Capital gains

Matthew Brown looks at what London clubs, particularly Arsenal and Chelsea, do for their local communities

As a lifelong Arsenal fan there’s a certain downside to Desmond McDonald’s job as a drugs and youth worker in Wandsworth, south-west London – he has to wear a Chelsea kit every day. But even he will admit it’s a small price to pay for the Blues’ involvement in his organisation’s work with young people on three of the most deprived wards in Battersea.

“The popularity of Chelsea is enor­mous round here now,” says McDonald. “We get more and more young people com­ing to us because we’re from Chel­sea. It’s only a hook, but it’s a really powerful one.”

McDonald works for an organisation called Cranstoun Drugs Services and in October last year he teamed up with Chel­sea’s football in the community programme to run a three-year coaching project for some of the most marginalised young people in the borough, teenagers “at risk” of exclusion from school and involvement in crime and drugs.

It’s part of Positive Futures, a national programme run by the Home Office, that offers young people sports activities as a way of encouraging them towards education, training and employment, away from the temptations of crime and drugs. The scheme started in 2000 and, not surprisingly, football has accounted for 61 per cent of the activities offered around the country by the 107 local Positive Futures projects.

Many schemes are run by community pro­jects, youth programmes and local authorities, but more and more football clubs are getting involved. Whether they’ve had their consciences pricked by the increasing attention given to drugs in the game is impossible to say. But for long-term drugs workers such as McDonald the motives hardly matter.

“When a club like Chelsea gets involved in a scheme like this it shows the community that, although they might be rich and famous, they know where their supporters are coming from,” he says. “If a club as rich as Chelsea is prepared to plough something back into the community, it helps us get the message through.”

McDonald runs the scheme with Daniel Gill, one of Chelsea’s community workers. Between them they provide an hour and a half of coaching and “awareness” sessions to more than 20 young people three times a week at local schools and parks. Informal dis­cussions on drugs, crime, racism and other issues are held in between the football sessions.

“Football is not the be all and end all,” says McDonald. “I’m looking at the potential these teenagers have to develop as people. We don’t pretend we’re going to turn them into Chelsea players, but we might steer one or two through coaching awards programmes and get them some careers advice.

“It’s about their trust. If they see us as coming from Chelsea, coaching and playing football with them, they trust us a bit more. We’re trying to show the kids that it doesn’t matter where they come from: they can avoid the pitfalls of drugs and crime if they want to.”

It’s not just the glamour clubs such as Chelsea who have the time and resources for such ground-level community work. Leyton Orient, Millwall and Colchester United have all been engaged in sports-based social inclusion work for years, while the big boys have been slower to accept the responsibility their cachet in the comm-unity brings. Thanks partly to Positive Futures, that appears to be changing.

Across the capital, for example, Fred­die Hudson is a senior sports development officer in Arse­nal’s football in the community programme, which Positive Futures funds to provide coaching to youngsters on two of Islington’s toughest estates. “We’re forever grateful that the name of Arsenal has a great attraction for young people round here,” says Hudson. “We never take for granted the power it has, but it’s a very useful vehicle, a way of engaging young people who otherwise would be very hard to attract.”

Arsenal work with other agencies, such as the local drugs action and youth offending teams, the police, schools and voluntary sector organisations. Again, the football is vital, but it’s only a tool. “It’s not all about coaching,” says Hudson. “We refer young people who need help to the right agencies. Because we’re Arsenal, it’s easier for us to engage them, but on the back of that we can attract the right kind of provision.”

From WSC 207 May 2004. What was happening this month