“If we don’t do it, there’s a danger they may find that sense of belonging in a less positive environment. Our purpose as an organisation is to support young people on their journey to fulfilling their potential.”
Street Soccer London is an extension of Street Soccer Scotland, which was established over a decade ago to engage with ex-offenders, long-term unemployed, the homeless and people with mental health issues. Founder David Duke MBE spotted the potential when competing for Scotland in the Homeless World Cup.
Street Soccer London has sought to extend those philosophies to the English capital. Led by Craig, London Coordinator Jack Badu and a host of coaches and volunteers, it has only been in operation for six months (a period which includes two Covid-19 lockdowns) but already has over 300 registered players.
Participants’ first experience of Street Soccer London is purely as a drop-in football session. It’s there for them every week, so there’s consistency, stability, set standards and an initial connection. “That initial welcome is important” states Craig. “We want them to come and get an immediate impression;, ‘These guys are sound.’”
Getting them through the door is stage one of four in the development of young people who attend. “Although we’re impatient to see outcomes, we’re not forcing stage two yet,” admits Craig. “Covid has been a great teacher of patience. Before we get any grandiose ideas, we are keeping it simple and just building those individual relationships.”
Craig knows himself that it takes time. He has lived experience and came through Street Soccer Scotland’s programme as a participant. “When I went through what I did, nobody asked me intrusive questions on day one – they just let me play football,” he remembers.
“That is really important. I could just be myself for a couple of hours and play the game I loved. Then, through time, people started connecting with me in a different way. ‘How you doing? What’s your housing situation? Are you eating properly?’
“That’s what we’re currently building towards in 2021. That’s exciting. We’re not trying to force anything. We do not ask – by the nature of the relationships, we find out.”
Jack adds: “It’s important to be genuine and supportive. Once you’ve developed a relationship with a young person you then know the questions to ask because you know them.
“It’s important to think, where is this young person coming from? Have they experienced trauma or poor relationships with adults in the past? How can we be different to that and support them as much as possible? The intervention must not be rushed. Kids can’t be experiments in a lab. They need to feel part of a community.”
In order to build trust, it’s important in the early engagement stage that staff are not seen as authority figures. “We mustn’t come across as a teacher or police officer,” explains Craig. “We have to be ‘on a level’ with them. In good times we have good fun, but in tough times for the individual they must feel they can come and speak to us.”
After that initial connection of stage one, stage two of Street Soccer London’s approach is (when appropriate) to start formulating a participant’s personal development plan. It’s about building social and emotional skills within a safe environment.
Stage four is starting to look at positive outcomes, whether a young person would like to train up as a volunteer on the programme, take a coaching qualification or become a mentor. They could also be signposted elsewhere for education, training or employment opportunities.
Young people find Street Soccer through word of mouth, outreach and youth work or as part of alternative provision to reintegrate them back into mainstream education.
Two highly fruitful partnerships – with the Black Prince Trust in Wandsworth and FAST youth and community project in Lambeth – have enabled Street Soccer London to tap into communities quickly.
Already 13 sessions are established across the two venues with 48 participants registered for their designated Levelling the Playing Field session.
“We’re looking at how we enhance and consolidate in 2021 so that’s why we’re really excited about Levelling the Playing Field,” says Craig. “We’ve already got some 17 or 18-year-olds in mind who we could engage in the mentoring training and then work with a peer group.
“The mentoring training really can support the young people into becoming game changers. They can be trained up to continue that cycle and become the ones in the future who are driving positive change.”