Depending on whether you’re a regular purveyor of my weekly musings, you may have wondered why there was no blog, as scheduled, last Saturday. I can’t truthfully offer you a viable excuse, other than that I had imagined, on a ‘staycation’ in Somerset, the opportunity to continue the normal timetable of composition and upload would have proven realistic; by the time of my usual Thursday and Friday-evening scribing, my thoughts were otherwise occupied as the exertion of daytime activities dissuaded me from fulfilling such requirements. The result, however, is that, if all goes to plan, this week should unfold to reveal a blogging double-header, with this piece uploaded either on Tuesday evening or Wednesday afternoon, and a follow-up within the usual constraints on time on Saturday afternoon. I just thought you’d appreciate the notice while I’m here, as we attempt to shake things up for at least one short period of the year.
Transfixed in my imagination, for a few weeks now, is that in the event of a week’s holiday in England’s agriculturally-centred South West, I could compose my blogging effort about the plight of a number of this geographically, culturally and ethnically diverse nation’s devolved regions in their disadvantaged footballing circumstances with superior rationale and expertise on the subject. To an extent, this may have proved true, as with one eye continually on the untapped sporting culture of such notoriously rural areas, typified by the region surrounding Taunton where my stay was based, I feel there is a degree of local knowledge to be exploited and generalised. Such a broad simplification, in my opinion, is unpractical to smear the reputation of the entirety of England’s non-urban community with, however, and when observing the reality of the modern guise and role of, for example, Cornwall’s, Northumberland’s, Norfolk’s and Shropshire’s county FA’s, an argument has to be formed on both cultural circumstance and pure, unemotive, statistical matter.
A converse argument, nevertheless, could be established on the basis of Sussex FA’s perceived inopportunity – both financial and social, in the lack of funding for such a region and the lack of corresponding impact on local communities. This, however, is not the case, as my personal account on the diversity and popularity of football’s reputation in, what is, in respect of official governmental records, a bi-county region, supported by easily available statistics on the number of clubs per km2, extent of devolved national FA funding or success of representative clubs in national competitions – the FA Cup, FA Vase and FA Trophy –, would prove. Strictly judgmental on the non-league representative club exploits, realistic boardroom and communal circumstance and fulfilment of promise, or lack thereof, of England’s regional FA’s, I hope to unveil an institutionalised bipartisan circumstance of affluence-rewarding footballing favouritism on the part of the obtrusively inactive, uncouth and exceedingly oblivious governmental officials that rule the poisonous realms of the English game.
The FA, it must be underwritten prior to any investigation, is a troublesome beast to fully comprehend. Its funding records are besmirched by the lack of coherent, reliable communication with its parishioners – the general public –, the comprehensive technological platform it opts with regularly crashes for its users, and its internal function appears distant and disruptive, at the best of times, to those who are so unfortunate as to frequently interact with it. All this makes for a complete breakdown in public relations, where the level of distrust and frustration is, at this point, unprecedented in its continued escalation. At every stage of the model – national dictation, to regional associations, local league systems, participating clubs and ultimately to the supporters who, if uninitiated in the trials of the regulation of an outdated system extortionate in its application of paper records, can be entirely severed from the coordination of the sport – disparities gape, with the ambitions of such culturally separate parties entirely conflicted.
While it may be the case that the national FA, in a farcically belated attempt to appease accusations of gender, racial and disability inequalities in its boardrooms, is appointing those in the ilk of Iffy Onuora, BAME Football Communities representative and Scottish former Huddersfield striker, David Clarke, disability representative and former England Blind team striker, and Sonia Kulkarni, Katrina Law, Sarah Nickless and Lauren O’Sullivan as female representatives of everything from supporters to colleges, to its council, the case is not being reflected at county level, nor in the boardrooms of clubs at such levels. From courses the FA sets its charter standard club chair people, secretaries, welfare officers and managers – as witnessed, personally, in the event of my father’s completion of such online tours, in his position as secretary at Ringmer – there is encouragement at the expansion of the roles of the previously underrepresented demographics at regional club levels, without tangible cause to heed such advice that one may imagine from an effective government. Culturally, it is always more challenging to create the imprint of change a regime may desire from the passing of law or setting of example, but I have to say the FA could do far more than in their present public face to challenge the stigma created by the whitewash of wrinkled men pervading the management of the sport.
