Wednesday, 11 September 2013

Speaking up for our national game

Last week the new chairman of the Football Association, Greg Dyke, happened to mention our club in his first major speech since taking office. 

He called for views on the national game, so on behalf of the club I penned a personal letter, hoping its contents might strike a chord with those who believe that non-league clubs can contribute in a small but meaningful way to improving football in this country. 

Here it is:

Dear Mr Dyke,

I read your recent inaugural FA speech with great interest as by coincidence you mentioned our club Maidstone United while quoting from Martin Tyler. 

In fact, although we are leagues apart, we do have a link with Manchester United through England player Chris Smalling, who played for our club in 2008/09 until he left to play for Fulham, who subsequently transferred him a few months later to Manchester United, reputedly for £10 million. He has now matured into a talented international player and as you so rightly say, we could do with a few more like him. I’ll talk about Chris later.

In your speech you asked for ideas with regard to improving the numbers of talented Englishmen coming through to help the England team, which has struggled in the years since 1966 and 1970.

I can only agree with your assessment of the basic problems. We would all like the England team to perform well. Yes the Premier League is too influential in running football in England for its own good rather than for the good of the game as a whole and the England team in particular. Until more balance is restored the England team will not be able to win major competitions.

More and more English football fans, such as me, are going off the Premier League with its masses of foreign footballers, player tantrums and obscene amounts of money and returning to the simple pleasures of Football League and non-league football. 

The joys of non-league football
When I used to watch pro football in the early seventies there were England players and other British international players to admire in most first division fixtures. That was part of the thrill of attending and following your team. The fact that today’s talented Premier League players are mostly foreign does not detract from their skills but certainly does detract from the overall interest and pleasure of watching them. So although the Premier League may be enjoying unparalleled success internationally it can now be regarded as against the interests of English football as a whole.

Although I only represent a humble Ryman (Isthmian) League Club, ambitious as we may be, I would like to tell you of one or two of our ideas, which may help increase the medium-term production of good young footballers in England. 

Despite being almost bankrupt in 2010 our club was fortunate to have an injection of funds and a new business plan, predicated on the 3G business model for community football. We took the risky step of believing that our town’s local community would relish the prospect of playing, as well as watching, football on our pitch and that a successful community club could be reborn. 

We designed and built the first English stadium to be purpose-built with a 3G synthetic pitch. Through the 3G pitch our club lives virtually round the clock. There are students, football academy players, youth teams and soccer schools all over the pitch for many hours a week. They can all learn skills and enjoy playing and practicing football in the stimulating amphitheatre of their local stadium.

A thousand people play on the pitch per week, enjoying our clubhouse facilities, becoming hooked on the club and developing a link which goes far beyond simply coming along to first team matches. We run a clubhouse events centre and an academy (but more on that later). We have a sport and social facility which works for the widest possible range of people in the local community. We know from what we are told by our customers – that the facility has changed people’s lives.

We rarely get postponements now because 3G looks and plays as well in darkest December as it does in sunny August, while our grass and mud pitch rivals are staring at frozen wastelands which lie idle for weeks on end through a harsh winter. The impact on revenues is huge:  we estimate that the 3G pitch creates direct and indirect revenue of around £150k to £200k per annum; and on employment: we now have eight full-time and 20 part-time staff. When you think that 3G pitches cost about £350k to install and the maintenance is far easier and cheaper than for mud and grass then you can see why it is so interesting, particularly for clubs whose total annual revenue may only be £500k.

Action on the Gallagher Stadium 3G pitch
More importantly, in answer to your concern about finding new England players, 3G ‘football turf’ is a perfect playing surface, proven to be safe, playing just like a top quality natural grass pitch and ideal for learning and practicing skillful football, as played by most of our national rivals. Skillful players thrive on the pitch because it runs true, as true as Wembley, another top quality pitch, which also has plenty of plastic fibres in it. 

Old school typical English-style physical players, who thrive on the mud and bumps of so many pitches below Premier League level, are quickly found out and bypassed. The more young players, who can be trained and coached from an early age on 3G surfaces, the more likely it is that another Chris Smalling or two may emerge in our lifetimes.

Now we know that the FA is in favour of 3G pitches and provides, through the Football Foundation, considerable funds for community pitches. However we believe that football clubs at our level should be encouraged by the FA to build 3G pitch stadia for the reasons outlined above. I remind you that if we had not decided to put down a 3G surface, the business would simply not have been viable and we would not have been able to rescue the club, let alone develop our 70 student strong football academy, which is already receiving plaudits for the work it is doing only 12 months since opening. 

 “But we do support 3G,” I hear you say. “Yes,” I reply, “but not enough.”

Although we took the risk of putting in 3G other clubs don’t. One major reason is that leagues from the Conference upwards do not currently allow 3G pitches in their league competitions. We understand that The FA is unable and/or unwilling to push the cause of 3G to them because of the Premier League’s influence in your committees.

Faced with this strange barrier to what could be a hugely positive business option for many football clubs we decided to set up 3G4US, a group of 50 football clubs from Football League, Scottish League and non-league, who are all in favour of 3G pitches. Many of these clubs would like to put down facilities similar to ours, which could potentially enable them to develop a sustainable business model as it did for us, significantly increase their in-house coaching  set-ups and add to the probability of unearthing top quality young players. 

