By Scott Mills
It is a cold and miserable October morning and as the clock strikes nine, many football enthusiasts are just starting to drag themselves out of bed on a day off, full of excitement when given a similar situation on a weekday they could not think of anything worse.
However this is not just any other day, this is a Sunday. A day in which many describe as the holy day dedicated to local football leagues up and down the country. One where the nostalgia of deep heat and the dampness of an unwashed kit are welcomed nearly as much as the mud-baths in which they call a pitch.
And that passion to play is no different for Bush Hill and Newton Heath player Andrew Smith. As the 26-year-old makes the short journey over the Itchen Bridge to compete for his team in the Southampton City Sunday Football League, there is no surprise that his attitude quickly changes from excitement to anger and frustration when he pulls into his side’s home ground at Mayfield Park.
As he gets out of his car and makes his way towards his team mates, most of whom are still in last night’s clothes and slightly overweight, he is greeted by the strong stench of booze and cigarettes accompanied by the unwanted mumbles of “games been called off mate” that echo around the group.
Whilst most stay to admire the slanted pitch covered mostly in puddles and dog faeces, Smith gets back into his car and turns on the radio. News of Greg Dyke’s plans to improve grassroots facilities to develop the standard of English football has just broken, pushing Smith’s dissatisfaction over the edge.
“About time, they should have done that years ago and maybe our national team would not be in the state it is now!”
The frustration displayed on the face of this Sunday league footballer goes back further than the previous weeks of postponed games. In fact, it is not the first time that poor facilities have dashed Smith’s footballing dreams either.
At the age of just 16, he was on trial at Portsmouth’s academy and whilst playing in a cup quarter final for his school, his promising footballing career along with his aspirations were brought to an abrupt end before they had even begun.
“I remember it like it was yesterday. It was lashing down with rain like it had been all week, so the pitch had taken a bit of a battering” Smith recalled.
“It was mid-way through the second half and as I went in for this fifty-fifty tackle, my foot got stuck in one of the divots behind the ball.
“The next thing I knew I was lying in a hospital bed with a broken leg and to this day I don’t think I have ever properly recovered physically.”
In the same year that football claimed its place as the UK’s second most injury prone sport, participation rates have also fallen by up to 100,000, something in which Smith believes are both down to the cause of poor pitches and facilities.
“When you see injuries like mine occur because of the state of the pitch there’s no wonder children are dropping out of football.
“You just start to lose love for the sport when something like that happens in fear of it happening again so you just fade out of it.
“Especially these days when there are even more distractions like video games, why would they want to get up early on a freezing cold Sunday morning to run around in a mud-bath, hoofing a ball up and down the pitch and run the risk of injuring themselves?”
And Smith is not alone. In a recent survey carried out by Sky Sports on grass roots football, a damning 33.4% answered that pitches and facilities were the main reason they did not play football regularly.
The next most popular answer in the survey was ‘I play regularly’ by 25.7% and in the same survey 83.7% insisted the FA were not doing enough for grassroots football.
Smith added: “I am not saying that the reason why this country is not producing enough world class talent lies solely on the blame of pitches and facilities.
“However if we found a system like the one in Germany where they play and train on a decent surface week in, week out it would certainly give us a better chance.
“I also think that a lot of the problem is lying with the local councils not being able to protect pitches properly because they are not interested in doing so and because they do not have the necessary funding available to do so.”
But whilst Smith continues to ponder on when he will next be reunited with the sport he loves, development officer at the Hampshire Football Association Sacha Nicholas believes that an investment into the foundations of which the national team is based upon, could not only put an end to cancelled games and poor pitches but could also help develop more talented players.
“If the grassroots level received £250m, it would go a long way in helping us to improve facilities.
“For example, last season we lost up to three months of football and this sort of funding could easily double the amount of 3G football pitches across the country.
“This of course would allow matches and training to continue even if the weather is like it has been in recent weeks.”
With each full size artificial football pitch costing on average of around £600,000, the money invested from the FA would almost double the 639 all-weather facilities that already exist in England.
