We need to ensure there are places to play if we’re to secure the future of Welsh football, says Neil Ward
Wales’ heroic victory over Belgium is now four months in the memory. But the nation’s love affair with football is showing no signs of slowing down.
At the FAW Trust, our job is to grow and develop the game. And it’s been hugely encouraging to hear clubs report that they are seeing more children pulling on their football boots off the back of the Euros success.
The numbers of children and adults playing the game are soaring, making it the most popular team sport among young people in Wales.
It is also the most in-demand sport. 120,000 young people and a further 130,000 adults want to play more football. You only have to look at the statistics and the sheer number of clubs and teams across Wales to realise that football has a huge impact on the health of the nation.
No other sport has the reach or potential for growth that football does. That’s why we have to do everything in our power to ensure everyone – young or old, male or female, no matter where they’re from, no matter their level of ability – are able to play.
We’re doing everything we can to grow the game. We’re changing the format of the game to suit different audiences – there’s walking football, mini football, veterans football and we have introduced the FIFA recognised small sided game Futsal. We recently launched Beatball (a mix of football, dance and music) to tempt more primary school aged girls to play.
We’re not afraid to do things differently. And we are making progress against our target which is 50% of children playing football once a week. We’re currently at 37%.
But despite the pleasing progress, football faces a huge challenge and its forcing clubs to reduce the number of teams they run or, worse, fold altogether.
The challenge is access to facilities. Unlike sports like cricket and rugby, where many clubs own their facilities, football is largely dependent on local authority provision.
We simply just don’t have access to enough quality pitches for the sheer number of clubs in Wales. In Cardiff alone, there are more than 450 teams sharing 100 grass pitches.
Without facilities, people can’t play and that’s a situation that hurts us all. We all know only too well that lack of physical activity puts huge pressure on an already over-stretched NHS.
It would be easy to sit here and say that local authorities need to do more to protect our grass – but the truth of the matter is that they are facing huge financial pressures.
But with predicted population growth, (18,000 per annum in Wales) we simply cannot stick our heads in the sand either.
This is a shared responsibility that includes ourselves, the FAW Trust as well as the FAW, Welsh Government, Sport Wales and local authorities.
It’s certainly not all doom and gloom, however. We do believe there are solutions. We need to look at how we can improve access to school facilities, develop more 3G artificial pitches in the right locations, and upgrade as many grass pitches as possible. We need to look at where its feasible for clubs and leagues to take on the management of local authority facilities. Football needs to make changes too – we should examine how we can share venues and integrate football with other sporting activity.
Change is also desperately required to future planning policies. With so many new homes planned across Wales, there should be an obligation on developers to develop new or enhance existing playing fields.
At present the game tends to react to circumstances that arise rather than analysing modern trends and planning for the future. This is why we are committed to working with others on Local Action Plans which focus on future needs rather than reacting to the present: plans that propose solutions and actions to the issues that communities are confronted with.
It appears that the facility challenge, caused by local government budget reductions, is likely to continue for some time. And we certainly don’t have all the answers to the difficulties faced by clubs up and down the country. But Wales has already shown this summer that it can produce something very special when it puts in plenty of hard work and when everyone pulls together.
And if we were able to ensure a future for Wales where every grassroots club could play on a quality playing surface then that would be very special indeed.