game they love, which chimes with Sportside’s key concept of ‘Connect and Play’.
The English game’s governing body rightly say that the long-standing partnership between the FA and County FAs, is crucial to its success. Both are not-for-profit organisations that reinvest all of the money that they make back into football. We are planning to invest over £180m into grassroots football over the four seasons of the strategy.
James Kendall, the FA’s director of football development, said: “We’re delighted to see the safe return of the grassroots game and are excited to announce our new four-year strategy after what has been an extremely difficult year.
“Our commitment to grassroots football has remained resolute and this strategy is a clear demonstration of our long-term ambitions, which will ultimately play a role in improving the health and wellbeing of millions of individuals across the nation.
“This new strategy aims to ensure the grassroots game in England will survive, revive and thrive over the next four years.
“I’m confident that we’ll seize on the remarkable togetherness and resilience our national game has shown in the face of COVID-19 and use it as a force for good. We recognise there’s a huge amount to achieve, but we have set ourselves the challenge and look forward to delivering on this strategy which puts players at the very heart of everything we do.”
As they launched the strategy the FA also published a report that showed the social and economic value of grass roots football in England is worth over £10bn every year.
The report, titled The Social and Economic Value of Adult Grassroots Football in England, found that grass roots football in England has a considerable impact on a person’s mental and social wellbeing, highlighting mental health benefits for children and physical health benefits for older adults.
All of which was so nearly undone by six very wealthy owners of six very wealthy English clubs on Sunday night. The collapse of the plans within 48 hours of its unveiling shows just how much grass roots football means to this country, the rest of Europe and indeed the world. Like all sports, it needs to be everybody and not just an elite few. The aftermath of the ESL fiasco can be a positive one if that simple lesson is heeded.