Football: a game for everyone

Steven Russell concludes our series on the varied work of the ITFC Charitable Trust – life-changing initiatives for children and young adults – with a look at . . . football! (Well, it had to be in there somewhere, didn’t it!)

ANYONE out and about in Suffolk during the school holidays might well pass a playing field and see young footballers having the time of their lives. If those pitches are at places such as Farlingaye High School in Woodbridge, Blackbourne Playing Fields in Elmswell and Whitton Sports Centre in Ipswich, they could well be hosting a soccer camp run by the ITFC Charitable Trust. The sight of boys and girls having fun is the most visible sign of the charity’s football-related offering, but only the tip of the iceberg. We’ll return to the camps and courses later, after a look at what else is going on.

For Tom Nicholas and his colleagues, the smiles on the faces of participants, parents and carers is great reward for their efforts. Tom’s responsible for the trust’s disability programme, which aims to give as many opportunities as possible to children, young people and adults with disabilities, learning difficulties or mental health issues.

The number of folk involved now tops 3,000 a year – up from just over 1,000 in 2007.

At its heart is the Ability Counts project, now in its fourth year of a five-year life. It’s funded mainly by the Football Foundation – the UK’s largest sports’ charity, which gets its money from the Premier League, The Football Association and the Government, and directs �40million each year into grass roots activity across the country. In Suffolk, other organisations give financial help, too.

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The charitable trust also sends coaches into mainstream primary, high and special schools in the county – focusing mainly on children with special educational needs – and there are after-school clubs in Thetford.

There’s a team of disabled adults playing in the London & South-East Multi-Disabled League, and players compete in the seven-a-side Ability Counts League.

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There’s also a side for adults with visual impairments and footballing opportunities for folk with mental health issues – the trust having forged strong links with Suffolk Mental Health Partnership.

Recently, the trust received money to run a football programme on the practice pitch at Portman Road in Ipswich for young people with Down’s Syndrome.

Aimed at those aged between five and 25, the sessions began in October and are drawing about 18 players a week.

There are weekly cross-disability coaching sessions, too – attracting, on the children’s side, about 20 youngsters each term. In the autumn of 2009 the trust secured funds from The Football League Trust and The New Football Pools to run disability leagues for three years.

Lots going on, then.

The overarching philosophy of the Ability Counts programme is to make sure the joy of sport, and the benefit from playing it, is spread widely.

“It’s not just about the advantages, for instance, that people gain through team play – team skills and life skills, as well as staying fit and healthy – there’s the increased confidence and self-esteem,” explains Tom.

“About 80% of people love football, regardless of whether they’re disabled or not, and being able to provide that opportunity is – I hate to sound corny – magical.

“If the project wasn’t in place, and the funding wasn’t here, we wouldn’t have our disability leagues, for instance, and we wouldn’t have our weekly sessions. So those children would either have to hunt hard for other provision or not take part.”

Now: back to those football camps and weekly courses that are open to all – the responsibility of Matt Cook, one of the senior community coaches.

Held at about 10 venues across Suffolk, the holiday courses last summer laid on constructive fun for more than 1,300 boys and girls of varied ability. During the October half-term 450-500 youngsters came along.

There are many two-day general courses, offering five hours of coaching a day, and several specialised sessions: on goalkeeping, for instance, or for girls only.

For youngsters aged between four and six there’s Crazee Club: a two-hour session introducing ball skills and nurturing confidence.

Also part of the portfolio are the soccer centres, which run 10-week coaching programmes for youngsters of any ability. Again, there’s a variety of locations: from Bury St Edmunds to Saxmundham. The centres host about 400 children a term.

Finally, the remit of Matt’s department includes sending coaches into schools for 32 weeks to run sports sessions – not just football but activities such as basketball and hockey, too.

n As part of the trust’s goal to get more people involved in soccer it stages the One Community Cup – a tournament designed to bring communities together.

Held on the Portman Road practice pitch, usually in the summer, it was launched about three years ago and is open to five-a-side teams of different racial and cultural backgrounds.

In 2009, for instance, 18 teams took part, carrying the flags of nations such as Togo, Kurdistan, Kenya, England, Portugal, India, Bangladesh, Albania and Poland. More than 140 players took to the pitch.

n The trust also runs a lunchtime business league for adults, with a successful pilot scheme last June followed by a larger-scale league from September.

Small teams from enterprises such as financial products company AXA and Suffolk County Council took to the practice pitch. Whisper it quietly . . . the ITFC Charitable Trust team got knocked out at the semi-final stage!

A fresh league begins in February. Any firm keen to take part should contact Darren Ablett on 01473 400545 or

n Details of the trust’s footballing activities, including charges, can be found at

Good coaching is critical

COACHING is the prime concern of Trevor Cox, the ITFC Charitable Trust’s active sports manager. Like most jobs, his has many sides.

