Low quality pitches and insanely priced Astro turf is holding back the development of England’s next footballing generation.
“That’ll be £90 please,” was what I heard seconds before putting the phone down and ending the conversation.
I was on the phone to a local leisure centre trying to hire an Astro turf for me and a few friends for a kick around. I’d already called three other sites and after awkward small talk and hesitant questioning, I was down to my last straw. Unfortunately, the last option was once again, a little out of my price range.
Since retiring from my long and mostly disappointing Sunday League career, I’ve always found it difficult to keep up the sport for a low price. It seems that unless I’m shooting into a leaning goal with no net and having to dash after the ball after every attempt, my bank account is the one suffering.
So, amongst the insanely high prices and awful standards of local pitches on offer for our country, if it’s difficult for me, it’s got to be difficult for the young kids. They may be desperate to replicate their idols on the pitch, but if you can’t afford it, it’s not happening. As I’ve pointed out so far, there are two sides to this. Either your pitch is too rubbish, or you can’t pay for a better one.
When it comes to already available pitches, after the Covid-19 pandemic, a report from the Grounds Management Association (GMA) has indicated that a lack of investment into grass-roots pitches, could have huge consequences for the country’s next sporting generation. “1,400,000 more children could play football and rugby weekly if grass pitches were improved” (Grounds Management Association, 2022). When you compare that with the frighteningly low odds of children who actually making it as a professional footballer (1% of 9-year-olds picked up by academies), we could be missing out on the next superstar just because very little money is put into maintaining pitch surfaces, goals, netting and much more.
The investigation from the GMA also found that out of the 56,891-rugby union, football, and cricket pitches in England, only one in every 984 people will be able to use them. Now obviously, not everyone wants to represent their local Sunday League side with an oversized shirt and cardboard for shinpads, but for those who do, they have to fight for the chance.
So what’s the solution? Hire a an Astro-turf to avoid the horrific conditions local pitches are subject to during winter (the only part of the year Sunday League is played)? Well if so, make sure your kid at least has a part-time job.
Before inquiring about the facility, I mentioned at the start of this column, I used to play on their pitch quite frequently. Before it’s re-development, on a weekend they’d charge any child £2.80 for the hour as a free for all type session, no booking required. It was superb. Yes the surface was awful and was more similar to a beach than a football pitch, but it was cheap, had decent goals, you could bring whoever you’d like without needing a membership for the place and the workers would never come and tell you to get off after the hour.
For a while, me and my friends did complain the place needed doing up but much to our regret, it ended our weekly visits. After installing a brand new 3G surface, kids were no longer allowed to show up without a booking and had to pay ludicrous prices if they did. On one Facebook post for the leisure centre, one comment read, “They wanted nearly £200 for a 90 minute 11 versus 11 match.” When the customer asked why it was so expensive, it was because they’d just made it brand new. So even when the awful pitches are improved, there’s no chance any reasonable person an actually use them. You either accept you have to develop your game on the worst conditions possible or pay up.
So how on earth, is the next Jack Grealish, Marcus Rashford or even Harry Maguire able to start their development their game? There’s absolutely no encouragement or help given to this next generation, so as we’re approaching their bizarre World Cup, we better hope we can win one of these next ones because in 20 years’ time, our chances will be severely limited.