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Page last updated at 21:05 GMT, Wednesday, 23 March 2011

AFC Wimbledon go back to grassroots

AFC Wimbledon on the rise

BBC News School Reporters have been finding out how the grassroots re-imagination of one of London's football clubs is giving back to their local community.

Coaches and a player from fan-owned Wimbledon AFC stopped by St Cecilia's, Wandsworth, to train students and chat to our School Report team about service, local support and the on- and off-the-field activities of a football club on the rise.

In 2002, Wimbledon FC, former home of the 'Crazy Gang' and players such as the now-actor Vinnie Jones, ex-Newcastle Director of Football Dennis Wise and former Fulham manager Lawrie Sanchez, was uprooted from its home in south London and relocated to Milton Keynes.

Some of the club's fans reacted a year later by establishing their own club.

Wimbledon AFC is owned by the fans and community, with anyone being able to buy shares in the club via the Dons Trust. And part of the reinvestment and rebirth of the club was a strong investment into the community.

Helen Horner, the pupil support manager at St. Cecilia's, said the school has offered outreach programmes for the past few years.

This is one of the first times that football has been offered.

"It is amazing the effect it has on some of the kids," she said. "It's brilliant and gives the kids a real incentive to come into class."

Wimbledon charges £30 a session, per coach, per hour, which is really reasonable, Horner said.

"It's really nice because the club is local and the pupils can go to the club," she said.

Free Tickets

When Mark Smith-Lachie was seven, he remembers being star-struck as he walked across the old Wimbledon training ground. He, like many other local children, were involved in Wimbledon FC's community outreach. When he finished the scheme a few weeks later - he got a free ticket to the first of many Dons games to come.

Now, wearing a Dons hat, shirt and jacket, Smith-Lachie is getting ready to leave St. Cecilia's, but not before bestowing the same gift he once got as a child - free tickets to a match at the end of March.

photo by Molly
School Reporters Zoe and Connor interview Mark Smith-Lachie, AFC Wimbledon's Community Football Scheme Manager

It's been a round-about career path for Smith-Lachie, but after years of being semi-pro with Stevenage, injuries and then working as a primary school teacher, it's all come full circle. Three years ago, he became AFC Wimbledon's Community Football Scheme Manager.

"When I saw the description of what they wanted, well, I couldn't have written it better myself," he said. "I thought to myself, 'If I don't get this job - I'm never going to get one'."

When AFC Wimbledon was reborn in the '03-'04 season, one of the goals was to replant roots into the community and let them grow deep.

After the club's first year, the community scheme was re-established. Some years later, it still operates as a loss.

"We see it as an investment in the community, money is not the end-all-be-all," said Smith-Lachie.


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