For a start, he and his colleagues run courses for sixth-formers and further education colleges so students can gain entry-level Football Association coaching qualifications – about 300 young people each year.

The beauty is that there’s funding for under-18s in full-time education from partners Otley College and West Suffolk College.

Is that under threat in our age of austerity?

“We thought it would be but, actually, no,” says Trevor. “We’ve just heard it’s been agreed again. So at least for the next year or two it will be carrying on.”

For those in further education, the FA “badge” forms part of their portfolio, alongside achievements in things like sports science and gym work.

The trust also runs these first-rung coaching courses for adults, in conjunction with Suffolk FA. Most of those who graduate are mums and dads involved in grass-roots football, running youth soccer teams, and taking back with them a greater knowledge of what sport does for people’s bodies and minds.

Why do we need qualified people?

“It’s one of the biggest problems in this country,” argues Trevor. “You get teachers in schools who are qualified teachers, and yet we’re quite prepared for unqualified people to teach sport. I don’t see the logic. To teach our youngsters sport, you should be qualified. Europeans countries do it: Holland, Italy. We shouldn’t be any different.”

There are many people out there coaching sides but without a qualification. “They’ve all got a good heart, they all put everything into it, but unfortunately for the age we’re talking about – 7-11s – bad coaching is worse than no coaching. People should get at least a basic qualification – and just having played the game isn’t a qualification.”

Some coaches working from a position of ignorance will “do adults things. They’ll make them run round the pitch to warm up and yet when you get your qualification you realise you don’t need to run an eight-year-old round a pitch to warm up. Their bodies aren’t actually capable of doing that”.

The emphasis should be on learning through fun. Sport is enjoyable, wonderful for health, fantastic for instilling values such as teamwork and personal discipline, and great for giving talented players (who sometimes might not be academic high-achievers) a boost to their esteem.

Trevor’s remit also includes the player development centres – at Bury St Edmunds, Ipswich and Thetford. Players who show higher ability are invited along for 15 weeks, with coaches aiming to push them on and draw out their potential. At the end is an assessment, with some players asked back for another spell.

The development centres see about 360 boys a year.

Young players with exceptional skills could go on to Ipswich Town’s elite academy, which tries to help them develop even further.

“Several have come through the system and are creeping into the U18s side, such as Josh Meekings, who came through the Bury centre as a seven-year-old,” says Trevor.

Soccer: not just for males!

PART of the ITFC Charitable Trust’s job is to make sure everyone enjoys the chance to play. The holiday courses and weekly soccer centre programmes are open to both boys and girls, while girls-only courses are offered for those who prefer a female-focused environment.

Keen girls of above-average ability have the chance to attend one of the player development centres for 15 weeks for extra coaching to develop their skills – they’re at Ipswich and Bury St Edmunds – while outstanding players could go on to the club’s FA-licensed Centre of Excellence.

Ipswich has about 55 girls at the centre, which mirrors the boys’ academy set-up.

Ipswich has a female team playing in the South East Women’s Combination League – competing against Tottenham, Milton Keynes Dons, Norwich and Crystal Palace, among others – and runs sides at under-16, 14, 12 and 10 levels.

Pretty encouraging higher up the ladder, then, but Mark Lawrence isn’t satisfied. He oversees girls and women’s football for the trust and would love to see more females involved at the grass roots. In fact, he’s planning a major push in schools after Christmas – trying to raise soccer’s profile and show girls it’s as enjoyable as things like dancing, majorettes and gymnastics.

Mark looked at a batch of 400-odd children who attended the trust’s open-to-all holiday courses and found the number of girls was “less than double figures”. He wants to raise that significantly.

Given a magic wand, he’d like to see girls aged five and six kicking a football at school as a matter of course. He realises we need something of a cultural reprogramming, though, for that to happen – even in the 21st Century.

“You look in a book or catalogue and the boys have got football stuff and the girls might have an ironing-board to play with!” he says.

“There’s no reason why girls can’t be as good as boys, technically. Physically, they might not be able to match the boys, but if you watch a decent standard of women’s football, it’s more of a pure game: the good parts of the male game without all the nasty bits, if you know what I mean. That’s a big plus-point.”

Girls need female role models if soccer is to grow in popularity, he reckons, hoping the launch of a new FA Women’s Super League next spring will help. There’s also the first Fifa Women’s World Cup in Germany next summer.

Mark would even like to see the authorities consider some radical steps to make the women’s game a strong sport in its own right, rather than being (in some people’s eyes) a pale imitation of men’s football.

The goals could be made smaller, the pitch dimensions pinched a little; and, if anyone wanted to be really revolutionary, they could scrap the offside rule and see what difference that made to a match. It could be a boon.

He accepts those ideas are unlikely to see the light of day, but their introduction could give women’s soccer a clear and attractive identity of its own.

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