'Now, footballers are treated like pop stars. In my day, you were just footballers'

SIX miles south of Sheffield nestled in the foothills of the stunning Peak District National Park, Dronfield is an unlikely staging post for a footballing revolution.

Yet this little town is at the forefront of the drive to improve the nation's sporting facilities and discover and nurture the potential stars of tomorrow. It is home to Gosforth Fields, a new 2.4m community sports complex that houses both the town's football clubs and Dronfield Rugby Club. The 25-acre site includes seven full-sized football

pitches, two rugby pitches, as well as an impressive, floodlit artificial grass pitch. It also boasts a clubhouse with eight changing rooms, a function room and even an IT suite.

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For Sir Trevor Brooking, who officially opened it, Gosforth Fields represents the future of sport in this country. "Football gets criticised sometimes for being awash with money, but at the grassroots end it does tend to struggle and what we try and do at the FA is recognise projects like this, because they play a huge part in getting people involved in sport," he says.

Gosforth Fields was funded, in part, by the Football Foundation and is a model of what can be done, not by imposing facilities where they aren't needed, but by upgrading those that already exist. Money for the development of grassroots football in this country is channelled through the Football Foundation, set up a decade ago. It receives 40m a year from the Premier League, Football Association (FA) and the Government to improve the sporting infrastructure. This seems a lot, but when you consider that a further 2bn is needed to bring local facilities up to scratch, it doesn't sound quite so impressive.

Sir Trevor, the FA's director of football development, admits that in the past we've lagged behind our European neighbours when it comes to supporting sport at grassroots level.

"In other countries like France and Germany, sports facilities like this are put in by local authorities because they believe communities need something to do. But in this country it's never been a statutory requirement, so unfortunately it comes down to the luck of the draw where you live and the commitment of the local authority to provide facilities."

The 61-year-old former West Ham United and England star believes it's become harder for today's youngsters to play sport. "We used to have a lot more open space. In east London, where I lived, I used to hop over the fence of my local school and play with my mates until it got dark and then we wandered home.

"Now, because of all the social issues, a lot of the mums and dads won't let their children go off unattended so informal kick-abouts that we used to enjoy have gone. Most of the time now sport has to be structured, whether it's through schools or junior clubs, but this requires a lot of time and effort."

Back in 2000, Brooking claimed that grassroots football in England had been neglected for 20 years and it would be a decade before we started to see changes.

So have things improved?

"We have better facilities but I still think we haven't recognised coaching as a proper profession." The FA is still trying to get the National Football Centre at Burton-on-Trent up and running which Brooking says would make a big difference. But the key, he believes, is changing the coaching ethos in this country.

"We need to teach kids the basics, how to control the ball rather than having them launch it 60 yards downfield, because in the long run they're not developing the skills they need," he says. "I think we have some great players, but in a country with a population of 60 million we should have more depth and that will come from improving the quality of coaching for younger age groups. At the moment, academies offer scholarships at 16 or 17, but by that time it's too late, you need

to have these at a younger age."

As the Jesuits might have said, give me the boy at seven.

Brooking was brought up in the 1950s when two teams – Real Madrid and Manchester United – left an indelible mark on football. "Real Madrid had three players in particular – Puskas, Di Stefano and Gento – who could take your breath away and on our black and white TV I used to watch them transfixed. Then the Busby Babes came along, they were a fantastic young team and the Munich disaster shocked me as I'm sure it did every young footballer."

In 1965, he joined his local team, West Ham, and within a year found himself in the same dressing room as three World Cup winners – Bobby Moore, Geoff Hurst and Martin Peters. Brooking, who won 47 caps for England, made 635 appearances and scored 102 goals for the club during a remarkable 19-year career. Indeed, he's held in such high esteem that last year one of the stands was named after him, an honour that hitherto only the great Bobby Moore had been afforded.

It's a far cry from the early days when he was just starting out. "The maximum wage was lifted just before I started playing and I remember at the time my careers officer wasn't too impressed when I talked about football as a career because it wasn't that lucrative. So I went to college and did a business studies course just in case things didn't work out."

These days, much is made of the outlandish salaries paid to some top footballers, but Brooking says it's nothing new. "People sometimes ask

whether I'm envious of the wages players get now, but during my time as a player they were saying the same thing to people like Stanley Matthews and Tom Finney who played for 10 quid a week."

One thing that has changed, though, is the dwindling number of home-grown footballers playing in the Premier League. Only 37 per cent are English, compared with more than 70 per cent in Spain and more than 60 per cent in Italy.

"In my day, it used to be said that you needed two, or three Scots in your team to be successful, but now you're lucky if you have two, or three English players in the team. So we do need to push this up, although I'm not one of those in favour of imposing quotas. I think players should be there on merit not because someone says there should be 'x' number of Englishmen in a team, that just devalues the game," he says.

He doesn't refrain from tackling controversial subjects, such as the influx of foreign players, although his answers belie a natural diplomacy that has served him well during his post-playing career. "I think the quality of the overseas players has improved our better players, but along the way there have some players who aren't so good and that can be hugely frustrating when they're blocking the progress of young English players, so it's about finding a balance."

He believes the recession may inadvertently help the situation. "The economic crunch and the strength of the euro means that any English

club buying overseas players will pay a third more for them and I think some clubs won't be able to afford it, so they'll be a growing need for better home-grown talent to come through."

When it comes to England's World Cup prospects this summer, he's understandably cautious. "If we get knocked out early, we're called the worst team in the world and if we do well we're world beaters, when in reality we're somewhere in between. Spain and Brazil are the favourites but if we can get everyone fit then I think we can do well."

For all his optimism about the future of the game in this country, he laments some of the changes that have happened.

"I was a West Ham fan before I started playing for them and I used to go and watch them with my family, but football's become less accessible to more kids because the cost of going to matches has increased so much," he says.

"These days footballers are treated like pop stars, whereas in my day you were just footballers. When I played abroad with England some players would go for a drink with the journalists and fans, but that just wouldn't happen now. The relationship with the players has changed, but that's life and you learn to live with it."