While this example has established the ineffective cause of action the FA appears to continually resort to in any event of public shame, it isn’t the main issue of what we are discussing here. Instead, addressing the regional disparities of what boasts to be one of the leading global football associations is our aim, and with the aid of some rather revealing statistics, we should be able to shed light on the visual reality of the sport’s stature in particular local regions, while posing pressing queries on the facts they won’t reveal to the public on this matter.
Accessing, firstly, the extent of the records the national system has, we can easily reveal that, according to Chief Financial Officer Mark Burrows’ piece in the 2016 national financial report, ‘during the 2016 season the group invested £125 million into the game, surpassing the previous record of £117 million invested in 2015.’ Burrows, rewarded with an FA job after his seven year role alongside CEO Martin Glenn at Iglo, the European sister brand of Birds Eye, goes on to add ‘the investments into the game are critical in supporting the FA’s strategic priorities.’ The actual statistics of the report, however, prove that, had it not been for the newly-imagined ‘Parklife’ scheme – which, to date, has only opened, from reports, two ‘hubs’ of new 3G facilities in Sheffield, with similar sites in Liverpool, Northolt, Manchester, Southampton and Eastleigh in the pipeline – at the apparent cost of £10 million just to get off the ground, FA expenses on grassroots football would have fallen from 2015’s figures. £1,000,000 was stripped from distribution to county FA’s (down from £18 million to £17 million) twice as much was removed from FA Competition prize funds (£38 million to £36 million) and ‘other developments’ – a term worryingly ambiguous at its repercussive cost to the association’s alternative causes – fell from £11 million to £8 million, and while facilities, coaching and participation and female football development benefitted, gaining £2 million in the former case, and £1 million in each of the latter, it appears perverse that county organisers and clubs who perform especially impressively in national competitions should be the ones to suffer for a programme that is yet to deliver anything other than good PR for the association and ‘several’ 3G pitches, changing rooms and training facilities, at sites in Graves and Thornhill, for the people of Sheffield. Both came at the cost, reportedly, of £6.8 million.
Quite what the expenses of construction at these sites could have been attributable to, one can but wonder. I’m no accountant, nor football coordinator, but I can strictly refute claims that it truthfully costs quite that much to plug an apparent hole in urban footballing facilities just at two sites, where apparently five grassroots sides have since taken residence and youth teams continue to train. In Liverpool, the next site to experience such refurbishment by February 2018, there will be four hubs complete, each with a trio of both 3G and grass pitches, training facilities and ‘extensive car parking’, while the third location is Northolt, North West London, where £3 million is set to be splashed on two 3G pitches, ‘changing facilities, two community rooms and a pavilion’, representing the absolute antithesis of what those outside of the inherently privileged urban regions will want to hear from the FA. Primarily, this is where the association is totally subservient and ignorant to its wider nation.
The issue of their current existence doesn’t lie in the supposedly inadequate facilities of England’s largest urban centres. Regional FA’s in these areas, at least we are left to presume from the lack of national clarification on this matter, receive the greatest level of funding for their comparative geographical stature. Of the 51 regional footballing associations, London has 174 clubs within the top 11 steps of the pyramid, Birmingham – which represents the West Midlands and Warwickshire, of the actual English counties – has 83, Manchester 63 and Liverpool 28, creating a monopoly of facilities and funding, with 348 clubs in the top 11 steps of the sport, roughly equivalent to 20.25% of the 1,718 clubs within the generally accepted brackets of competitive Saturday league football. London, alone, holds 8,778,500 English citizens according to a mid-2016 estimate, and when compiled with the populations of England’s next three largest aforementioned cities, they represent 19.94% of the devolved nation’s total population. If factoring in the area that their county FA’s serve, however, these regions actually house 29.91% of England’s total population, roughly five million more people than had we taken the names of their county FA’s on face value.
