We need to make a stand for young footballers and their mental health – let them play – Robbie Savage
It’s time to make a stand and speak up for thousands of kids who want to play football again – but who are frustrated by the rules.
The mental health of young people is a vital investment in our future as a nation.
And that’s why, in Mental Health Awareness week, I decided it was time to make a stand and ask the Government, on behalf of every footballer under 18: Where is the pathway for junior and park-level football being able to restart?
I am lucky enough to have been involved in football all my life as a player from grass roots to captaining four Premier League teams and winning 39 caps for my country.
But I have never been more concerned about the future of the game unless we look after the next generation and their mental well-being.
I live in a household with two teenage boys – one at a Premier League club academy, and the other who plays for a grass-roots team on Sunday mornings.
Two months of lockdown has had a negative effect on them because they are frustrated at not being able to play the game they love.
And we are lucky enough to have a garden: We are not confined to a high-rise apartment in an inner city with no open spaces.
Being involved in an academy with 2,500 kids, I can feel the frustration growing among the kids and their parents.
I talk to lots of academy coaches all over the country, and I am aware of parents who are at the end of their tether because their sons and daughters are feeling virtually imprisoned by the strict rules.
They can see their friends playing other sports, notably tennis and golf, with someone from outside their household and yet football – the most global sport of all – is applying Government guidelines on safeguarding to the letter.
When will the Government and the FA allow one-on-one coaching in line with social distancing and safeguarding measures?
I understand we needed to lockdown when the pandemic was tightening its grip two months ago.
I understand that it was necessary for all sports, including football, to shut down in the wider interests of public health.
And I understand the need for safeguarding of youngsters under 18. I totally get it.
But surely it is in the national interest, not least for the mental well-being of our kids, that they are able to play football again – even if it’s just training one-on-one with a qualified coach – for an hour each week as a release?
Huge resources are being poured into trying to restart the Premier League and the EFL’s two upper divisions (League Two have already called a halt to the 2019-20 season), and I hope they succeed.
It’s important that the professional game returns as soon as possible – and, most importantly, when it is safe to do so.
But I can’t understand why governing bodies from other sports are allowing one-to-one coaching sessions with juniors but the Football Association guidelines, updated on May 13, do not allow individual coaching sessions with under-18s.
In the Mirror earlier this week, former Premier League footballer Marvin Sordell warned of a possible “tidal wave” of young footballers suffering from mental health problems in the fall-out from this pandemic.
And that’s why I’m standing up for all the youngsters who want to play football – within the rules laid down by the Government – and who can see their mates playing golf or tennis.
Why is it OK to drive for 90 minutes to observe social distancing on a beach but not to kick a football around on an open space or park with a qualified coach?
How are there fewer risks by sending kids back to school next month, in classes of 20 or 30 pupils and a teacher, than practising football skills in the fresh air?
I’m pleased for young people who have access to a golf course and a set of clubs, or a public tennis court.
But there are thousands, probably tens of thousands, of teenagers who have been ordered to stay indoors for two months when they just want to kick a ball around.
Anyone can play football – in the street, in the park, in the school playground. It’s the most accessible game in the world… so why is it the most inaccessible when Britain is supposed to be loosening lockdown?
And why are kids being denied the chance to interact with, and to learn from, thousands of qualified grass-roots coaches who could facilitate organised sessions, one-on-one, with social distancing and safeguarding rules all observed to the letter?
Yes, let’s beat this terrible virus.
Yes, let’s observe the rules.
Yes, let’s make sure it is SAFE to play football again – whether it’s one-on-one training sessions or 11 against 11 on the pitch.
But if kids are allowed to play golf, tennis, athletics or go fishing, surely there is a way to accommodate football as well.
That’s why I wanted to ask a question at the Downing Street media briefing.
Come on, Minister: Let the kids play.