Wednesday, 10 October 2007

Spreading that football fever

First published in The Grecian, 09 October 2007, Exeter City -v- Salisbury City

As you settle down (or perhaps that should be ‘rev up’!) for another Exeter City home game here this evening at St James' Park, remember you’re not alone. And I’m not just talking about the people standing or sitting immediately beside you. Watching and playing football is a massive pastime.

It has been estimated that 25% of the world’s population are football supporters. It’s not simply headline-grabbing clubs in search of a growing market for their merchandise who signal a continuing public curiosity. More importantly, research suggests that ever-increasing numbers of people are identifying with the game in one shape or other.

That includes the young – as our own Red Army and junior set-up clearly shows. This in spite of the fact that school playing fields have been encroached on by developers in recent years, early attendance at live matches isn’t nearly as common as it used to be (a genuine concern I’ve mentioned before), and the media feed regular panics about kids obsessively glued to games consoles.

But let’s look on the bright side. The Internet and gaming has been a major tool for reaching new generations. For many, it’s never been easier to watch clips, find the latest news, figure out skills and tactics on screen, join a fantasy league, follow your favourite teams, or link up with others who share the passion.

Meanwhile, the English Schools’ Football Association champions a wide range of events, competitions and sponsorships. The FA’s ‘Get Into Football’ initiative targeted at young people involves 270 local development officers across the country. The pioneering Grassroots Football Show at Birmingham’s NEC has also been extended to three days (in 2008 it runs from 30 May to 1 June, if you have your diary to hand).

This reminds us that it’s at park level that football really takes a decisive hold. And not just among boys. More and more girls are taking up the game, with the success of the Women’s World Cup in Beijing reinforcing that trend. This season, junior leagues with players aged between 11-14 in two year bands have been able to apply to their County FA to deploy up to four girls. Hopefully that will grow.

The level and sophistication of interest has also changed dramatically over the past thirty years. When I was at school we had little tactical training, relatively few parents crossed the touchline, and until the age of nine or ten we tended to hunt the ball in packs rather than work in formation.

These days there are hundreds of thousands of volunteers engaged with junior football. Your neighbour could well be involved in youth coaching (the Association of Football Coaches welcomes teachers and junior coaches into membership, whether they have prior qualifications or not).

The kids certainly know an awful lot more, too. The other week a friend was telling me about a conversation among alarmingly young school players concerning the comparative quality of their “movement off the ball”.

Actually, movement off the ball was a skill I recall developing as a youngster, too. But not always deliberately. Things tended to go rapidly downhill once I had the thing at my feet. At least, that’s what my teammates figured. Perhaps that’s why they didn’t give it to me too much!

Of course, not all is sunshine and light with football in the community. Equipment, admin and clothing costs have rocketed. Life is busy. Other distractions have mushroomed. But the ability of the game to capture the imagination at all levels and among people of all ages has not diminished. That’s why you’re here today. And win, draw or lose, you can help keep the momentum going.

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