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It’s fantastic to see the growing volume of 3G pitches appearing in what the FA describe as urban areas.

This is all part of Greg Dyke’s England Commission where he has committed to increasing the amount of artificial pitches by 130% to more than 500 by 2020.

Exclusive footballThis is commendable and to improve facilities can only be a good thing for everybody, or is it?

Travelling around it’s delightful to see these pitches rammed with players taking advantage of the surface that allows them to play all year round in relative safety. But these children will mostly be those that play for grass roots clubs for which they pay subs and others that are training with professional football clubs development centres, paying for the privilege. I work in many schools and listen to the children. On countless occasions I have heard youngsters tell me that they do not play for a club because mum or dad can’t afford it. Yet I see such great talent which makes that a heart-breaking situation. So where do these children play and will they ever be granted on opportunity? Schools already do tremendous work in engaging youngsters in sport as part of the governments primary sport premium. But mostly this encourages increased participation in many alternative activities, which is great. But it’s not football specific. So these children’s best hope is the school team but I don’t think this is enough for them to develop adequately and be seen.

Most great footballers have come from difficult or working class backgrounds and actually in the UK I fear more and more people are edging towards to the poverty line and many beneath it. So clothes, food, water and heating are a much greater priority for their children than football. So are we doing enough to help these children that fall into this bracket and should we? Why should some people pay for something and others not?

Culture of football

The culture of football in England is changing. I think the reason that many play football has changed. Where we can play football has changed. To me it seems that for many, the reason for playing is simply to be a professional footballer and their are far too many players that are perceived to be in an elite bracket. With that come’s disappointment and rejection and the reality that for most it doesn’t happen. Parents living that dream through the children add to the pressure and ultimately the failure to cope with the rejection. Many teenagers then completely give the game up for good and I find that so sad. We played football for the love of the game regardless of the level it was. Where we play football has changed. I don’t think our parks are cared for as they should be and even our local field is now been giving up for a coronation meadow. It’s already been rotavated and now even walking on it feels like you could sprain your ankle. The cynic in me suspects this is more to do with economics and cut backs. A meadow will cost much less to maintain than a sports field. Playing in the street is no longer accepted and any local piece of green gets a ‘no ball games’ sign.

If you join a club then no doubt you will get to train on a nice surface. But you will need to contribute which of course is fair, kit is not free. You could go to a pro clubs development centre which around where I live you would pay for. Or you are lucky to sign schoolboy forms for a pro club and be coached and train for free. But is it free? Training four times a week and clocking up miles on the motorway? It’s not free.

With this in mind it’s great to see these wonderful new facilities. Luton has two really difficult tough areas. Lewsey Farm and Marsh Farm. Both now boast wonderful new pitches. There is a big sign outside saying Football Foundation and Lottery funded, so clearly not paid for using commercial funds. Yet they are treated as commercial enterprises by the people that operate them. Of course revenue is vital but to me they are benefiting from the increased income but didn’t make the initial investment. The result of this is harsh reality. Saturday, lovely October day with sunshine. 1.30pm, this was the pitch in Marsh Farm, Luton. Padlocked and empty. The next day, Sunday morning I drove past the other new 3G in Lewsey Farm at 11am. It was padlocked and empty. Of course during the week from 6pm they are packed with paying customers from clubs and teams but weekend’s with nobody is a criminal waste. If they simply opened the gate I’m sure the management would fear risk of theft and vandalism. But to me that is lazy and lacks any sort of commitment to engage empathetically with its local community. There will be so many children looking down on that pitch from the surrounding houses and high rise flats probably kicking a ball around the living room that could not afford to go and play for the local club. It could also be that he or she is the next Messi, Ronaldo, Pele, Maradona or Marta. If these organisations have benefitted from supporting funds surely there is something they can do to help engage these people. That ultimately benefits the community and also could benefit the England team in the future. Is this not the master plan of Greg Dyke? So for football to be great in this country again we must not discriminate against someone based on class and money. It has to be all inclusive. I think that’s a good reason to offer assistance for those not able to afford football.

Lets ask the top 100 players ever from England if they had to pay to participate in the game?

I would suggest that there should be partnership agreements with the local schools. If you get funding support for a pitch it’s a crucial must criteria. Children can register with the school for free access at times like I have seen which clearly don’t sell anyway. This could be used as a behaviour carrot for the school. That way they know who is on the pitch and have the ability to deal with any issues. I guess the other objection could be supervision based on crazy health and safety, insurance rules. Well, if that’s the case, supervise it. There are hundreds of coaches desperate for work and experience. Pay them. The FA is not short of funds I’m certain of that. 4 hours a week, 2 hours on Saturday and 2 on Sunday won’t send them into liquidation.

I have also said before that I believe the FA centrally should run their own ‘Elite Centres’. Independent from the professional clubs. In the style of development centres, a stepping stone between grass roots and professional academies where they can experience quality coaching and experience whilst playing for their registered clubs. But it should be selective and free.

I guess growing up in a council estate a stone’s throw from one of these 3G pitches is what makes me passionate about opportunity. Living in poverty or dysfunctional families doesn’t automatically mean children will follow the same path. It doesn’t mean they will be criminals and can’t achieve great things in their life. Football is such an important aspect of this enabling them to give their thoughts and worries a break. I believe we should empower them to change the cycle. Sport can do that. Let’s please let these children have a chance to live a dream and if not, at least enjoy football.

Typically over all the years of football, the best players have arrived on the scene having come from challenging backgrounds. Does that create more hunger and intrinsic desire to change your family’s life? But equally players are around that have very stable backgrounds. So, the point is, we just don’t know from what community and what background the next great player will be hiding. But for sure we certainly need to ensure we look under every stone and give everybody equal opportunity. If we create a pay to play culture this could eliminate so many people so we have to find a way.

Post written by Tony McCool
Blog: tonymccool.blogspot.co.uk, Twitter: @antmccool7

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