Football can make a big difference to people’s lives. It is our national sport, after all, stirring unbridled passion and human emotion in its rawest form. Exactly how much of a transformative impact it can have on people’s lives is astonishing.
The full scale of football’s power to engage was revealed in a presentation at the UK Coaching Summit publicising the strategic partnership between Leicestershire Police Force, Leicester City FC and the Premier League.
Since joining the Premier League Kicks programme, Leicester City FC Community Trust has set up free football sessions in the most impoverished areas of the city.
The activities run in alignment with Leicestershire Police’s youth crime strategies, designed to help disaffected inner-city youths make more positive life choices.
Through the parallel Community Champions initiative, which offers informal sports education workshops, qualifications and courses to those from lower socio-economic backgrounds, scores of young people have been given opportunities for employment and a foot up onto the career ladder.
They have become role models in the process, encouraging others living in deprived pockets of the community not to succumb to a life of crime.
By joining forces, the three-way community alliance has maximised the impact of using the beautiful game as an enabling tool to unite, educate and engage those from hard-to-reach, high-need and at risk areas of the city with a view to bettering their chances in life.
Crime prevention strategy
‘The diverse areas we targeted were seeing knife crime, guns and gang wars and the cohesion of the community was not there. In these types of areas it is young people versus the older people and young people versus the police, leading to jail, drugs and death.’
A graphic synopsis of the problems facing inner-city communities in Leicester, provided by PC Rob Evans, a Neighbourhood Officer (or ‘beat bobby’ in old school language) who has been involved with the Kicks project since its inception in 2014.
‘These young people are on the precipice of making the wrong choices in life. Some of them have already made the wrong choices,’ he added.
‘They live in a cocoon lifestyle. We are taking them beyond that and it’s all having a valuable impact.’
This impact can be measured in monetary terms to the tune of £100,000 a year per person.
This is the estimated outlay incurred (according to a costing exercise undertaken by PC Evans) of sending a single offender through the judicial process, culminating in a prison sentence and re-education following their release.
‘The police force has reduced budgets so we need to be smarter in the way we work in terms of engaging with young people and critical communities.’
Reducing the cost of crime by breaking the vicious ‘prison-reoffending-prison’ cycle is a major priority, but the economic benefits are secondary to the social and psychological impact the project is having – in terms of people’s personal growth, wellbeing and career prospects and the long-term effect on community cohesion and society as a whole.
Four pillars of youth work
Cevil Bishop is the second half of the double act. Known as CJ to those he works with, he is a youth worker for LCFC Community Trust.
He hails from the same tough, austerity-plagued streets as those he now helps mentor, having grown up in the densely populated St Matthews inner-city estate, one of the poorest communities in the UK.
His background helps him form an initial contact, he says.
And CJ has another thing in common with many of Leicester’s young housing estate residents: a love of sport – having played professional basketball in Serbia before he began to work with young people as a behaviour mentor.
‘Once you’ve got them on board, and if you can tap into where they want to go, and what their talents are, then you can put them on that positive path and help them think more critically about enhancing their learning and their educational experience.’
CJ started at the Trust in his second year at university, where he studied Youth Work and Community Development and where he learned that underpinning all work undertaken with young people is the principle that ‘all practice is educative, expressive, participative and empowering’.
These four pillars of youth work are intrinsic to developing successful engagement strategies.
‘You have to create an environment where they want to be. Young people don’t necessarily want to play football every week, but they do want to feel safe and they do want to come and talk. It’s about empowerment and ownership.
‘Giving them roles and peer mentor status within their satellite centres is key to growing numbers and keeping them engaged and, ultimately, in seeing them flourish. It is important in my role, therefore, to apply your softer skills.’
Getting your kicks
So while CJ provides important input on life skills, organises the football and coaching sessions, and designs pathways that divert participants towards taking courses and qualifications, PC Evans and his team deliver workshops to young people on knife crime, drug-related crime, hate crime, race-related crime and look to build greater understanding around sensitive areas like stop and search laws.
A hearts and minds double whammy that is so much more than football, but with football as the alluring hook.
CJ sums it up neatly: ‘I have to design constructive pathways and exit routes to progress, so that the young people we target may become the positive versions of themselves that we know they are well capable of being.
‘But we couldn’t do this on our own. The attraction, of course, is Leicester City Football Club.’
The Foxes’ success helped entice 1,800 youngsters from the city through the Premier League Kicks turnstiles in one year, meaning the number of venues had to be expanded from five to 20.
‘Leicester winning the Premier League helped with recruitment, and the fact the first-team players have bought into the programme has had a positive influence on our young people, but it is the opportunities they are getting which is making them stay,’ said CJ.
The Foxes’ fairy tale 2015-16 season, when they stunned the world of football by winning the Premier League title, inspired a generation of young people eager to become the next Jamie Vardy or Riyad Mahrez.
The history boys’ inspirational achievement was great news for Leicestershire Police too, providing exciting opportunities that have helped them foster better relationships with those on the scheme.
‘We will use our police transport to take the Community Champions to tournaments and to Premier League away games. It is a big carrot,’ says PC Evans (pictured below, fourth from left). ‘We are now on first-name terms with a lot of them, who shake us by the hand. So this for us is a win-win project.’
The partnership programme has opened doors for disaffected young adults which they could never have anticipated before joining the project.
Three peer mentors who live in the St Matthews area of the city are now employed as Premier League Kicks coaches, another has worked for the LCFC Community Trust as a coach for the programme and as an ambassador for his community, while a multitude of other participants have benefited from spin-off projects linked to the Community Champions initiative, which include the Employability Programme (looking at CV writing and work experience), and Community Action (carrying out fundraising and gardening projects).
From 2014 to the present, the Premier League Kicks programme has engaged:
- 2,240 young people in free football activities
- 157 volunteers (young leaders)
- 127 qualifications completed – FA Level 1, First Aid, Junior Football Leaders
- 14 participants employed at LCFC (Match Day Hospitality and Club Shop)
The Community Trust measured outcomes of the Kicks programme by asking those who participated to fill in a questionnaire, the results of which were:
- Do you feel safer in your community – 77.5%
- Improved your skills in and away from football – 82.5%
- More resilient – 90%
- Relationship with Leicestershire Police – 17.5% pre-Kicks / 5% post-Kicks
- Awareness of consequences of anti-social behaviour, drugs, and other negative health behaviours – 85%
And the final word to two of the participants who benefited from the project:
‘My overall outlook on life has improved… volunteering with LCFC and the youth service has empowered me and made me more employable.’
‘Kicks has given me the opportunity to get my life back on track. I was regularly excluded from school and the support I received from LCFC Community Trust helped me find a job and a college course.’
Evidence that the programmes have inspired no shortage of champions in the community, and testimony too of the sterling work being done by Leicester Community Trust and Leicestershire Police – who are themselves the embodiment of Community Champions.