If anything, rather than funding the further expansion of inner-city footballing exploits, only to add to the dominance of these leading urban areas, for example, in the Premier League, where 10 of the current 20 clubs are from these four cities, and all but two eventual league champions have hailed from – Blackburn and Leicester defying the rule in 1994/95 and 2015/16 respectively – the FA should be looking elsewhere, and to other regions in which to enthuse future national team representatives. In a totally non-scientific statistical gathering, the heritage of the previous 78 players called up to an England senior squad – men’s or women’s – reveals that only five can claim to have been the product of a rural area; Fraser Forster, Gary Cahill, Lucy Bronze, Millie Bright and Sophie Baggaley from Hexham (Northumberland), Dronfield (Derbyshire), Berwick-Upon-Tweed (Northumberland), Killamash and Newton (both Derbyshire) respectively, although the status here of Cahill and Bright, from villages in North Derbyshire that border Sheffield, can be argued. 20 of the same 78 were born and raised in London, with Liverpool (six), Manchester (five) and Birmingham (four) trailing, and a number of county towns or metro towns, particularly in the North East, filling the remainder of the diverse list.
It is obvious, then, that the cream of England’s national teams finds its roots, overwhelmingly, in established regions that combine three vital factors for footballing prowess; a respected and extensive history, an ingrained sporting culture and a vast population. My concern with the Parklife Programme, Greg Dyke’s lasting legacy as a brainchild left behind in the event of his term as FA Chairman culminating, is that it attempts to cover the cracks of a moribund pathway outside of the metro centres by banking on the platform existing for what Worldometers estimates as 81.9% of the British population (I couldn’t find figures solely for England) living in urban areas. As long as this vast majority of the population experience the benefits of FA living, the remaining 18.1% will be rendered irrelevant, with talented products who inherit the sufficient coaching and self-taught determination to succeed simply the fortunate balance to their city-trained counterparts; not a prerequisite to Gareth Southgate’s successors’ demands, but gladly welcomed if they do so happen to appear.
Such a reckless strategy fails to recognise the unwritten law of not just the footballing community, but society and government’s role within such a construct of the modern world. In alienating those who have acted as the backbone of the grassroots game for decades now, all the FA are achieving is to weaken their colleagues in the offices of Truro, Carlisle and Hereford, even Douglas, St Helier and St Peter Port, and to cap the opportunities for rural leagues and clubs dotted across the National Parks, along the B Roads and in the deepest, darkest arse ends of nowhere in all of England’s unspoiled rural regions. Bunker Roy, an Indian social activist, once said “strengthen the rural areas and you will find less people migrating to urban areas. You give them opportunity, self-respect and self-confidence, they will never go to an urban slum”, and while the case of English football isn’t as extreme as the polarising circumstance of India’s dated agricultural plains to their congested, poverty-stricken cities, you can draw parallels that help us understand the inequalities that such a scheme from the FA suggests to those that it blatantly ignores. Tom Vilsack, former United States Secretary of Agriculture from 2009 to 2017, observed similarly on the subject of rural lives in the world’s richest nation; “People don’t understand rural America. Sixteen percent of our population is rural, but 40 percent of our military is rural. I don’t believe that’s because of a lack of opportunity in rural America. I believe that’s because if you grow up in rural America, you know you can’t just keep taking from the land. You’ve got to give something back.”
Why else would rural football have been continuing, often for longer than the sport in cities – Shropshire (1877), Norfolk, Lincolnshire and North Riding (all 1881) FA’s having each been established prior to London (1882), Liverpool (1882) and Manchester’s (1884) –, if the unrecognised status of their teams and footballers bothered them? For their entire existence, these predominantly rural associations have gone without outstanding reward or praise, only for those in charge, overwhelmingly, those hailing from inner-city communities to continue to leave such outposts isolated, not just geographically, but socially. There has never been a profit in investing in the rural game; blatantly, there lies the crux of the matter, and as long as we have undeveloped regions, few major investors are going to be attracted to regions of perceived ill-attended, unattractive and unfulfilling football. The FA, in annual reports, can state that they have been ‘supporting football since 1863’, that they are ‘the not-for-profit, governing body of football in England which re-invests over £100 million back into the game each year’ and that they ‘grow participation, promote diversity and regulate the sport for everyone to enjoy’, but what really hurts is that they claim to ‘keep the grassroots game going’. How sickeningly patronising and unbelievably uninformed that statement is. To take credit for the volunteers, loyal supporters and even regional referees, who sacrifice extensive time and money to the sport they love, is the greatest abuse of reputation you are ever likely to witness, especially on the scale of an organisation so far-reaching as the FA. They do nothing but create stumbling blocks for those participating, alienate those of us who aren’t so fortunate as to be so apparently blessed by unlimited funds from above, and siphon off the extortionate profits of not only running a globally-recognised and broadcasted cup competition, but exploiting a world-class sporting/music venue, into self-extolling paycheques that presumably stretch either into high six-figure or seven-figure annual salaries (based on records, courtesy of Glassdoor, of FA Regulatory Managers alone earning £106k-£115K annually).
