On the eve of the World Cup the sports minister has warned English football it must do more about grassroots participation and increase the number of women around its boardroom tables as well as targeting elite success.
In the wake of the Richard Scudamore sexism storm, Helen Grant also called on the Premier League to do more to boost the women’s game and revealed plans for an “expert group” to promote the interests of fans.
Grant said that she was determined to see a large rise in the number of artificial 3G pitches made available for community use around the country and said the FA had to do more to improve participation.
Sport England figures published next week will reveal whether the FA has managed to stem the decline in the number of adults playing football that saw the quango dock £1.6m from the FA’s public funding.
Grant pointed to £180m invested in grassroots facilities over the last seven years by the Football Foundation – which is funded jointly by the Premier League, FA and the Department of Culture, Media and Sport – and £100m earmarked for the next three.
Critics claim grassroots facilities are in crisis and that the funding is a drop in the ocean in light of the £5.5bn in TV income generated by the Premier League over three years and the £300m per year that the FA earns.
“I want to see the game growing, I want to see them increasing their participation figures. In order to do that they’re probably going to have to step it up a bit, which I think they probably accept,” Grant said.
Like other governing bodies Grant wants the FA to be more creative and flexible in its offering and how the sport can fit into people’s lives.
She conceded more needed to be done to provide suitable pitches, particularly in light of cuts to local authority budgets.
“I want more than that. I want many more of these pitches up and down the country with good changing rooms,” she said. “They’re wonderful in terms of being able to play in most weathers, they’re great for community sport and they’re great for talent development.”
The FA chairman, Greg Dyke, is expected to announce a funding boost for 3G pitches as part of the next tranche of recommendations from his FA commission into homegrown talent.
The sports minister was appointed eight months ago to succeed Hugh Robertson and was almost immediately undermined by a sports trivia quiz in which she was unable to name the 2013 FA Cup winners or the winner of the women’s Wimbledon singles title. “I think most people who know me and sit down with me know me as a women who knows sport, cares about sport and understands it,” Grant said. “We’ve all been ambushed and caught out. You’ve got to put it down to experience and move on.”
A keen sportswoman all her life, Grant is convincing on the power of sport to change lives but appears to have less appetite to take on football’s antiquated structures – a challenge that has frustrated most of her predecessors.
Grant said an “expert panel” – to be made up of representatives from fan groups, leagues, governing bodies and other stakeholders – would be convened to make progress on issues including supporter ownership and ticket prices.
And she warned that, if governing bodies failed to meet her challenge of ensuring at least 25% of their board members were female by 2017, they could expect to have their Sport England funding cut.
“One of my priorities is women in sport. I’m completely passionate about it. I want participation to go up but I also want to see more women on sports governing bodies, shaping the direction of the sport for women,” she said.
She is “concerned”by the 1.8m “gender gap” between the number of women playing sport and the number of men and challenged the Premier League to do more to promote women’s football following the Scudamore row.
A new funding award of £2m has been allocated to the Equality and Human Rights Commission to be invested in programmes to promote diversity and equality in sport.
Grant will travel to São Paulo next week to see England’s second group match against Uruguay against a backdrop of concern over corruption allegations over the award of the 2022 World Cup.
She said the allegations were “very serious” but said she would wait for the verdict of investigating Fifa ethics chief Michael Garcia before passing judgment.
Back on the pitch, she backed Roy Hodgson’s England team to “put their heart and soul” into their World Cup campaign. “They’ve got substance and real togetherness,” she said. Like Hodgson, she called on her critics to judge her on results.
“I’m quite happy to be judged on what I do in this role rather than some sort of pub quiz that’s thrown at me at the end of a hard week in the freezing cold on a muddy pitch in Maidstone,” she said.
“I have a feel for this area, I love it, I understand it and I will not take prisoners in relation to it.”