In the Media

Football 11 Prison 0. How sport can win the hearts, minds and energy of Manchester's young

PUBLISHED December 7, 2011

The Guardian's prisons correspondent, Eric Allison, is an Alex Ferguson on the quiet. But he could do with a bit of Man U and Man City's riches to spread a really good idea

On the night of August 9, when rioting came to the streets of Manchester and Salford, I was in a park, about a mile from Piccadilly; surrounded by a group of lads who, if stereotypes are any guide, might well have been joining in the mayhem.

All from a deprived area of east Manchester; aged between 16-21, mainly unemployed - though not for want of trying for jobs - they don't have a lot going for them. But they were not rioting; they were in extra training, preparing for the upcoming football season.

The group, some 18 strong, are the squad of a football club I set up four years ago, West Gorton FC. The club came to being after I had seen a group of kids kicking a ball around local streets. I said some of them looked useful and asked why they didn't form a team? They said they had no one to organise them and asked if I would do it? I said no, I was too busy and had no experience; but they persisted and eventually I threw the towel in.

Four years on, we are established in the Tameside League and won our first trophy last season, division five champions.

Not only do my squad not riot, they don't commit other crimes either, nor do much in the way of anti-social behaviour. In short, they are football daft; they eat, drink and sleep the game. We play on Sunday mornings, but many of the squad play on Saturday afternoons as well. We train on Monday night, but players train other nights as well and play in five a side tournaments on their 'nights off'.

According to evidence given to the home affairs select committee, the bill for the riots will be more than ?133m, in policing and compensation for businesses hit by the violence. That figure does not take into account the cost of prosecuting those involved and the price of imprisoning those convicted. The judiciary have chosen to ignore the overwhelming evidence of the failure of the prison system to prevent re-offending.

Contrary to what Michael Howard once declared; prison doesn't 'work' it fails spectacularly and nowhere more so than in the area of youth justice.

Four out of five young people jailed, go on to commit further crimes after they are released.(And they are only the ones caught re-offending, which makes the true figure even higher) This, in a system which costs the taxpayer a minimum of ?100k a year to keep a young person in custody - rising to 250k a year in some establishments.

Back to West Gorton FC:it costs around ?4,000 a year to run the club. Most players are from families of limited means so, without shame, I use my journalistic connections to help raise funds and we manage. Other clubs are not so fortunate. Only last week, I spoke to a man who set up another local team, Ardwick FC. Like our club, his players were from a deprived community, mainly young lads who, but for football, may well have strayed from the straight and narrow. Their team has had to fold because of lack of funding.

There is huge irony in their demise: Ardwick FC was the name chosen to replace St Marks FC, back in 1887. That name stuck until 1894, when it changed again, to Manchester City FC. City of course are now the richest club in the world and the few thousand that would have kept Ardwick afloat, is nickel and dime stuff to owner Sheik Mansour.

The three or four thousand pounds, required to run clubs like ours for a year, represents about an hours wage for the likes of Wayne Rooney and Carlos Tevez. 'Twas not ever thus: when I was a kid in Gorton, if I got the right buses on a Saturday(The 19 to Belle Vue and the 53 to Trafford Bar.) the captain of United and England regular, Roger Byrne, would be on board. Times change and I don't expect to share public transport with the soccer stars of today, but it would be nice to feel we shared the same planet.

In the meantime, we continue to cram kids into our failing, hideously expensive jails, while teams like Ardwick F.C.- which help keep kids out of them- go to the wall for want of a pittance. Madness. © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds