Opinion: FA’s decision to close Norwich City Girls Centre of Excellence is ill-informed
- Credit: ©Archant Photographic 2008
Whenever a major sporting event comes around – and we fail miserably as we have in the last two football World Cups – questions are asked about our ability to consistently produce top athletes and players.
Of course, there are exceptions, areas where we excel such as in rowing and cycling and the nation will never forget how British athletes performed at the London Olympics nearly three years ago now.
But still, we seem unable to get close to clinching the truly great global sporting prizes and every time such failure happens the spotlight falls on how we attempt to identify and nurture young athletes, of either gender, in an array of sports from grass-roots levels.
In the last few days, that process has received a major setback in the eastern region at a time that a Sport England report showed Norfolk people are among the worst in the region when it comes to taking our 30 minutes of daily exercise, with women supposedly the least active in the country.
What is so frustrating is at a time that we are depicted as being among the worst performers, a thriving and innovative centre – a beacon of sporting excellence which has produce high-quality girl footballers – is being shut down as the FA withdraws funding. (The FA is, of course, the poor relation of the Premier League which has just sold the rights to show live matches for £5.14bn in a TV deal).
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The Norwich City Girls Centre of Excellence, which has been well run for 17 years, is an organisation where 70 girls are coached to high levels of technical ability and play in matches where they more than hold their own against the likes of Arsenal, Gillingham, Brighton, MK Dons and Lincoln.
But at the end of this season, all that will end.
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Apparently, the FA suggests it is because of a lack of talent coming through from the eastern region and the distances to travel to Norwich, but that seems odd given the centre already has players in the England set-up.
It proposes a new structure – without the Norwich centre involved and able to offer talent at national level. Behind-the-scenes efforts are being made locally to continue to provide girls' football at such a level but, in essence, Norwich has been relegated in the national structure.
In reality, there are no complaints about distances from players and families of all teams involved. The FA's decision is ill-informed, casting aside Norwich because it doesn't fit snugly into its new structure.
For these girls, who train twice a week in all weathers and play or train again on a Saturday, this is more than football. They rise at 6am to travel away to play Gillingham, in Kent, or to Lincoln without complaint.
With a cheerful demeanour, the U11s, U13s, U15s and U17 girls all travel on the coach together, with the younger ones seeing the older girls as role models and aspiring to their success. It is a motivational, inspirational environment.
Coached to a high standard, these players learn the positive values of the game: camaraderie, teamwork, leadership, work ethic, life skills and responsibility through their sport and have immense pride in pulling on the Norwich City shirt.
They also know how to conduct themselves on and off the pitch; they grow as characters and gain confidence as well as developing their footballing abilities.
There is also much the male game could learn from these girls and their coaches – there is honesty and sportsmanship, respect for opponents and officials, and a code of conduct which is adhered to – and signed up to by parents too.
Why this decision has been difficult to understand is that it coincides with the damning Sport England report.
The sports partnership organisation Active Norfolk – which has received £450,000 of Sport England funding since 2013 – blames rural isolation and an ageing population.
Possibly true. But young girl footballers – and their dedicated families – aren't put off by this isolation, with many travelling in from Diss, Cromer, Hunstanton and Great Yarmouth for training sessions in Norwich. And as they grow, it is these girls who will take the values of sport and exercise into adulthood.
What this state of affairs demonstrates is the need for more joined up thinking and funding.
Little over a tenth of this £450,000 would help keep the Norwich City Girls Centre of Excellence running.
Its closure is a retrograde step at a time that the FA should be investing in young talent, not stifling it.
Hopefully, there will be another centre emerge for these talented girls to continue to showcase their skills and represent Norfolk as a successful female footballing county.
But on a broader stage, now is the time for the FA, Active Norfolk and Sport England to work together for the good of sport in the region rather than see a thriving organisation fall by the wayside.
Perhaps then – with cohesion and teamwork – we will get the desired results.