DAVID FLITCROFT COLUMN: How to keep teenagers involved in playing football

The Bolton News: David Flitcroft David Flitcroft

DAVID Flitcroft has joined up with The Bolton News to write a weekly column.

In his latest instalment, the Bolton-based Bury manager talks about a competition he believes could keep teenage players in the sport I WAS appalled to read the latest statistics produced by the FA about the decline in numbers playing grassroots football and Sport England’s subsequent decision to slash £1.6million from its funding for the game.

For me, one of the reasons behind this fall in participation is the state of facilities, which are in short supply and a horrendous state.

The standard of Bolton’s facilities are very poor and give lazy coaches a great excuse to favour long-ball tactics.

With facilities in their current state, I believe we are in a vicious circle – numbers will continue to fall and with them the funding, so the park pitches we have will continue to decline.

To break this cycle I believe we need to think harder and be more creative.

We know the problems, so we need solutions.

I believe the resonsibility lies with the professional game to give back to the grassroots.

The FA, the Premier League and the Football League have a duty to open up the use of the country’s finest facilities.

One idea I would like to explore would be a cup competition that gives players the chance to perform on some of our very best pitches, including those at the FA’s headquarters at St George’s Park. I have had the pleasure of working at FA’s HQ and seeing the operational side of St George’s Park – the home of English game’s development programme.

It is a truly inspirational venue, boasting outstanding grass pitches and an indoor 4G arena that is just jaw-dropping and could easily host weekend tournaments for grassroots teams.

The prospect of playing there would stimulate interest and competition – teams would have to earn the right based on results, respect and meeting fair-play targets.

The best two teams would go on to play at Wembley in a showcase final to promote the very best of grassroots talent.

Qualification through the various regional stages would feature finals at top grounds – so in Bolton the winners of each local league would compete at non-league venues, such as Eagley, Old Bolts and Radcliffe Borough to set up a final at the Reebok.

Winners of the regional finals would go head-to-head at St George’s over a three-day televised sponsored event before the Wembley finale.

Such a competition would stimulate players and coaches not to give up on the game, but keep on striving for the chance to play and manage at these kinds of venues.

Competition and environment stimulates growth.

I know from experience how much players at a local level are motivated by the chance to play at the Reebok in the final of the Hospital Cup.

I went to play for Turton in a couple of games and the excitement and desire to play in that competition was incredible.

Saying all of this, and while the figures may tell a different story, I do believe there is still a healthy number of players in the grassroots system. I would suggest that from under-14s level down, participation is stronger than ever.

Most of the kids who are good enough to go on and play in a professional academy have done so by this stage.

It is the players left behind that need re-booting and reinvigorating. They are the ones that need to be given something to aim for.

Another option would be to create a national inter-league competition.

It would follow the same principle, with the chance to play at the country’s biggest and best grounds as the carrot, but maybe run in a Champions League-style format.

The attainers and achievers in each league would have something to aim for – the chance to play at venues and on pitches that are a million times better than what they currently play on.

These competitions would need an organisation team and committee, but when you look at the outstanding work done by our own Bolton and Bury Junior Football League, then I see no reason why a committee recruited and organised by the FA could not run a successful grassroots Champions of Champions competition. The key ages we need to focus on are between 16 and 21 – this is when players start to favour a social scene over football.

Watching teenagers drift away can be demoralising for even the most enthusiastic of coaches.

Give these kids and coaches the incentive to keep alive a dream that started out at the age of five – that one day, if they stay in love with the game, they may get the chance to play at the Reebok, Old Trafford, the Emirates, St George’s Park or even Wembley – then you will be creating a memory for life.

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