Andrew Mourant discovers an inner-city football league that's building camaraderie, confidence and a taste for friendly competition
It's stretching a point to say there's hardly a blade of grass to kick a ball on, but the London borough of Camden is notorious for its lack of playing fields and cramped school playgrounds.
Yet Camden has spawned one of the capital's most flourishing six-a-side primary football leagues. It grows annually: this season 26 schools took part, each supplying a team of boys and girls. Competitive sport, moribund in many state schools, is making a revival. However, it's not win at all costs - there's also a fair play league with points for good behaviour.
Few communications are more eagerly received than the weekly email with its latest news and updated league tables. The main attraction, though, is the play-off final held at Arsenal Football Club's indoor pitch; the chance for winners to brandish medals at a photo-call, with the North Bank as a backdrop.
Jef Gooding, head of PE at Gospel Oak Primary School, is a driving force behind the league, which started more than 10 years ago. Latterly, the Camden Schools Sports Association (CSSA), which claims to be the most active in London, has become involved and has given it further impetus.
The CSSA, established in the 1950s to offer a sporting chance to schools in Hampstead, now draws in schools throughout the borough. It fosters competition across the spectrum, enabling schools to meet national curriculum requirements for PE.
Its ethos is that participation, not victory, matters most. However, the competitive edge is undeniable. At the football play-off finals, fathers and mothers roar partisan encouragement. "Standards of behaviour are very important though," says Jef. "If they weren't met, teachers and parents wouldn't give up their time."
A rule introduced six years ago that schools must enter girls alongside boys has swelled numbers and put an emphasis on competitive sport. "Thank God that's reviving," says Cathy Davies, whose son Drew represents Hampstead Parochial School, winners of this year's fair play award. "The kids are more confident and work together as a team - they learn camaraderie."
The 26 schools divide into two leagues covering north and south. Only the top four from each get to Highbury. The chance to play at Arsenal - albeit indoors - has been a catalyst for success. Yet Will Cave, a member of the Camden neighbourhood sports team, says much depends on individual PE teachers, such as Jef Gooding, being prepared to run after-school clubs.
He advocates competition. "Without it, all you're left with on the sports front is being able to say 'yes, we do stuff within the school'," he says.
"You can play around practising skills, but competition gives it something to hang on."
Jef says the league enables PE teachers to take things to a higher standard in classes of mixed-ability. "It's about understanding the children." He says some teachers had almost forgotten about sport, but "now they are enthusiasts."
Steve Buzzard, acting head of New End Primary School, the tournament champions, says the league gives children many opportunities in PE. "We're fortunate in having a lot of teachers who will take it on."
Jack Morris, 11, captain of New End, thinks the league is "great". "It's fun to play in. The referees are good and give fair decisions," he says.
Team-mate Joshua Lapomp, New End's top scorer, agrees. "All the other teams are friendly."
Many of the boys play in leagues outside school where things are much harder and sometimes so aggressive that parents stop their sons playing.
The more sheltered Camden set-up allows would-be footballers to find their feet.
"Standards are going up," says Jef Gooding. "Some kids have gone from clueless to being decent players."
One young star has progressed to the Arsenal youth set up and two from Gospel Oak have been snapped up by West Ham.
Camden hopes to make the CSSA sustainable by attracting all the borough's primary schools in the next five years. All it needs is pound;100 a year from each and eager people to expand the league. The main impact of its involvement in football has been to fund dedicated help from support officer Sophie Sparrow.
"We've provided referees, two locations where teams play their league games and the link with Arsenal," she says. "It's enabled the league to grow to the capacity it has now."