A Schoolboy Error

This article originally appeared in the Prescot Cables v Radcliffe Programme, 26th January 2019. I'm republishing it now (July 2020) as the English Schools' FA has effectively barred seven schools from nominating players to a local District Schools' FA.

From a public relations perspective, it hasn’t been a great few weeks for the national governing bodies in charge of English football. At club level, The Football Association has been roundly criticised for implementing rules first drawn up in 2014  while in schools’ football a furore has broken out about the future of local representative teams.

The Knowsley Schools’ FA can select players to represent the borough from just six secondary schools, meaning that they were struggling to recruit enough players to fill their teams, which play at Under-13, Under-14 and Under-15 levels. St Helens has just 11.

With both districts struggling to put teams out (St Helens had actually not fielded teams for many years), the volunteers running them got together over the summer and agreed to merge to form a single body to provide youngsters with the opportunity to play. The proposal was ratified by the Merseyside County Schools’ FA and – according to the new Knowsley & St Helens SFA – the English Schools’ FA (ESFA) were notified, but did not respond to the correspondence.
The new combined squads had some success – the Knowsley & St Helens Under-13 team reached the Fourth Round (last 16) of the ESFA Trophy – a national, inter-district cup. However, it was at this point that the ESFA decided, following their AGM, that the merged Association did not “constitute an affiliated Association” and that the Under-13 team would therefore be removed from the National Cup (and everything else, for that matter).

At this point, I should declare an interest. In addition to my involvement with Cables and Ashford Town (Middlesex), I am the General Secretary of the Middlesex Schools’ FA. Having moved away from the area, my role is one of overseeing and administering the Association rather than directly running any of its competitions. But I can tell you that there are two boroughs within Middlesex with 29 and 31 secondary schools respectively, who do not field Representative Teams at any age, due to a lack of volunteers or local infrastructure.

It’s for this reason that I find the position of the ESFA rather disheartening.  A volunteer-run organisation, with children from just 17 schools to select from, has done brilliantly in the highest level of football available to them. By contrast, only one borough from Middlesex (Hillingdon, which has 28 schools from which to draw players) reached the Fourth Round, where their team was eliminated. To my mind, the whole point of schools’ football is to get children playing; representing the borough or County is an honour for those selected and to prevent students from participating for administrative reasons seems perverse, particularly when Knowsley & St Helens have never sought to hide the fact they have pooled their resources. The new side’s fixtures are still shown on the ESFA website, under the name ‘Knowsley’.

Having received letters from both borough councils and received a lot of attention in the media (both traditional and social), ESFA released a statement, distancing itself from various social media posts and commenting that:

“The Association does not disclose details of or comment on specific cases, however would like to go on record to state that all applications for associations to amalgamate are considered in line with Association rules, as are decisions on participation in National Competitions. In the interest and integrity of the ESFA’s National Competitions and of Schools’ Football as a whole, it is essential for the ESFA to uphold its own regulations.

“As the National Governing Body, the ESFA has an obligation to its members to ensure the Association adheres to its own policies, procedures and regulations, to continue to enable schools’ football to take place in a fair and safe environment across the whole of England.”

Basically, the ESFA’s position is ‘rules is rules’ and that’s the end of it. Which would be fair enough, if they had come to that conclusion at the start of the season. By the time the decision became public knowledge, Knowsley & St Helens had beaten Hyndburn & Ribble Valley 6-0, Calderdale 3-0, and Wirral 5-1.

To my mind, as the new team has been allowed to progress so far in the competition, they ought to be allowed to play on. It is not the fault of the boys in the squad (who are in school years 7 & 8) that someone in the ESFA Office took their eye off the ball.

These are local kids, who might never get another opportunity to represent their District on the national stage. Furthermore, the upset caused by being removed from the competition so late in the day may cause players and volunteers alike to walk away from football altogether, through sheer disillusionment.

It would be brilliant for the children involved were the ESFA to say ‘we haven’t dealt with this in the right way, we will let the team play on’. Sadly, years of experience tell me that isn’t going to happen.

© 2020 Gareth Coates