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The Football Association

What we've learnt over the last year of coronavirus restrictions and how we're reopening from the third national lockdown.

30th April 2021

Name of project / organisation

The Football Association

Sport / activity


With the government's roadmap to recovery continuing and sport and physical activity continuing a gradual return, we've spoken to a number of clubs and organisations about their experiences during lockdown and what they've learnt over the last year that's helped them to reopen. 

Here, we talk to James Kendall, the director of football development at The Football Association.

A close up of a footballer as they prepare to take a throw-in

  • What’s the past year been like for you, as an organisation and the people you serve?

    Like many organisations during the pandemic, we have moved to remote working for the majority of us, apart from a skeleton staff at Wembley and St George’s Park.

    We’ve placed a real importance on regular, meaningful and open communications with everyone to ensure that they continue to feel connected and engaged. Within my division, we’ve established a pattern of regular informal and formal events ranging from whole virtual divisional days to keep everyone informed on updates across the business, to fun opportunities to stay in touch including pancake breakfasts and online Christmas parties.

    We’ve also stepped up our internal communications, ensuring visibility of our senior management team, and we’ve placed a big focus on mental health and wellbeing.

    We launched an internal Mental Health & Wellbeing Hub which has a growing collection of useful resources, videos and blogs which help our people tackle some of the mental health challenges many of us might have faced in the last year.

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  • How have you engaged and communicated with your grassroots participants through the coronavirus pandemic?

    Throughout the pandemic we have produced and regularly updated a suite of online guidance documents to support participants through the lockdown and return to play.

    We’ve tailored our communications, ensuring we cover all participants, parents and carers, officials and facility providers and provided practical support such as printable signage that can be used to help participants comply with coronavirus protocols.

    Clubs and leagues have also been able to access our online support hub and podcasts, which includes up to date information, guidance and advice as well as other useful information relating to funding and support services.

    Regular online webinars have provided support to clubs, leagues and coaches, helping us to stay connected.

    We also have 50 County FAs across the country, who have provided regular communications to the grassroots community in their area.

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  • Have there been any positives/opportunities emerging from what you’ve experienced over the past year? If so, what are they?

    Like many organisations and businesses during the pandemic, we have embraced new ways of working online and seen the benefit of supporting our stakeholders digitally. For example, over the last year, we’ve had more than 10,000 club and league volunteers attend our online training sessions, and we’ve had positive feedback on accessibility and content, which is pleasing.

    Internally, I also think that, despite the physical distance, in some ways it’s brought a lot of our teams closer together. Our people have really shown their resilience, but they’ve also checked in with each other more and as a collective we’ve become much more open around perhaps not feeling our best some days and how we can help each other through that.

    As an organisation, we’ve also had the opportunity to help others – whether that be by opening up Wembley Stadium’s empty kitchens to support charities feeding the vulnerable in London, using football as a force for good and helping the nation stay fit and motivated via our #FootballsStayingHome campaign, or our own colleagues volunteering at a local vaccination centre in Wembley.

    As with the rest of the country, we’ve seen the organisation really pull together to support each other and offer our help to others too.

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  • How did you plan for the reopening after this lockdown and what are the key elements your clubs/participants are having to do, in order to reopen and return safely?

    We have provided clear Covid-19 Return to Football guidance to all clubs, leagues and participants fully aligned to that provided by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, which will be updated at each stage of the country’s re-emergence from lockdown.

    As for all sports, the key is for the grassroots community to engage with the guidance and ensure their facilities are set up appropriately. We know how important this guidance is to everyone involved in the game and the additional burden it places on a largely volunteer workforce. The way clubs have responded has been extraordinarily impressive.

    We have offered, with the assistance of Sport England, funding to County FAs to provide discounted 2021-22 season affiliation to clubs and their teams, as we did for the current season. This will be available across the whole of affiliated football, assisting everyone with getting back to the game they love, and especially those from under-represented areas of the game such as women and girls, lower socio-economic groups, minority groups and disabled people.

    We, alongside Sport England, strongly encourage all of those restarting to ensure that everyone is able to benefit, no matter their age or gender, from fair and equal access to playing opportunities.