In fact, the surface is now being used by the English national team at their multi-million pound training complex at St Georges Park in Burton, something in which Nicholas believes should be replicated to help nurture future talent.
“By improving facilities, we can greatly enhance the development of a player’s technical ability.
“Little things like investing in 3G pitches would mean that players can train and play on a regular basis on a consistently true surface and ultimately it will encourage a certain style of football.
“Also if it is being played in a safe and quality environment, then we believe that the right conditions are in place for talented players to emerge.”
Compared to its grass turfed counterpart that only tends to be used for up to five hours a week, 3G pitches assert a staggering 75 hours more.
But the idea of trying to catch up with Germany’s 3,735 artificial pitches, may not be as straight forward as the FA first thought.
With around 80% of amateur football being played on council-run grass pitches, many facilities and players have felt the hit of the governments’ cuts in sport and recreation.
Many pitches that were once heavily subsidised are now feeling the squeeze of local government’s budgets causing hiring costs to rise, some by up to three hundred percent.
And with the FA requiring £10m to help fund better facilities at the local level, Nicholas ensures the Hampshire FA are working closely with the Southampton City Council to improve pitches despite them refusing to comment.
“We’ve already been working very closely with the local authorities making sure that they are actively involved in the continuation of our pitch maintenance programme.
“By having the Southampton City Council heavily involved in looking after the facilities, it will hopefully lead to investment so that we can improve them.”
And it is not just the current facilities the FA are trying to protect but also the future of the English game.
“By lending a hand to the council to try and protect the current pitches, we also believe that this engagement will eventually lead to an increased investment into facilities,” Nicholas added.
“Of course we then hope that this gets the government on our side and helps support the funding into facilities so we can improve the grassroots game on the whole.”
However, it is not just the facilities that FA chairman Greg Dyke has planned to improve at the sports amateur level.
Recent research released from UEFA has shown that England only boast 1,395 coaches that hold UEFA A and Pro licenses, which compared to the likes of Spain (15,423), Germany (6,934), Italy (2,281) and France (3,308) is shocking.
Between the four nations they have provided 11 out of the last 16 participants in World Cup and European Championship finals since 1998.
Among them they have also won the past three World Cups and two European Championships, whilst England’s last triumph came 48 years ago.
But then again there is no surprise when comparing the incredible gulf in the prices paid for coaching courses between England and the other countries.
In order to obtain a UEFA A coaching badge in England you must pay in the region of £2500 to £5820. Whereas if you were a coach in the country of the reigning world champions it would only set you back £530.
“It is definitely something the FA are reviewing and we are currently anticipating changes from the summer of 2015,” said Nicholas.
“As a local County football association we are of course aware that the cost of coaching is astonishingly high and that’s why last year we tried to increase funding support for coaches so they could get the qualifications they needed.”
And although Nicholas admits that the funding from the FA would go a long way in providing coaches for the next generation, he also admits that it is about the quality as much as the quantity.
“Our role is to broaden participation levels for all demographics whilst raising standards of clubs including increasing the quality of coaching.
“We are already trying to formulate a dedicated coach education unit come the end of the year and we want to use this to not only help develop world class coaches but also recruit them from all sections of the community.”
Finally unlike the winter weather, plans for the future of English football are now looking up.
So as Smith pulls into the local pub’s car park, he and his team mates will no doubt be relaxing in front of the TV watching the weekend’s matches to fuel his obvious thirst for football.
But somewhere in his mind will be a mixture of anxiety and excitement, wondering if next Sunday will be a case of déjà vu or whether he will finally be able enjoy something he loves.
If Hampshire FA’s Sacha Nicholas is anything to do with it, no longer will the footballers of Southampton be gracing a rubbish-filled mud bath with a horrific hangover but instead will be imitating their heroes on carpet like surfaces around the county.
Alternatively as the era of artificial pitches beckons, Saturday evenings will never be the same again with the worries of postponed fixtures becoming nothing but a distant memory.