Big Interview: Greg Clarke vows to fight for grassroots cash
There has never been so much money at the top of English football.
Sadly though, that wealth is not filtering down into the grassroots game.
Last year, The Football Foundation – the UK’s largest sports charity – was damning when describing facilities across the country.
“In a shameful state,” is how they labelled grassroots pitches throughout Britain – with the gap between football’s haves and have-nots seemingly getting bigger all the time.
Greg Clarke, the chairman of the FA, is the man tasked with changing that.
And he is now working on finding innovative ways to ensure youngsters today get to play on surfaces like the ones enjoyed by children across Europe.
The lack of quality pitches in this country stems from the government opting to spend it’s money elsewhere.
But while Clarke says that is understandable, it’s up to him to find the funds to improve facilities.
“Every government on the planet has to make tough decisions on where to spend their money,” he said. “People like me can whine about it or do something about it. My job is to fight for money and make sure we do our best as an FA to raise that money.
“But money is short. We are in difficult economic times. We have got a deficit to deal with.
“And the government is struggling to spend money on hospitals, schools, the armed forces and everything else.
“We have got to find innovative ways to do things. I can’t just jump up and down and say the government should spend more money.
“What we have to do is take the future into our own hands and find more money.”
Back in 2014, the FA unveiled plans to build more than 150 ‘football hubs’ across the country by the end of the decade.
And last month, Clarke threw his weight behind ambitious proposals to build a £1.6million football training centre in Shropshire.
It may be across the border, but it is exactly the type of project the FA chief believes can revolutionise the game at grassroots level.
Based at Telford College, the football hub will be built on land already owned by the college with its students then able to use the facilities during the day.
Members of the Shropshire FA are hoping to raise the funds needed for the project by working with local and national businesses as well The Football Foundation and the FA.
And Clarke believes projects like the ones proposed in Telford are the cheapest and best way to improve facilities throughout the country.
“Often you find when you get out and talk to people, you find that the FA can work with a local college, a local business and the Football Foundation and we can fund something together.
“For us it’s all about getting that shortage of facilities solved as quickly as possible.
“My job is to support projects like the one proposed in Telford. We want to see hubs like this built in towns and cities throughout the UK. By working together, we can build some wonderful facilities in a sensible and cost effective way.”
Clarke says facilities need to improve in order to make sure we continue to produce top-class footballers in this country.
But he says it’s not just pitches that need to be better.
The FA chief says there is a big issue with a host of young players not having access to changing rooms and warm water.
And he also feels more needs to be done to help parents so they aren’t simply stood watching in the rain.
“When you speak to coaches who are out there training kids, they tell you it is all about the surface,” Clarke continued. “If the ball runs true on a good surface, they can look up and think about what they want to do and still control it.
“If the ball is getting stuck in the mud or hitting loads of lumps and bumps, the kids get disheartened because they lose it.
“We have got to get pitches that are good enough for our youngsters to play on.
“Women’s football is now doing really well and we’re desperate to see it grow further.
“But when you talk to young boys and young girls, boys will happily get changed in the car park.
“Some girls aren’t happy with that and they are not being unreasonable – they just want changing rooms.
“It’s not just about artificial pitches, it’s about having changing rooms for kids playing the game, a bit of warm water – maybe even somewhere for their mum or dad to have a cup of tea rather than standing in the rain for two hours.
“People deserve that.”
Clarke says it’s vital the FA invest more money in the game to help everybody.
“We (the FA) get our money by selling our rights,” he said. “We have got an England team. We have got the FA Cup, the FA Vase and the FA Trophy.
“Our job is to raise as much money as we can and get it out and into football so we can invest in facilities, and referees, reward volunteers.
“It’s not just about the future of football. It’s about inclusion, it’s about physical health, mental health.
“If we are going to fight obesity, heart disease, diabetes, depression – getting people involved in sport and making new friends is the way forward.
“It’s about everybody, it doesn’t matter what ethnicity you are, if you have a disability, what gender you are. It’s about getting people healthy, enjoying themselves and enjoying playing sport.”
Clarke recently backed controversial plans to sell Wembley Stadium in a bid to find the funds to improve grassroots facilities.
Fulham owner Shahid Khan bid for the iconic ground, but that offer has since been removed. And Clarke feels the way the public was split on the issue means the FA would have been wrong to sell their home.
“The important thing for me when we first had the approach was that football got to have the debate,” he added. “There are people out there who think we should have sold Wembley. There are people out there, good people, who said ‘How can you sell the home of football’.
“This wasn’t a good guys and bad guys argument. This was people discussing in football, whether we should sell Wembley and invest the money in facilities.
“We never got to a vote, but on balance it was about 50/50.
“In order to make a major change like that, you have to have a big consensus. You need to have 60 per cent, 70 per cent of people saying you should do something.
“I am not a great believer in making fundamental changes without a consensus to support it.
“Otherwise, if it’s a 51 per cent/49 per cent split, the argument is never over – as we know!
“If you have going to have big change, build a consensus.
“I said to the FA board, this is too big a call for us to make. We need to go out into football, talk to the fans, talk to the clubs, talk to the leagues, talk to FA Councils.
“And it was 50/50. And that is not enough to sell a billion pound asset.”