However I repeat: from Football Conference upwards 3G is not currently an allowed surface. The Football League don’t want to take any action because they might upset the Premier League, who are against 3G, and the Football Conference don’t want to take action because they don’t want to upset the Football League. And the FA can’t show an example by giving the green light to clubs to play on 3G in the FA Cup because the PREMIER LEAGUE WON’T ALLOW IT! It’s madness, and a metaphor for how football is being run in this country.

Why do I use emotive words like ‘madness’? I am sure I hardly need to remind you that 3G is already an approved FIFA and UEFA surface and internationals are frequently played on it. England have already played in Russia on it. Our Premier League clubs sometimes play Champions League matches on it. The Football League had a vote on it only a year ago and a majority of League 2 Chairmen were in favour of allowing 3G. And yet the FA cannot get 3G allowed even in the lowly Conference or show an example by allowing it in every round of the FA Cup? 

To sum up: the FA cannot get the Football Conference, our 5th and 6th Divisions, to allow 3G pitches, the promotion of which can only be to the benefit of helping to coach a new generation of talented English footballers, while 3G is freely used for World Cup matches and Internationals. How can you improve levels of football skills at grassroots and Football League level and hope to increase the number of young genius footballers being produced if you allow this sort of anomaly? The Premier League tail is wagging the FA dog. 

A final word on the subject before I go off and take my tranquilizers: rugby.

Rugby has a lot of ideas which football could do well to examine carefully. I’m not just talking about subjects like players respecting referees, or on-field sanctions, although these are wholly relevant subjects for the rulers of the national game. No I refer to rugby’s approach to 3G.

I should declare an interest here: in addition to Maidstone United I am also involved as a Director in a French first division (just) rugby club, Brive. I am in a fairly unique position of being able to compare from the inside the practices of football and rugby in a number of areas.

With no fanfare and little publicity but to their immense credit the English Premier League of rugby decided recently to allow 3G rugby pitches in their competition. They had the support of the RFU. They took a view that the many advantages of 3G, similar to those in football, were simply too overwhelming to ignore. And this despite the fact that evidence of no additional injury risk on 3G pitches is less extensive for rugby than it now is for football. They were very forward thinking and visionary.

I can only urge you, if you have not already done so, to speak to Ed Griffiths, CEO of Saracens RFC, in order to hear his positive feedback after the first few months of operation of their new 3G turf stadium. The 3G project has revolutionised his club. It has helped regenerate facilities in the local area and make the club home-from-home to thousands of local people. Of course youth training, practicing and coaching is virtually non-stop on their pitch. Ed thinks it is a no-brainer and cannot understand why football authorities cannot embrace 3G and show leadership. 

Indeed would it not be interesting to set up an FA Special Commission comprising a handful of rugby and football experts and opinion leaders, in order to exchange these sorts of ideas and brainstorm ways in which these two fine sports might help each other to thrive?

Well you might reasonably be hoping I had run out of paper by now but I’m afraid I’m going to disappoint you. I want to talk about the second issue I mentioned: football academies.

As I said Maidstone United took the decision to set up an academy because we wanted to create a sports education project which could benefit from our facilities, which we knew would be available at off-peak times, thanks to the durability of 3G synthetic pitches today. 

Maidstone United Football Academy 2013/14
Another reason was to provide an elite coaching facility for local and Kent-based youngsters, who could develop their skills and aim to play in our senior teams in due course. It was to complement our existing community youth coaching structure in order to enable young people linked with the club to go all the way through our youth teams and academy right into the first team and beyond. And it is the ‘beyond’ that is the problem. 

From our research into this thorny subject we have concluded that there seems to be no FA regulation enabling fair compensation to be paid to non-league clubs, who see their young players leaving to join bigger clubs. This can be called poaching, tapping-up, whatever; it happens at all clubs and we are helpless to prevent it. 

These young players may spend years in our youth teams or academy. They are not on contract either because we simply cannot afford to take such a financial risk or because we genuinely believe it is in the student’s interest to stay in full time education.  And yet there is simply no compensation payable.

Do you think this is fair or encourages clubs to spend significant moneys to set up academies as we did, at our cost? Do you not think more academies staffed with better coaches are one of the ways forward in assisting you to achieve your objective of more young, talented English players coming through? Surely it is at our level, Conference level and even Football League level that academies could potentially be full of English-qualified young players looking to hone their skills. This is where the next generation of exceptional players can emerge and be taken on in due course by Premier League clubs. With encouragement and fair compensation please. 

And that brings me back to Chris Smalling. When Fulham came in and signed up Chris, who was not on contract while playing for us because he wanted to play for England Schoolboys, we had no rights to any compensation. We received a small ‘gift’ from Fulham because we begged like starving dogs. 

Surely this is not right. Smaller clubs need proper encouragement and compensation for their efforts, which can help breed a new generation of English players. With no compensation you will get fewer clubs bothering to set up first-class academies and youth coaching structures with top coaches and consequently fewer players coming through, fact. It’s not fair to clubs and not in the FA’s interest.

In conclusion we understand that there are many issues to solve in improving the quality of the England team and giving us all a bit of relief from those awful evenings we have all endured when England are knocked out of a major competition. 

We are simply and humbly offering up one or two ideas that, whatever else, cannot do any harm and might just do more good than you can imagine. If the FA were to wrest more control from the Premier League by allowing 3G stadium pitches further up the league pyramid and in the FA Cup, and establish clear rules for sensible compensation for clubs nurturing talented young players in their academies, now and not in ten years’ time, there may well be benefits for the England team down the road. 

Thank you for letting me use the excuse of our namecheck in your speech to put these ideas to you.