FORMER England international footballer Martin Keown visited future stars from Rotherfield United on Saturday to celebrate the club’s success.
The club won the FA Charter Standard Development Club award in last year’s FA Community Awards and Keown talked to players and coaches about the set-up at Bishopswood Sports Ground.
He also watched training sessions across the various age groups, took part in a question and answer session about his own grassroots career and gave a pre-match team talk to the club’s senior reserve team before its match against Eldon Celtic.
Keown, who won 43 caps for his country, told the Standard he was impressed with the volunteers who have helped the club thrive. He said: “It’s not an easy task, I can tell you, having to manage with the numbers and the weather conditions but they’ve all done really well.
“They’re doing this every Saturday and it’s a fantastic effort to get all these youngsters right from the age of five all the way to the men’s team.
“Fortunately, here they own this site so they can play whenever they want to. They love their football and there were also some girls here. To see their faces was a pleasure for me.”
Keown, a centre back who won three Premier League titles, three FA Cups and a Cup Winners Cup medal while playing for Arsenal, said clubs such as Rotherfield United were “imperative” in football.
He said: “Everyone will see the finished article in years to come but this is where it all starts. Without these people there aren’t going to be professional footballers in the future.
“But never mind whether they are professional footballers or not, it’s good for their wellbeing, health and it’s great on a Saturday morning to get these kids out and about so they’re doing something.
“Just a small percentage of these might go on to become professional footballers and they will be the success stories but you have to have a word for the people who put in their time and energy.
“It would be easy just to lie in bed on a Saturday morning but these people get up with lots of enthusiasm because they love the game.”
Keown, who also played for Reading, started his career playing for similar grassroots in Oxford, where he was born. He said the coaching he received by “great people who loved the game” was essential to his development.
“There’s a certain way you have to work with young kids,” he said.
“You have to nurture them so they don’t lose their self esteem because we don’t want to lose people right at the start. They are the most difficult years when you first start to do anything. You don’t want to give up before you have an opportunity to do your best. That’s what they’re trying to do here.”
Rotherfield United is currently in its 40th year and now has 300 youngsters playing for the club as well as two men’s teams. Last year, it bought the sports ground.
Chairman Andy Davies said the growth of the club and the way it developed football in the local area had impressed judges on the awards panel.
He said: “Martin coming along has been fantastic for the club.
“What has been really surprising but also fantastic is the way Martin engaged and spent quality time with players, coaches and parents. He’s coached the coaches as well so we’ve found that really beneficial.”