Mark Douglas: Time for the FA to start watering the grass roots

Tale of reluctant Buckinghamshire coach tells you everything you need to know about state of the game

Action Images / Lee Smith Tottenham's caretaker manager David Pleat
Tottenham's caretaker manager David Pleat

In a glitzy conference hall in the stunning coastal resort of Bahia this afternoon, the most predictable journey in football will begin.

Over the next nine months English football will hurtle head-first into its longest inquest.

The process begins with the tortured draw ceremony and will end – with all the inevitability of a Howard Webb refereeing horror show – in a sad exit at the hands of the first half- decent team they come across.

Sorry to spoil your summer, but have we really seen anything to suggest England are at the start of a great leap forward?

Let’s face facts: the England team has been going backwards for a decade but when the recriminations begin after the Three Lions are tamed by more savvy, sophisticated opponents this summer, no one will mention Justin Byrne’s name. They should.

Mr Byrne is the coach of Chalfont St Peter’s under-10s in Buckinghamshire, who hit the headlines this week after firing off an email to upset parents telling them the only thing which mattered was winning.

Hr wrote: “Those who are not as good need to work harder or demonstrate more during training, or change sports.”

So far, so panto villain, right? The committee at Chalfont asked him to step aside and the 42-year-old businessman – an Australian to boot – is now considering legal action.

Delve a bit deeper, however, and it isn’t quite as clear cut.

It turns out Mr Byrne only volunteered to help out because there was no one else to do it.

He stepped in when it looked like his son’s team might fold, disappointing the nine-year-olds who simply wanted to play. He doesn’t even like football. Positively hates it.

“Rugby is a better sport. It produces well-disciplined young men who are respectful and team-focused,” was the sign-off of his missive.

In Greg Dyke’s position, Mr Byrne would be one of the first people I’d summon to the troubled FA commission. Forget Danny Mills and Dario Gradi, the man from Buckinghamshire might give him more of an insight into the real problems facing the game at grassroots level.

For whatever you might think of Mr Byrne’s standpoint, the very fact someone with pretty open contempt for the game is involved at such a pivotal stage of development cannot be good for the future of football.

How has that been allowed to happen?

Why are there are no FA-sponsored incentives to entice more willing dads? Most crucially – why are there are no quick courses they can take to teach them the coaching basics?

The FA might respond by pointing to the myriad courses available – the Tesco Skills courses and the McDonalds coaching workshops they endorse and run.

Good work, undoubtedly, will be done by them and by Premier League club’s Foundations.

Yet David Pleat summed it up a few weeks ago when he pondered on national radio what they actually do. If Pleat, still heavily involved in the game after a rich and successful career at its top level, doesn’t know how they work what hope do people like Mr Byrne have? It can’t be a matter of funding, for the Premier League announced quietly last Saturday that £96million had leaked out of the game in the way of agents’ fees over the last 12 months.

Any sport which can afford to line the pockets of outsiders to that tune can surely spare enough to prevent reluctant coaches like Mr Byrne teaching the younger generations how to play the game.

Junior football moulds youngsters’ relationship with the game and can be an incredible force for good, which is why it persuades an army of willing parents, teachers and volunteers to lend their time free.

It is high time the FA started to nourish its grassroots to prevent anyone else from being effectively forced into coaching a sport they don’t love. An arch-pragmatist like Mr Byrne would surely approve.


David Whetstone
Culture Editor
Graeme Whitfield
Business Editor
Mark Douglas
Newcastle United Editor
Stuart Rayner
Sports Writer