Page last updated at 01:09 GMT, Friday, 10 February 2006

Giving kids a sporting chance

By Finlo Rohrer
BBC News, in Northampton

Boy holds a football
The children in the Streets Football project take it very seriously

As part of our week-long series focusing on respect in one English town, the BBC News website takes a look at how sport is being used to combat anti-social behaviour and promote self-esteem.

It is an icy night on Northampton's Racecourse recreation ground but that has not stopped dozens of teenagers and younger children coming along to play the beautiful game.

Few wear gloves, all run hard, chasing down every 50/50 ball, and celebrating every goal as if it were a winner at Wembley.

But the Northampton Town coaches at this session are not expecting to unearth the next Wayne Rooney.

Instead they are here with a mission to get kids doing something constructive as part of Northampton Borough Council's Streets Football project.

The idea is that football is the vehicle to get these young people to work on their social skills
Lee Brown
Streets Football

Speak to any hooded youth on any street corner in Northampton and you hear one response: "There's nothing to do around here."

Go elsewhere in the UK and while accents differ, the sentiment is the same.

Streets football officer Lee Brown is one of those attempting to remedy this.

"For many of these teenagers they are usually lacking things to do. We try to positively affect the younger ones.

"When we have a tournament, depending on the behaviour, we will choose the players who we feel have the right attitude and commitment."

Transport shortage

As well as the Racecourse in the town centre, the sessions are held in Northampton's most deprived areas, Blackthorn, King's Heath, Thorplands and Eastfield.

These are places where teenagers feel there is little for them to do, and where issues such as lack of a car to take them to activities, mean many roam the streets and fall in with the wrong crowd.

"The aim is to get those youngsters off the streets and give them something to do.

Boys' team
The scheme targets deprived areas

"The idea is that football is the vehicle to get these young people to work on their social skills. They don't realise it but they are working as part of a team. It improves their self-esteem, showing respect for other players. Showing respect is all part of football."

Rory Dobson, 17, from the Kingsley area of the town is one of those glad of a way of occupying his week nights.

"It is something to do. There is nothing else really round here. Before there was this, I'd just be hanging around on the street, messing about, doing nothing.

"There are adults here and nothing is going to go wrong. We are under supervision.

"When you get home from school or college, there's nothing, there's no youth clubs. There used to be a few but they have all stopped.

"I'd rather be playing a bit of football, even if it was any activity, a game of rounders."

Decreased swearing

Ahmed Mohamed, 16, from Goldings, says he prefers the session at the Racecourse to one that is run closer to his home.

"I just come here to play football in a good environment. Down here it is more mature people

"There they are a bit more violent, there are more fights.

Boy with ball
No matter how cold, there is always a good turnout

"[Here] people respect each other. There used to be a bit of swearing but the swearing has decreased."

The Streets Football tournament, held in another deprived part of town, also attracts a lot of players.

Sonny Frost is a 10-year-old bundle of energy from King's Heath.

"I like running around and being with my friends. My favourite player is Steven Gerrard.

"Before this, I was bored. There wasn't anything to do."

Andrea Brown has brought her eight-year-old son Aidan along.

"This keeps the children off the streets. There is not a lot to do in King's Heath.

"It is about discipline. It's good for Aidan because he doesn't play for a team. We haven't got transport."

Basketball echoes

King's Heath can look like a bleak, unforgiving place.

Even nine-year-old Ryan Cooke confides: "People get bullied every day."

The scheme, part-funded by the Football Foundation, has echoes of the Midnight Basketball League phenomenon in the US in the 1980s and 1990s.

Masterminded by the town manager of Glenarden, Maryland, G Van Standifer, the late-night leagues for young people rapidly became immensely popular and were credited with cutting crime.

Son Nelson Standifer, a co-ordinator with the leagues, said streets football projects like Northampton's were worthy successors to his father's work.

"My father had access to crime stats. It was clear most crimes were committed between 10pm and 2am by 17-21 year olds.

"My father felt that the young men needed something constructive to do with their time and he believed that basketball had the magnetism to draw these young men into the gymnasium.

"In 1986 there were 1,900 reported violent crimes including rape, robberies, burglaries and after the first year of the midnight basketball the crime rate dropped 50%. We saw immediate results.

"It was in its heyday in 1992 when President George Bush snr described it as one of his thousand points of light against drug abuse. We had leagues in 50 cities.

"Even if they didn't stay at least the time they were there they were being exposed to and introduced to educational and employment opportunities."

Aimless youths

The leagues operated under the slogan "no workshop, no jumpshot". Without attending the mini-seminars on education and job opportunities no young person could play.

As in Northampton, sport is a vehicle for improving lives.

Mr Standifer admits: "We are not looking for athletes. We are looking for the young men who are lost."

In Northampton, the Streets Football project is attempting to get hold of aimless young people before they are "lost".

There are no targets to reduce crime, but those behind the programme know that every minute a young person is at Streets Football, they are away from the temptations of anti-social behaviour and petty crime.

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