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David James chats to FFT on the future of grassroots football - and the difference between himself and Manuel Neuer

David James
(Image credit: PA)

Former Liverpool, Aston Villa and Manchester City goalkeeper David James has spoken out about the effect that the coronavirus pandemic is having on grassroots football and how important it is not just for football but for communities in general that clubs of all sizes are saved.

The Switch Before Pitch campaign from Utilita - headed by James - is helping grassroots football clubs to save money and make money. According to a recent report from Utilita, one in ten clubs could be lost due to the financial implications of the pandemic.

 “There’s a vision that grassroots football is just a load of kids who play on Saturday morning down the local park,” James explained. “And there’s this other vision that it’s adults playing non-league level. And I think it’s everything. You know clubs that aren’t run as part of a professional entity are grassroots.”

“Since I’ve stopped playing, understanding what grassroots means, I go and watch Welwyn Garden City playing, my local team. I watched them the other night in the FA Cup qualifying round. So I go and support the team at grassroots level. I use their facilities, they have small 3G pitch there. I play leisurely.”

David James most recently donned his goalkeeping gloves again for Soccer Aid at Old Trafford. The 50-year-old only retired as recently as 2014 with Indian Super League side Kerala Blasters and has stayed in good condition. Given that the role of a goalkeeper isn't to scurry around the pitch for an hour and a half, what kind of level could James actually still play at, FourFourTwo wonders? Is a pentagenarian Premier League keeper a mere pipedream?

“People say to me, ‘Oh you can still play,’” James admits. “I can still do a lot of the stuff I was doing when I played and Manuel Neuer in the Super Cup is a great example. The guy kicked a few balls and made some great saves but for 120 minutes, it wasn’t like he was running around putting himself under loads of physical exertion.”

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“There are parts of the game I can still do - I can stand around the goal and shout at defenders - it’s not difficult - but in order to be able to make the save that won them the game towards the end against Youssef En-Nesyri, Neuer trains I’m sure two or three hours a day every day to be able to do that - and that’s something physically that I can’t do.”

“There’s a limit to what you can do and I saw this in India. I couldn’t physically do all the stuff required and management was exciting. I went back to India to manage again a couple of years later and management, leadership and problem-solving are things that you can do into your wily old years and that excites me as much as putting my shirt on and playing in games.”

David James

(Image credit: PA)

James is right. Even for goalkeepers, football is a more physical game than ever. And as someone now more involved at grassroots level, he can see an improvement in the physical aspects of the game even that far down the chain.

“I watched Welwyn Garden City score a goal the other day, and if it was in the Premier League, it would be shown time and time again.” he says. “Great quality, great build-up and the thing that struck me was the physicality of the players.

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“Considering what I was watching four years ago, the change in physicality, even at grassroots level is astounding. If you look at the women’s game and the physicality of the players now compared to ten years ago, it’s getting so much more athletic and logically so.”

“So for me, the signs for me were that this is not a game for people who do not have the physical attributes anymore.”

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