Grassroots Football – Is it ready for Change?? 

Is the structure of grassroots football in England helping us to produce world class players, game changers, intelligent players who are comfortable in possession of the ball when under pressure?



On the evidence of the past 20 years I have concluded that we are miles behind other many other nations despite our huge population and participation levels.


We have produced the odd high quality player but we consistently churn out robots.


In this article I will focus on the structure of the grassroots game particularly focusing on coach education, grassroots clubs and local leagues.


I believe we need to change culturally; we need to change the environment our kids are brought up playing in. Although this is not a straight forward task I am sure that with the right approach starting at the very root of the game with a strong development ethos we can make changes for the better. Let’s educate the new coaches to lead generations into the future and create a new culture within our game.


There is no doubt that times have changed and the majority of kids no longer begin their football journey by playing in the street or Local Park with their mates.


It’s absolutely imperative that this type of fun and freedom is replicated with kids as young as 4 now beginning their football journey with organised coaching often at a grassroots club.
I am convinced that nearly every coach wants the best for the kids and takes on the role with the very best intentions.


I recently witnessed an U9 coach turn up around 1 hour before the match, he built both goals himself, he put up the respect barrier and corner flags; he had absolutely no help. I seriously admired this man’s commitment. As soon as the game started it was clear he had set his lads up in a rigid formation and he was continuously bellowing instructions; “away” “get rid of it” “not there” “pass it” were his main phrases I noted. I made some discrete enquiries and the said coach was L1 qualified around 18 months previously and does not hold any Youth Modules. Clearly he cared deeply about the lads but I cannot help but conclude that he and his players have been failed by the system.


That coach was desperate to win and I am sure that most coaches and parents believe that results are a measure of success even at the very entry level. This belief has to stop before we can progress.


I am a very strong believer that our current structure is not fit for purpose and I believe the FA coaching education programmes, grassroots clubs and local leagues need a complete restructure. There are certain county FA’s, grassroots clubs and leagues that are very much on the right track but we need a universal approach throughout the entire country. Before writing this article I have spoken with a number of level 1 U7-9 coaches regarding their experiences and the overriding feedback I received was that the course did not fully prepare them for coaching 6-9 year old children. I don’t think anyone can seriously argue that the L1 is an appropriate entry.


There can be absolutely no doubt that coaches can shape the future of each individual child’s football journey both in terms of participation and development. Our population and participation levels are huge but these huge numbers are worthless if only a tiny percentage of children are getting access to quality coaching when they enter the game.


In many cases how players develop in their early years is pot luck; a good player can be developed into an excellent player by an exceptional coach and on the other hand an excellent player can be ruined by a poor coach/environment.

Below are lists of some points that often get lost when coaching at entry level grassroots –

  • Kids are not mini adults. How do the age in question learn/develop best (eg 5-8 year olds)
  • Mistakes are not bad they’re great for learning
  • The dribbler should be embraced – would you scream “pass pass pass” at Messi?
  • Development over winning
  • Leagues & trophies are of little importance
  • Set positions are negative
  • Practising set plays or drilled moves only creates robots
  • Bravery is not only about a strong tackle or ‘head in where it hurts’
  • Equal playing time important
  • Constant commentary from the side is not helpful
  • Chaos is positive for learning
  • Challenges through fun games in training are great for development
  • Free play, kids setting rules and no adults is great
  • Fun environment on and off the pitch is positive
  • Learn about each individual
  • Embrace the opposition make friends (maybe mix teams)
  • It’s a friendly grassroots match not a premier league match
  • Learn and embrace other cultures eg La Boca & Dutch street soccer

I am sure I have missed plenty but the point is that education of coaches has to focus on creating the right environment and be age appropriate.

Parent education is also a huge subject that needs further education. Dealing with parents should definitely be part of any coaching course but I see it ultimately as the league/county FA responsibility in conjunction with the grassroots club to ensure parental education is driven forward.

Each and every team should have a parent that takes responsibility for parental behaviour. Parents must be encouraged and allowed to participate within the club; many parents really enjoy the social side. Make them feel important and wanted and the majority will respond positively. I strongly believe that grassroots clubs should be environments that build social skills.

Club houses are a vital part of big grassroots clubs, kids will benefit from un-organized play (not necessarily football) after a match or during organised club events; let’s build a community.

However what almost every club and individual team in the country forgets is the voice of the kids. At every grassroots club kids should have a very prominent voice, their ideas are often far more creative than adults. When holding parents and club meetings it’s vital that the kids are involved it’s their club.

The same applies at training and match days give the kids responsibility and let them have a voice. The same applies at league meetings, why not have a child representative there for each team?

Guest writer

Richard Dalton