Upon the planning of this blog, I was going to focus on the reasons some county FA’s may not be so profitable in their production of Football League sides, FA Vase or FA Trophy winners. I had imagined elaborating on the select counties that aren’t represented in the current 92 professional English (and Welsh) teams – where 35 county FA’s are represented, though 14 only by one side, and 11 by only two clubs, while the likes of Worcestershire, Cornwall, Herefordshire, Northumberland and Surrey remain voiceless –, in addition to the 72 teams that compete at steps five and six, and making the case for further representation. Even launching a scathing attack on the failure of the FA to reclassify the falsely named member regional FA’s that bare monikers referring to veritably Victorian existence, from their creation in the 1880’s. Upon reflection, it would have, in truth, been a weakly-supported argument with little impact on the case of these regional FA’s. But the FA, ever a laughably incompetent and impeccably-timed organisation, rolled out their Parklife Programme to remind us all how blind they are to their own crimes, and to hand me the ammunition I desperately required to forge a case for the continually undermined, undervalued and isolated. £17 million doesn’t go very far when it comes to 51 regional or representative FA’s – the Royal Navy, Royal Air Force, Army, English Schools and Amateur Football Alliance each having their own set-up – £333,333.33 if you’re sharing on an equal basis. But when, undoubtedly, four key cities – London, Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool, or rather Greater London, the West Midlands/Warwickshire, Greater Manchester and Merseyside – are swallowing extortionate funds that likely equate to, say, £1 million each, on top of the apparent piles of cash the FA has to burn when it comes to building new ‘hubs’, only £13 million is left to split between 47 FA’s.
Granted, the Services, Schools and Amateurs I mentioned before, in addition to Jersey, Guernsey and the Isle of Man wouldn’t take precedence, but that again leaves 39 ceremonial or ancient counties, with around £300,000 to spend every year. Still, I greatly doubt each of these FA’s would receive equal funding, as, for example, Hampshire boast 78 clubs from steps one to eleven, Nottinghamshire 52, Surrey 51 and Sussex, the organisation I have come to know, 68, compared to the 19 of Cornwall, Dorset’s 18, Northumberland’s and Worcestershire’s 13, Herefordshire’s 10 and the East Riding’s similar 10. Besides, even £300,000, let alone less, is barely going to cover costs of printing, investment in technology for offices, domain name contingency, the purchase of teabags and biscuits for meetings, Wi-Fi, gas, electricity and water bills at HQ, the printing of programmes and engraving of trophies for county cup finals, the leasing of a venue for such an event (e.g. the Amex for the Sussex County Cup Final) and the investment in refurbishment of county FA-owned 3G pitches (e.g. Culver Road, Sussex FA’s base in Lancing). If a county FA had intentions to overhaul their HQ facilities from a grass facility to a floodlit, all-weather 3G pitch, where would the funding be found? Would another regional FA have to go without funding for a year, or would all other counties have to make cuts just for their counterparts to make advances?
