After a year where they have placed grassroots football at the very bottom of their priorities time and again, it was somewhat surprising to see the Football Association of Wales end 2020 with a self-congratulatory splash on their work at that level of the game.
Here we are, about to round off an horrendous year for many areas of Welsh sport due to the coronavirus pandemic, and the FAW Trust releases a lot of words slapping itself on the back.
Since senior football was halted in March, the bottom two tiers of the new Welsh football pyramid, 4 and 5, have been pretty much forgotten.
Not an ounce of hope yet as to when we might see a competitive ball kicked again.
We had a series of friendlies in November and December, which was good, but held under strict restrictions and was nothing like the real thing.
Of course, the FAW have been happy to take registration fees off these ignored clubs, yet have offered more or less nothing in return.
They allowed the tier 1 Cymru Premier League for men and women to return under ‘elite status’ in September – the potential money loss from Uefa was too large for them not to implement that.
Not much thought for the clubs themselves though, who have had to play all matches behind closed doors.
Towards the end of the year, the tier 2 Cymru North and Cymru South were also brought under the ‘elite’ banner, but apart from a round of the Nathaniel MG Cup where not every club played, that particular avenue is back on hold.
The late, late pre-Christmas lockdown announced by the Welsh Government, placing the north in tier 4 when the figures did not merit it, meant ‘elite’ no longer applies. The Cymru Premier is suspended and the planned January 15-16 league start date for Cymru North/South held back, awaiting new instructions from Cardiff.
We were also told tier 3 – which includes Ardal North East and Ardal North West – was being considered for the ‘elite’ band, but nothing was confirmed and we remain at square one there.
A large slice of the FAW Trust’s end of year boasting centres on work done for junior football and credit where it’s due, some good adjustments have been made in that area.
However, what about the decision to ban parents from watching their kids play, yet Trust scouts are happily going from game to game to watch various academy sides on the same day.
The FAW place a big emphasis on this #togetherstronger message, yet since March it’s all been about ‘elite’ footballers.
No regard at all for the lower levels of football in Wales, which missed out on end-of-year lottery funding (tiers 3, 4 and 5). The clubs in tier 4 and 5 especially are sick and tired of being treated like non-entities.
Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year FAW/FAW Trust. But don’t forget that while you have made progress in some areas this year, you have been woefully lacking in others. Half-truths don’t wash.
Out of courtesy, here is the FAW Trust statement released to the media this weekend…..
Back in January ambitious plans were made to develop football, across Wales.
By March, the Coronavirus pandemic meant many of them were put on hold as the nation went into lockdown.
But, through this tough time, an army of amazing football volunteers, in every corner of Wales, made sure their clubs have continued to engage with their members and played an important role within their communities.
Head of Football Development Aled Lewis said: “This year has been a challenge for everybody but the pandemic has shown how resilient and innovative our clubs, leagues and partners are and I’ve been really overwhelmed by how flexible and adaptable they’ve been to deliver a range of different activities during lockdown and quickly implement the COVID-19 guidelines to keep everybody safe as we returned to football.”
Clubs with disability teams faced many logistical problems and most have had to be very adaptable to implementing the FAW guidelines into their own settings.
One of our priorities for 2020 was to implement major changes to mini-football and Wales’ new small-sided football regulations were created after many years of researching and consulting with players, clubs and leagues to identify the best ways to develop our young players.
The new regulations were approved by our Community Game Board in early July and were launched with a series of webinars for clubs and leagues during the same month.
Unfortunately, due to COVID-19 restrictions most leagues weren’t able to implement them until October.
Aled said: “It’s been brilliant to see how the whole of Welsh football has come together and supported each other in 2020 as we’re all facing the same pandemic and it isn’t unique to just certain parts of Wales.”
But even during the depths of lockdown, some football activity was able to continue.
Our Huddle, Fun Football and Footie Families programmes were all adapted to allow younger children to fall in love with football at home, alongside parents, siblings and anybody else in their household.
These digital resources were created by our innovative football development team, who made sure kicking footballs became a part of lockdown life in every corner of Wales.
Aled said: “We would have loved to have delivered more football opportunities in-person and been able to expand our provision but it was difficult because of the pandemic.
“What we did manage to do was pleasing because we’ve been able to engage with new players, volunteers and parents through our online engagement, Huddle at Home sessions and the delivery of our Grassroots Football Awards virtually.
“These not only gave families an opportunity to participate in football during lockdown but provided many with relief and respite from what was obviously a challenging time. Credit must go to our fantastic Football Development team who created and provided these digital opportunities and it will become part of our plan to ensure football is available and open to all and everybody gets the same level of opportunity to play.”
In 2021 there is hope that football can flourish in the ‘new normal’ and our key priorities are as follows …
Continue to support clubs and leagues to return of football safely
Support leagues to implement small-sided football regulations at U12s and U13s age groups
Deliver a series of engaging events to connect the football family to Wales’ participation at EURO 2020
Provide more opportunities for girls to play in a school setting through our Disney Playmakers and Be Football programmes
Increase the number of Huddle centres across Wales
Launch our online club support platform ‘Club Cymru’
Further support clubs and leagues in providing inclusive opportunities
Increase the network of disability specific football opportunities across Wales
Establish a network of engaging school-based participation, competition and educational opportunities