children playing soccer

Under the shadow of Rodney Parade, a group a young boys and girls kick a ball around. Even though they are yards away from the home of Newport County, they are all wearing the shirts of either Chelsea, Liverpool or Manchester City.

The scene could be repeated throughout the country – just walk through the town centres of Cheltenham, Hereford or Telford: if someone is wearing a football shirt it is likely to be one of the big five Premier League teams and not their local side.

There can be no doubt, like or not, that the Premier League is one of the sporting successes of the past 30 years. The rundown, dilapidated stadiums with their reputations for trouble on the terraces have been left firmly in the past. The television and sponsorship money that football has attracted has made the sport a national obsession.

No one ever batters an eye when clubs regularly shell out £50 million for a player who will enjoy the type of wages in one week that an office worker will not earn in a lifetime. No wonder the youngsters kicking the ball around in Newport dream they will one day replace their replica shirt for the real one.

For all but the select few, it will remain a remote fantasy. Even for those who do sign with a professional club, life can be perilous. For a multitude of reasons, they can be released before they even make the first team.

That is why grassroots football is so important. Just 10 years ago, England International Jamie Vardy was plying his trade at non-league Stocksbridge Park Steels – having not made the grade with Sheffield Wednesday at 16. Further back, Ian Wright and Stuart Pearce both got a second chance in the lower leagues. Without them, all three would have been lost to the game.

To the many towns across the country, football – at whatever level – has huge impact on the local economy. Many of the local teams are well supported and will bring much needed revenue as fans enjoy a post-match pie or a pint.

Local clubs have also been involved in various outreach programmes. From supporting food banks to communicating with those isolating, football clubs around the country have been a focal point for many communities.

Their livelihood is therefore paramount not only to the continuation of professional football, but also to the wellbeing and welfare of many people. Of course, in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, this is under threat.

Without the regular income which comes from attendances at game, football below the Premier League and Championship is under threat. The football community must come together to do something now.

Even though some clubs do not know where the next penny is coming from, Premier League clubs are still able to shell out astronomical sums for players. To put it into context, £200,000 is just one week’s wages for the average Premier League player, but is four times the annual budget for Goole AFC.

So, what can be done? Asking the top-earning players to contribute one week’s wages to a charity which struggling clubs can draw on would only be a positive move for those who made enough to give something back. It is only a short-term fix. There needs to be a radical plan to secure football’s future.

Looking to other sports, the Horserace Betting Levy Board (HBLB) could be a model which football could adopt.

The Levy is collected from bookmakers as a percentage of their gross profit from horserace betting. Levy income from the HBLB for the year ending March 2020 was around £97million – just imagine the improvements that could be made to small football clubs with anywhere near that money.

While a large share of the levy is spent on prize money, it also provides funding for the breeding, training, and education projects, loans to racecourses, and the advancement of veterinary science – this could easily be replicated by football.

According to Deloitte, Premier League clubs spent a total of £1.6bn on transfers during the 2019/20 season. A levy of just 1% would generate £16 million. Money which would comfortably secure grassroots football for that year.

This levy could be administered as a co-operative trust. This would benefit the sport, as well as the countless communities who rely on local clubs. More importantly, for the countless youngsters across the country like the ones who were enjoying a kickabout in Newport, it will mean they can still enjoy football whatever level they find themselves at in future.