Unless I’m very much mistaken, also, a large financial hole in Mark Burrows’ 2016 report appears; remember when I said the amount of prize money available had been decreased from £38 million to £36 million? Neither the FA Cup, nor the FA Trophy, decreased prize money at any stage of the tournament from 2014/15 to 2015/16, nor from 2015/16 to 2016/17. The FA Vase, on the other hand, did, but only at two stages of the competition, and from the 2014/15 edition to 2015/16; making cuts of £200 per club at both the Second Round Proper and Third Round Proper, from £1,200 to £1,000 and £1,500 to £1,300 respectively. Still, only 128 and 64 sides, respectively, would make appearances at these stages, meaning a mere £38,400 is saved in the season. Mr Burrows, £38,400 is not equivalent to £2 million, and unless radical figures unavailable to the public have been stripped from the women’s or youth games, which are similarly on the rise, your financial records are wildly misguided. Exemplifying the lack of clarification they offer their general public, let alone the incompetence of their elitist boardroom hierarchy when it comes to comprehending, with any degree of empathy, the reality of football increasingly distant from the Premier League, this fact demonstrates the entire torrid situation that currently exists in English football. The thing is, I wouldn’t mind so much if it wasn’t such critical funding to all grassroots clubs so fortunate as to compete for success and funding that may sustain their continued existence for another season.
The very least of their problems is that they insist on referring to, or keeping in existence, certain regional FA’s including Huntingdonshire, Westmorland, Cumberland, North Riding, Middlesex and Sheffield and Hallamshire. The very least. Why Huntingdonshire cannot be incorporated into Cambridgeshire, Westmorland and Cumberland into Cumbria – which currently exists with the south of the county under the Lancashire FA’s prerogative – and Northumberland as separate entities, North Riding renamed North Yorkshire, Middlesex merged with London and Sheffield and Hallamshire, though romantically stylised so from their original name as the first global regionalised FA in 1867, renamed to South Yorkshire to more accurately portray their existence, not to mention London, Manchester, Birmingham and Liverpool to Greater London, Greater Manchester, the West Midlands and Warwickshire and Merseyside respectively, I do not know. Utter lunacy, and a complete inability to keep pace with the changing tides of English devolved culture – despite having 43 years to make changes. More pressing, however, is their utter abandon, or at least what is only reflected as such by their action in funding their mates in five or six regional FA’s for the sake of placing their entire faith, unsustainably, in the talent pools that could otherwise go untapped, while forgetting the true foremost role of a football administration, not solely to serve its national teams, but to serve everyone involved in the sport across the nation. It’s not such a critical cause in Sussex, where appropriate regional funding appears existent, and close proximity of about five miles, for even the most rural of citizens, to a football pitch is the reality, but for those who have been forgotten and isolated by the organisation with a completely oblivious form of malice for effectively their entire modern existence, and especially at present, it is an unacceptable circumstance.
Do they not even care to think pitches and facilities may also be dilapidated in rural areas, more so even than urban environments? Do they not imagine there are wasted talents resorting to or opting with preference for rugby league in Yorkshire and Lancashire, rugby union in Devon, for example, cricket in any of the 18 counties, particularly Somerset, Northamptonshire, Leicestershire, Derbyshire and Gloucestershire, nor tennis, cycling, swimming and athletics in any other rural area, let alone physiological skills left unacquainted by, or impatient with, the sport due to a lack of coaching or facilities locally? Football does not exist in a vacuum for the cityscapes. It is far more than that, and currently it does not appear that the FA realise anything close to the reality of the sport on the ground in its most obscure of garrisons. Ultimately, if this does prove to be the period in which they lost the sport in the rural regions on the desperate decision of Greg’s Dyke and Clarke, Martin Glenn and innumerable other backroom corporate-minded buffoons, in opting to defer addressing rural issues in favour of lavishing urban territories with a love-in of utopian facilities, they won’t be the ones to pay, will they? Arrogance unbeknownst to us mere mortals pervades the cesspit of a system they operate, yet they will fail to heed the small voices until they fall on their sword. Perhaps they stumbled a long time ago, and had the prong plunged deep in their hearts, and are voluntarily impaling themselves deeper by the fault only of their character. If only they were liable to a wider entity. If only, but that’s our job; their public, their audience. We must make it so that they are held accountable.
Author - Will Hugall
Now a BA Journalism student at Nottingham Trent University, I divide my time between my base in Radford and back home in East Sussex while watching as much football as I can!