Football-based literary workshops led by the children's laureate are encouraging primary pupils to find their own story-telling voices. Harvey McGavin reports from Stamford Bridge
Children's laureate Michael Morpurgo was 55 before he attended his first football match in the late 1990s. It was a UEFA Cup tie at Stamford Bridge, between Chelsea and a Swedish team whose name he can't recall. But he remembers the "overwhelming" noise, the way everyone stood up when something exciting happened and that "there were no replays".
It was an evening match and, under the floodlights, the vivid green of the pitch, the blue strip of Chelsea and the yellow shirts of their opponents added to the spectacle. As he watched the game with illustrator Michael Foreman - his collaborator on several books and a Chelsea season ticket-holder - his eyes were drawn to another splash of colour. A row of Chelsea pensioners sat resplendent in their scarlet greatcoats. "Michael turned to me and said, 'I want you to write me the story of the life of one of those pensioners'," Morpurgo says.
Five years later, he's back at Stamford Bridge, in a hospitality suite under the stand where he sat that night, explaining to a group of schoolchildren how the story that started to form in his mind became the book he is holding, Billy The Kid. Pupils from local primary school Burdett Coutts sit entranced by his telling of the story behind the story.
A young boy in the 1930s dreams of playing for Chelsea but, soon after he makes his debut, war breaks out. His elder brother dies at Dunkirk, and Billy joins up as an ambulance driver. He is captured at Tobruk and sent to a prisoner-of-war camp in Italy.
When the Italians surrender he is freed and begins the long journey home through enemy territory. He makes it, but is sent back into service.
Traumatised by the scenes at Belsen, he ends up an itinerant drunk, until he is taken in by a couple who buy the derelict house where he is living.
The story turns full circle; he becomes a Chelsea pensioner and returns to sit in the stands where he went as a boy.
Too extraordinary to be true, you might think, but all the plot elements have echoes in real life. Morpurgo's uncle was a pacifist who resisted conscription and joined up only after his brother died trying to land a burning plane. A worker on his Devon farm was captured in north Africa and held prisoner in Italy. As a child, Morpurgo had a neighbour who, he later discovered, had helped liberate the concentration camps and became an alcoholic. And he was told the story of the tramp who came to stay by a woman he met in France.
Now the elements of the story have come together again. In a series of workshops over two days, children from nine primary schools will meet the writer of the book, its illustrator, a Chelsea pensioner (each school has adopted one) and a real footballing hero, Roy Bentley, 79, who captained Chelsea in 1955, the last time they won the championship.
The idea of these Education through Football workshops is to demystify the storytelling process and encourage children to find their voice as writers.
"For a lot of people it seems like an impossible cliff to climb and they think, 'this is just for clever people'," Morpurgo says. "But children need to know they can take elements of their lives and put them in stories."
War Boy, Michael Foreman's account of growing up in a Suffolk seaside village, does just that. In an adjoining room, his stories of the night a bomb fell through his bedroom roof or how the whole family would share a weekly bath clearly enthral his young audience. "It was," he says with some understatement, "quite a dramatic place to grow up."
Around that time, Peter Daniel's grandfather was selling fruit and veg from a barrow on Fulham Broadway. His family later moved away but Peter grew up a Chelsea fan, and bought a copy of Billy the Kid in the club shop. He was a teacher then, but left to become education officer at the City of Westminster archives. Peter realised the book could be the key to teaching a traditionally tricky element of the key stage 2 curriculum, "How Britain has changed". So he wrote up a literacy scheme and trialled it in Millbank primary school, using artefacts such as heavy leather boots and balls, thick cotton shirts, black and white photographs and programmes to show just how much British football - and with it society, technology, fashion and design - had changed in 50 years.
Chelsea FC responded enthusiastically to his idea, and he enlisted the help of Michael Cole, an ex-pro who is now the club's Football in the Community officer. He takes children on a tour of the ground and describes life in the modern game - in stark contrast to the memories of Roy Bentley. Bentley played in England's inglorious 1-0 defeat by the United States in the 1950 World Cup ("when my dad read it in the paper he thought it was a misprint and we must have won 10-0") but even as a top striker and England international, Bentley never earned more than pound;15 a week, little more than a postman or policeman. When the children ask about the astronomical sums earned by today's players, he is philosophical. "When you get old there are better things to do than be envious of people," he says.
This vivid collision of past and present has caught the imagination of the children taking part. "The great thing about it is that all the scenes in the book and these photographs are local to the children," says Mr Daniel.
Although Billy the Kid is the perfect accompaniment to the project, other clubs could draw on their own history and local associations to create similar schemes, he suggests.
Teachers have been thrilled by the response of their pupils. "They are captivated because of the subject matter; it has been incredible," says Heidi Beyer, a Year 5 teacher at Millbank. Jessica Mair, a teacher at Burdett Coutts primary, says: "Most of these boys who can't stand reading or writing have been converted. All this brings it to life. It's like going to another country and seeing something you have only read about."
The project has certainly left a lasting impression on at least one of her pupils. "It helps us to become more imaginative and to write better stories," says Ben Langton, 10. Then he adds: "And to remember to be grateful to people who lost their lives in the war."
RUN WITH IT
Reading the game is one of the fundamental skills of football. Anticipating the opposing team's next pass and intercepting it or choosing the moment to make a run are skills that become almost intuitive in the best players.
Reading words on a page was never considered the favourite leisure time pursuit of the professional. But more and more players are now daring to declare their love of reading in the hope of encouraging young fans to get stuck into a good book.
The National Literacy Trust scheme Reading the Game is a fixture at every club in the Premier League, as well as 11 from the Championship, seven from League One and five from League Two. All these clubs have a nominated "reading star", a player who recommends a book fans might enjoy. These range from George Orwell's 1984 (recommended by Middlesbrough's Colin Cooper) to The BFG (the choice of Manchester United's Rio Ferdinand) as well as a surprisingly broad selection of biographies, classics and children's books. Associated projects such as Reading is Fundamental, now in place at 35 clubs, have distributed almost 9,000 free books to 3,000 children since 2002.
Football clubs have traditionally been a focal point for their local communities, and they have lately taken on a new and relatively unsung role as centres of learning. Worries over low levels of literacy - and underachievement of boys in particular - combined with the fascination so many children have for football make them the perfect venue for educational initiatives.
Playing for Success, the DfES-sponsored out-of-hours study centres, have become established at more than 100 football clubs and other sports venues, bringing demonstrable improvements in pupils' performance.
A 2003 report on the fourth year of the scheme, aimed at underachieving pupils from Years 6 to 9, found that reading ages, numeracy and IT skills all showed significant improvements. "The footballsports club setting proved attractive to pupils, and was a strong element in motivating pupils to become involved," the report says. "They felt privileged to be selected, rather than singled out as in need of extra help."
See www.readingthegame.org.uk; www.dfes.gov.ukplayingforsuccess