Will more artificial 3G pitches help solve England’s footballing crisis?

You Can’t Teach That

To 3G or not to 3G?

Ever watched the England football team and woken up, wiped the drool from your chin only to realise you’ve been fast asleep for most of the second half? Ever ended up blind drunk in a naive attempt to make the football ‘get better’? Or have you ever tried but failed to count three consecutive passes? Well you’re not alone, and, even though they wouldn’t phrase it so crudely, it’s for this reason that the FA have begun to become more proactive about grassroots football with the onus primarily focused on developing technique at a young age.

With the recent release of the second part of the FA’s report there’s been a lot of talk of how technical ability is integral in developing the next generations footballing ability as a whole, with the hope that this will in turn have a positive affect on the future success of our national side. The FA’s message is clear, we need more all weather facilities for young people to play on, in particular we need more artificial grass pitches (AGP’s) in cities believing that the increase is “so crucial for the technical development of young players”. Pundits, ex pro’s, officials and just about anyone interested in the game have chipped in with their support. And although I believe the sentiment to be genuine I believe that the argument that 3G pitches will help to produce more technically gifted players is totally redundant and misguided.

There are many benefits to having good facilities and they have been well documented. The ability to play in all conditions will really breathe life back into lower leagues and amateur football, that are currently haunted by extreme weather conditions and sometimes have to go long periods without matches or simply play on unplayable surfaces.

More artificial grass pitches are definitely a good thing but by no means an essential in developing technical ability, and I think this is the key point in the 3G argument. In fact for the most part it can be the opposite. The famous ‘ball players’ of every generation didn’t grow up controlling passes on a lush carpet of artificial plastic in large spaces. They grew up playing of uneven streets, dusty flats, dirt and sand whilst in tight spaces. The Scots, Daglish and Strachan grew up playing street football, Gazza the same, Zidane dusty pitches on a Marseille council estate, all the Eastern Europeans nations renowned for technique and every bloody Brazilian most definitely learnt their control of uneven surfaces (maybe with the exception of the current shower). Tight spaces and uneven surfaces are environments that definitely develop you’re close control, composure and footballing vision quicker, in essence you can’t teach it. And although I’m not suggesting we build the anti 3G (crappy uneven pitches), I am suggesting that we’ve missed the point.

The reason we have a lack of technical players is because young people especially in our cities haven’t got the opportunity to play anytime they can. The availability and affordability of football pitches is the main problem not the quality of facilities. The report proposes that by 2020 the FA would’ve increased top quality artificial pitches in cities by 130% to more than 500. But who will have access and how much will it cost? It insists that it will replace local authority subsides with Trusts that will be made up of a collection of organizations. Will these Trusts be able to afford free usage and how long will it take before they start charging? If it follows the FA’s current model then it will probably roll out initiatives where the first session is free and then they’ll be a fee thereafter. This is simply not good enough, children in cities just need space and lit pitches to play on for free, artificial grass or concrete it makes no difference. If the FA can introduce free coaching sessions that’d be great and could lead to better player development but I’m not sure money will be put aside for such a thing seeing as the coaching badges alone are unaffordable for wannabe coaches.

I appreciate that space is a premium especially in cities, where most of our footballing population live but that doesn’t excuse the ongoing neglect of past and current facilities for our national sport. Football is no longer played in the streets in the same number because of the number of cars that populate them. Artificial pitches in cities at the moment are mostly private and used for lucrative 5 aside leagues, some charging up to £82 for 40 minutes. It’s easy to be nostalgic but the reality is the pitches I honed my silky skills on when I was a child are gone, one is now a car park, one’s been turned into a public garden and the others are now fully booked for the leisure centre’s 6 aside league. The problem being that the people playing in these leagues are adults and not the young people we need clocking up their footballing mileage.

Gentrification has also played a big part in the inner cities, the one 11 aside grass pitch that existed in my local park has been replaced it’s football goals with rugby sticks for part of the year, something I never dreamt of seeing in Hackney. Again this is to accommodate for adult colonizers and doesn’t support the needs of the children of the local estates that love to play football, a sport that should be one of the most accessible in the World. All that is needed is a ball and space but in our cities, especially the capital, we are losing and have lost the space. This hasn’t been protected by the local authorities because of a combination of leisure and sports budget cuts and the lucrative gains that gentrification brings.

Put simply the FA needs to support more football pitch availability more often for our young footballers and for free! And if that can include artificial grass pitches then allthe better. The more they play the more they learn technique and then we need to remember that they need to learn themselves before clubs begin to develop them. Every young person should have a pitch close to where they live that is available for them to play and lit up at night. This was a main factor in the technical development of the players in the inner city part of the London that I grew up in. Floodlit pitches are essential for our youths in order to play regularly through the long dark months. If they only play at the weekend and in their holidays then their technical ability is delayed. The FA’s report is a comprehensive one and tackles some real issues affecting grassroots football but seem to have ignored the main issue. They need to make clear whether these artificial grass pitch’s will be free for local kids and how often.

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