Community leaders

Matthew Brown explains why the Football in the Community scheme at Leyton Orient is setting a trend for others to follow

At the northern end of Brisbane Road, the street that gives its name to Leyton Orient’s home ground, be­yond the players’ entrance and the club shop, is a small Portakabin-style building. Inside, a few old desks and chairs are scattered around two small rooms.

Posters of Ronaldo and Tiger Woods sag from the hardboard walls and portable five-a-side goals, bags of grubby size four footballs and boxes of pamphlets advertising kids’ coaching programmes create an obstacle course for the handful of people going about the business that is the Leyton Orient Community Sports Programme. It may not look like it, but this is part of football’s success story.

Lord Justice Taylor’s report on the Hillsborough disaster called for clubs to develop better relations with their local communities. So in the early Nineties, while chairmen talked to their new architect friends about the elevation of new stands and the layout of executive suites, a few socially minded ex-players and coaches set about building what became known as Football in the Community schemes.

Ten years later, they remain a relatively well-kept secret, little understood side-effects of the game’s metamorphosis from working-class obsession to symbol of the classless, commercially vibrant new Britain we are all supposed to believe in. Little understood, that is, even by the clubs themselves.

For although 86 Premier and Football League clubs now have community schemes, only 26 per cent of them provide any funding for their own programmes, and the vast majority of directors and managers regard them merely as a way to get players to “do their bit” or another way of tapping the talents of local kids in the hope that one of them will turn out to be the next Michael Owen.

What’s more, in today’s highly competitive, TV-dominated market, a coaching course with a couple of first team players may just help to snatch a few more young fans with paying parents from the clutches of more glamorous rivals.

At Leyton Orient, things are different. Neil Watson started as the community officer there a month after Hillsborough and is now director of a programme that employs 40 people and works across three London boroughs, tackling social problems among children and adults in some of the most deprived areas of the country. “Most of the rest of the schemes around the country wouldn’t understand the kind of work we do, and have no real interest in doing it,” he says. “It doesn’t pay, it’s difficult and not what the clubs are interested in.”

As the government’s Football Task Force said in its report Investing in the Community, published in Jan­uary, some community schemes “have drifted away from the original objectives in recent years and become focused on commercial activity or football development work”. Some schemes at smaller clubs are struggling to survive.

But at Orient the scheme is not only surviving, but thriving. And here the emphasis is most definitely on “community”. It still does the holiday coaching courses for kids, common money spinners for most other schemes, but more and more of its work is with local schools teaching literacy and numeracy; on housing estates helping with drugs re­habilitation and keeping children away from truancy and crime; or with local racial tolerance projects and health action zones.

Ironically, it has been able to expand the “com­munity development” aspects of its work, not because it gets the full backing of club chairman Barry Hearn, but because it doesn’t. “The truth is most clubs do not care about their communities,” says Watson. “Chair­men have to say they do and some provide a bit of money. But Barry was the best thing that happened to us because he was honest and said ‘I am not going to fund this scheme, I don’t think it is my concern’.”

So the programme became a separate limited com­pany with its own trustees (none from the club) and last September became the first football com­munity scheme with charitable status. “We no longer have to worry about the whims and fancies of the club,” says Watson. “We don’t have to work with dir­ectors who want to tell us what to do, or managers who don’t want the players involved.”

With independence the programme was able to raise its own funds from sources who wouldn’t nor­m­ally give to sections of a football club, such as local authority departments, private companies and trusts like the John Cass Foundation who now pay for the programme’s education officer. “We very quickly got good at knowing our way around the funding organisations, getting money from the commercial sector and creating partnerships between them and the local authorities,” says Watson.

From an organisation that, two years ago, was just one department of a small football club, with a £60-70,000 turnover and two members of staff, the programme now turns over more than £300,000 (pro­jected to reach £500,000 next year) and employs ten full-time and 30 part-time staff.

Such is its success that even Hearn now refers to the project as “my community scheme”. And while independence has been its lifeline, Watson is clear that maintaining its connection to the club is vital to the scheme’s success. “It couldn’t have worked without the street credibility that being part of the football club brings,” he says. “Clubs don’t realise the social significance of football. Even a club as small as this is a powerful institution in the minds of local people. If clubs had any conscience they’d use that, and some of their wealth, to do some good. There’s been a real missed opportunity over the last decade.”

He is convinced that being based at a football club but not having to rely on it is the best way forward for community schemes. A few others are now going the same way, notably those at Millwall and Manchester City, which gained charitable status earlier this year.

“We know this is right for us,” says Watson, “and it could be a model for community schemes everywhere, if they were given the chance.”

One thing the Hillsborough tragedy demonstrated was the huge part football plays in many people’s lives. By using the power of the game to do real community work, clubs could establish a legacy among the very people they have spent much of the last ten years trying to exclude.

From WSC 148 June 1999. What was happening this month