Crime is no longer the favourite recreation

Diane Spencer

Football is played where burnt-out cars used to smoulder. Diane Spencer visits a youth project in Manchester.

"I just hope you haven't got a smelly foot," said Julie Parker as she pulled a red sock off a walking wounded member of Parkfield Junior Football Club, Salford.

He was soon back on the field to join his mates on a newly marked pitch at the Phil Snowden community centre which is surrounded by housing estates.

Mrs Parker and her husband, Steve, are two of around 100 volunteers who help run one of the 18 clubs for young people as part of a project set up by the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders.

Football is the local passion - after all, Salford is the home of Manchester United. The association tapped into this enthusiasm to divert youngsters from anti-social behaviour. The project now attracts about 1,000 eight to 16-year-olds and even drew in the errant Eric Cantona for his 120 hours community service sentence.

The project began in 1991 on one housing estate as an answer to some of the area's problems of crime and vandalism and has grown dramatically.

Statistics on Salford make grim reading: it is the ninth most deprived authority in the country; the overall unemployment rate is 15 per cent; youth unemployment, 16 per cent; and male unemployment, 25 per cent. Half of the men have been out of work for more than six months and 80 per cent of households on local authority estates receive housing benefits.

"We didn't envisage how quickly the scheme would establish itself," said Paul Lewis, the project manager. "Cantona was a great boost for the kids. They still talk about him as if it was yesterday." The footballer worked with 360 young people running coaching sessions in the spring of 1995.

But the project isn't aiming to get the teams into the premier league. Mr Lewis, who played for Halifax Town, explained that, unlike mainstream football clubs, the emphasis was on the personal and social development of young people and the volunteers, rather than on performance, skills and development of the game.

However, the club managers are always delighted when their team comes top of the league. "We've got two trophies in our cabinet," said Mr Parker, proudly. "If they win they get to go to McDonalds," added his wife, with a grin.

Glen Bryden, another parent volunteer who runs a nearby club, Sutton Rovers, said the project had revived the community spirit. "It's come back. We had a presentation night and 250 turned up." And it has saved money - at least Pounds 60,000 in vandalism on one estate alone.

The volunteers at the Phil Snowden Centre, named after a pioneer of the scheme, were bubbling over with enthusiasm for the project. Not only had it made a difference to children in the area, but to themselves. Mrs Parker used to work in a warehouse; now she wants to start a college course on family support "because I see so many children who need it". Mr Bryden was voted chairman of his residents' association and his wife, Sue, trained to be a registered childminder.

The local policemen have joined in too. One spent his day off helping to build a store cupboard at the centre, saving the club at least Pounds 500 on a carpenter. Mr Parker said when the club got going, two policemen dropped in one Wednesday night when the kids were training to find out what was going on as the streets were so quiet.

The football field used to be a dump for burnt-out stolen cars and crime was the main recreation, said Mr Lewis.

NACRO provides some equipment and training, but then it's up to the volunteers. They can't begin to count the hours they spend. And they spend their own money too. "I send out letters to parents asking them to provide sandwiches and drinks if the team is playing away, but you can guarantee that half of them won't, so I fill an ice box full of food," said Mrs Parker. "But if you can stop one child from committing a crime, it's worthwhile."

A NACRO report on the project, published this week as part of its "making society safer" campaign, catalogues its benefits to the community, the volunteers, participants and the statutory agencies.

For Pounds 1.80 a week for each participant, it is an extremely cost-effective scheme, it concludes.

City United, the first three years of the Salford Football Community Link Project, NACRO, 169 Clapham Road, London SW9 OPU, price Pounds 3.50.

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