    Our ‘Return to Football Fund’, made possible with Sport England funding from the National Lottery, is also providing £2.1 million, targeted at supporting people in low participation groups to start playing again. It will also fund initiatives aimed at bringing new players into the game and cover the cost of adapting to coronavirus rules.

    Finally, alongside our partners at The Football Foundation, we also recently announced two other new funds to provide further financial support to clubs over the longer term. The £14 million Grass Pitch Maintenance Fund is providing six-year tapered grants to improve the quality of grass pitches, whilst the Small Grants fund is available to help clubs pay for essential equipment and machinery they need to start playing again.

    Clubs can apply for up to £25k to refurbish their changing rooms, pay for grass pitch drainage, new goalposts, pitch maintenance equipment and portable floodlights.

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  • What have you learned from the reopening process you went through after the first lockdown in 2020?

    The importance of clear guidance and providing it to the grassroots football community in a timely manner.

    Our guidance has gone through several iterations since the first lockdown and we’ve worked really well with governing bodies of other team sports, particularly the RFU, RFL, ECB, England Hockey and Netball, and alongside Public Health England and the government to ensure our protocols are robust and thorough.

    We’ve also introduced a process for tackling non-compliance, to support clubs and leagues where there are breaches of our guidance. We know that the vast majority of people have followed the rules, but we also know clubs wanted support from us when incidents of non-compliance did arise.

    It’s extremely important that everyone continues to follow the guidance as we move through the different steps of the government’s roadmap out of lockdown.

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Players set up the nets and corner flags for a football match

  • How are you reassuring your participants it’s safe to return to play?

    The safety and wellbeing of participants is certainly our priority and we’ve been clear that people should only return to play when they feel ready to do so.

    In light of the ongoing impact of coronavirus to grassroots football, and ahead of the most recent return, we decided to consult all involved in the game to gather feedback on their appetite to return and what, if any, their concerns were.

    More than 11,000 people responded. The desire to get back playing was overwhelming but the importance of clear guidance to make that as straight forward as possible was a priority.

    The medical evidence we gathered at the start of the pandemic was clear that football is safe to play, a position endorsed by the government and across the grassroots game. The focus of our guidance has therefore been off the pitch, in particular on spectators, hospitality and the use of indoor facilities.

    The exception to that rule has been disability football where the risk of playing has been felt more keenly, significantly impacting the amount of football played within that community. To try and address this, and with Sport England’s support, we have developed a digital campaign titled ‘Football Your Way’ to keep disabled footballers connected and active through football as they prepare for a return to play. This should be launched shortly.

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  • Has your sport posed any specific problems that other sports/activities may not encounter? If so, how have you worked to solve these problems?

    From regular discussions with other team sports, the variables we have all been playing with is ensuring safety on and off the pitch and supporting our competition structures.

    The latter is where the biggest point of difference has been for us, given the scale of grassroots football with 18,500 clubs, in excess of 100,000 teams and more than 1,000 leagues up and down the country. It’s impossible to have a one-size-fits-all solution to starting up grassroots football and closing out a season, so we decided to use our survey to consult on how the current 20/21 season should be finished and the appetite for football during the summer.

    Having analysed the results, we decided to extend the 2020-21 grassroots season until the end of June in order to provide additional flexibility and time for leagues to complete their fixtures this season if they wish to do so. Hopefully by providing this flexibility we’ve accommodated an extended return for those who want it.

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  • What does the future look like for your sport?

    I’m positive about the future. We’ve got our eyes wide open and are very realistic about the challenges for grassroots players, clubs and leagues as they emerge from the lockdown but the appetite to get back playing is high and we’ve already seen that translated on to the pitch.

    As you’d expect, dealing with the impact of coronavirus is our immediate focus – providing financial and business support to those that need it most whilst ensuring football can continue to be played in a safe and secure environment through The FA’s coronavirus guidance. 

    Beyond that, our commitment to grassroots football remains resolute and our recently launched Grassroots Strategy is a clear demonstration of our long-term ambitions, providing clear direction for the next four seasons and addressing the short, medium and long-term challenges to serve and lead the game for the many millions that play nationwide.

    We recognise there is a huge amount to achieve, but we have set ourselves the challenge and look forward to delivering on this strategy, which puts players at the very heart of everything we do.

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