Chesterfield and Sheffield Wednesday star Ritchie Humphreys backs new grassroots football initiative

Ritchie Humphreys in action for Chesterfield.

Ritchie Humphreys in action for Chesterfield.

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“All of us from Sheffield know the city has a proud place in the history of football. It’s not just about Wednesday and United; Sheffield FC are also the global game’s oldest club.

“In a wider sense, Sheffield became the country’s first national city of sport in 1995 and is, of course, home to the English Institute of Sport. From cricket and athletics to swimming, and even snooker, we have the strongest international traditions for excellence and achievement.

Owls Ritchie Humphreys salutes the first of his two goals

Owls Ritchie Humphreys salutes the first of his two goals

“But for me, it always has to come back to football.

“It is our national game and having been fortunate enough to have more than two decades as a professional playing more than 700 games, I care passionately about its future. As a father-of-two, I want my son and daughter to be able to grow up surrounded by the game and to have the facilities and opportunities to play sport.

“That’s why it’s great as a Sheffield lad to see my city leading the way on a new pilot being introduced by The FA to get more artificial grass pitches and proper facilities.

“These will be based at football hubs at the heart of the community, retaining and boosting participation numbers. All forms of the game will be able to thrive, seven days a week, 52 weeks a year.

Our kids need places to play.

“They need coaches that will inspire them in the way I was inspired as a young lad turning out for Brunsmeer FC, Greenhill, Lowedges and Sheffield Boys and South Yorkshire Boys.

“Grassroots football was where it all began for me, Saturday and Sunday matches, summer kickabouts with my mates and knocking the ball around in the backyard after school until it was time for tea.

“They are special memories and I am sure the same for many of you. In truth, we probably look back through green-tinted spectacles remembering lush pitches and wide open spaces.

“Sure we’d play anywhere we could but, even then, places were at a premium.

“Things have got worse. Many pitches have disappeared; those left are often unplayable as soon as the first frost sets in or after one downpour too many.

“Population growth has increased demand on the few fields we do have and they are often neglected as government funding is all too readily diverted into other projects. Plus, in 2014, we need to know our kids are safe and protected.

“Football Association chairmam Greg Dyke invited me on to his Commission a year ago in my role as chairman of the Professional Footballers’ Association – and this was the area that most captured my imagination.

“Much was made earlier this year of other proposals around B teams or loan players but these were just that; proposals.

“Greg said you can’t have a debate about the future of English football – and chiefly opportunities for young players to realise their full potential – without considering all the options and he was right. Sure, some were controversial, but the debate is everything.

“We have had many meetings over several months and I am truly excited by the new plans for Sheffield to be at the heart of what could set grassroots football in this country on a different path.

“We get this right and we should soon have more Sheffield boys and girls growing up with the world, and not just a ball, at their feet.

* Ritchie Humphreys is chairman of The Professional Footballers’ Association and a member of The FA Chairman’s England Commission. The 36-year-old played more than 65 times for Sheffield Wednesday at the start of his career, before going on to represent Scunthorpe United, Cardiff City, Cambridge United, Hartlepool United and Port Vale. He is currently playing for Chesterfield.

READ MORE; FA chairman Greg Dyke writes to The Star.