This month marks the 10-year anniversary of a conversation I had which pretty much changed the direction of my life in June 2005. Here is a brief overview of the past 10 years and the development of what is now known as Street Soccer Academy:
I knew there was a reason why I felt convicted to return to the North West of England when I graduated from university in the year 2000. Armed with a business degree and a keen interest in football, I began an exciting journey of unpacking my desire to help less fortunate people and what that could look like. During my teenage years growing up in inner city Manchester, the issue of homelessness had always struck me with a fierce ferocity – I had a deep desire to offer what I had to try and make a difference. On my return to the North West I was determined to have an impact on improving the lives and prospects of people who were desperately in need in my own back yard.
My journey of using professionally organised sport to engage with people began in the year 2000 when I was introduced to Ambassadors in Sport who connected me with a man called Andy Nelson who became my mentor for approximately 10 years. He introduced me to a host of people in the professional and semi-professional football world. Over the next few years I gained a whole host of experience coaching at semi professional clubs up to national conference level and also coached at Rochdale AFC as well as scouting for the club. I was fast tracked through my UEFA coaching badges and accumulated an impressive list of contacts in the football world and a developing reputation.
It was always my desire to create a unique form of outreach to disadvantaged people using professionally organised sport and was privileged to receive quality strategic guidance and advice from a variety of people in my life. As an experienced community based football coach I enjoyed working with young people through football coaching clinics and in schools but it didn’t quite scratch where I itched, so to speak, and I knew there was something ‘brewing’ that would result in a fundamental change of direction for me and my life generally! I had been told on numerous occasions by people that I implicitly trust that I would one day gain national influence on behalf of less fortunate people and would act as their advocate.
The next significant chapter of my life began in June 2005 when working for Manchester City Mission, via a meeting with Rebecca Deverell, development worker for Barnabus, a homeless support agency based in Manchester city centre. She asked whether I would be prepared to consider developing a meaningful occupation programme for homeless men using football as the basis. The idea intrigued me, so we performed a feasibility study and implementation plan, and applied for funding to launch the project in Ardwick.
We launched the first session in October 2005 with just one or two men initially attending and we named the group ‘Barnabus FC’. It was very cold, and snowing and I vividly remember thinking to myself “Are you mad? You’re encouraging homeless men to stay outside a bit longer in the freezing cold when what they need is warmth, a hot drink and food!” But never the less they came. Over time it became clear that the project should be opened up to multiple agencies in Manchester in order to help more people. We began to receive referrals from various homeless groups and agencies tackling issues such as addictions, and unemployment. The feedback was outstanding. There was clearly something in this model that could have a profound impact on the lives of the service users and their communities. People who were clearly ‘in need’ would attend our sessions and engage with us where they wouldn’t engage with other professional agencies. It was evident that we were becoming uniquely positioned in people’s lives to influence them for the better.
The Manchester project was well attended so the next stage of the vision was to replicate the model into other boroughs of Greater Manchester. The name of the project was renamed ‘Street Soccer’ and further initiatives developed in Bolton and Salford in 2007 with Stockport soon following in 2008. Thanks to the generosity of Manchester City Mission allowing me to develop this exciting project whilst employed by them I began to add staff as well as volunteers to my team, many of who are still involved now.
As the scale of Street Soccer grew it was clear that the project needed to become a separate entity in order for it to reach it’s full potential – the potential being bigger than Greater Manchester. During 2009, a man rich in experience of using sport as outreach, Simon Murphy, agreed to help me turn the project as it was into it’s own company and we founded the charity ‘Street Soccer Academy’ together in 2010. Simon complements me. He brings more focused attention to tasks than I do which is reflected in the standard of events that he hosts on our behalf. He has natural gifts in areas of marketing and branding as can be seen by the strong corporate image that we have developed. As I share my ideas for continued development of the organisation with him, he helps me land them in an effective way. I remember one of the earliest comments Simon made about his role with Street Soccer Academy: “My job is to make Andy look good.” Well, that’s quite a challenge but I must say, he’s doing a tremendous job of it!
Over more recent years we have added to our staff and volunteer base recruiting some of the best people I have ever had the pleasure of working with and knowing. In order to run an effective and efficient charity you need more than big hearts and people that are good at building relationships with your primary beneficiaries. Of critical importance are people with strong attention to detail, and diligence in areas of governance, policies, procedures, and best practice. Expert knowledge of the sectors in which we operate such as justice services, formal education, and welfare stands us in good stead to be taken seriously by some sizeable partners. At Street Soccer Academy we are privileged to have strength in all areas. Strong administrative skills are in practice mainly thanks to our General Manager, Zoe Murphy, as well as highly gifted coach educators who pride themselves on excellent standards of delivery for the benefit of our service users. Tony Holmes and Anthony Smith are two of the best practitioners I have ever come across and it is our gain to have them overseeing and training our teams of coaches throughout our Regional Centres.
At this current moment in time we are supporting in excess of 500 people throughout the North of England. Over 2,000 people have benefitted from attending our sessions over the past 10 years. We have nine Regional Centres and 14 activities in operation every week of the year. We have a growing number of staff and volunteers and Regional Centres based throughout Greater Manchester, Lancashire and most recently Tyne and Wear in the North East. We have over 35 welfare agencies that refer individuals to us as we seek to combat issues that have arisen for people due to backgrounds related to homelessness, offending, addictions, long-term unemployment and mental health challenges. We have over 100 people engaging with our activities every week and a fully operating rehabilitation programme including a 24 hours a day, 7 days a week support mechanism that integrates isolated people back into communities through housing solutions, education and employment. We have produced some very impressive results, which are currently being independently analysed as we look to use this evidence to help us expand our work further into new fields.
Our current priority is to continue growing throughout the North of England and soon to follow is a focus on the UK as a whole. We won’t stop there as we look at our models and make them relevant in other countries throughout the world. When commenting about developments over the next decade I fully expect to be referring to a mature national model that has firmly cemented partnerships in other parts of the world. The Street Soccer Academy model offers support that is deep and wide. We don’t simply scratch the surface with our service users, but our team position themselves into their lives in order to develop long-term lasting relationships as we seek to bring fundamental change to their worlds. It is my desire to see this objective achieved in a whole host of environments, cultures and countries, always pushing the boundaries of what has previously been done and achieved.
So, here’s to the next ten years! I’m firmly believing and expecting to see significant personal breakthroughs, those in bondage set free, restoration of broken relationships, opportunity and equality for the poverty stricken, and all round inclusive communities where everyone feels significant and valued.