Thursday 16 May 2013
"The opportunity to play in the stadium of a Premier League club, how many children in their lives will have the chance to do that?"
More than 300 schoolchildren had such an opportunity last week and at the historic stadium of Anfield as the Premier League Schools Tournament came to Liverpool for the first time.
The finals were deemed a great success, from the spectators who came to cheer on their children, to the players taking part, via the school representatives who attended, as well as the other dignitaries who were guests of the Premier League.
"I am pleased girls get the chance to play on this fantastic pitch at the same time as boys"
As well as the 300 plus young footballers who took part, about 1,000 spectators were in the main stand of the famous stadium to see Stoke City's Congleton High and Fulham's Corpus Christi crowned the Premier League Schools Tournament champions 2013, for the U13 and U11 age groups respectively.
More than 1,000 schools (760 primary and 357 secondary) had started on the road to Anfield, with 9,000 schoolchildren taking part in qualifying, and they were whittled down to 40 schools for the finals.
The general consensus was that the standard of play among the two categories was a step up from last year's finals at the Emirates Stadium and that the chance to play on the pitch at Anfield had had a positive effect on football at the schools.
This was especially true for girls' football, with Rachel Pavlou, the National Women’s Football Development Manager for The Football Association, impressed by what she saw at Anfield.
"My role is about developing girls' football so it was just brilliant when coming here to have the first thing I see are four pitches of girls playing the game," said Pavlou. "The standard looks really good. The organisation of the tournament has been fantastic and truly professional.
"I am just really pleased that girls get the chance to play on this fantastic pitch at the same time as the boys do. They are getting the same opportunities, which is exactly what we want. There are some really good players and what is really impressive is that the girls’ game is improving every year. You can see that here each year."
Therese Coffey, the MP for Suffolk Coastal and a director of the Premier League Charitable Fund, has long held an interest in the tournament, as a member of the Select Committee of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, and also was pleased to see so many girls enjoying the game.
"I was keen to come to Anfield because I want to do my bit to encourage schools, and girls in particular, to get hold of this fabulous game," said Coffey. "It is one of the fastest-growing sports and it has a fast-flowing nature that people of different abilities can get involved in. That's pretty encouraging for those who are not so confident. But the all-round nature of sport helps you with other sports, too."
As well as the chance to play on the hallowed Anfield turf, the opportunity to play the best schools from other regions and to come across people from across England and Wales meant that the experience was of benefit to the schoolchildren in improving their play as well as their character, too.
"It is nice for the kids to meet people from all round the country," said Elaine Tyrrell, headteacher of Highfield Saint Matthews CE Primary School, who representing Wigan Athletic in the U13 category. "It's been a fantastic experience, a wonderful opportunity for all the children to take part in this. We have got boys and girls in our teams and everybody competes on equal terms."
Like many, Tyrrell was also grateful to the Barclays Premier League clubs for the help they provided, which, in Wigan's case, included first-team players coming to their school. Such incentives meant that competition had increased for a place on the Highfield first team, raising standards, said Tyrrell.
This element of competition on top of participation was stressed by Simon Morgan, the Premier League's Head of Community.
"It is very important for our clubs to be engaged with schools, but the key to today is the competitive element," Morgan said. "Over 9,000 schoolchildren have been given the opportunity to play competitive football through the Schools Tournament this year, which will help them develop not only their football skills but teamwork, dedication and other life skills as well."
Many other clubs got heavily involved with their school representatives, such as coaching from professionals, while Newcastle United's teams travelled on the first-team coach to the tournament.
Tyrrell also pointed how the matches were played in a good spirit, with the children following the code of conduct laid out before the finals started.
"As a kid I dreamt about playing at stadia like this"
This was echoed by Lee Mason, who was one of the six Premier League referees to take charge of the matches.
"The games have been played in a really good spirit and it's been really enjoyable," he said. "Everyone’s been enthusiastic and their conduct on the pitch has been excellent, too. I have hardly given away any free-kicks and not had to use my cards at all."
For the finalists, there was the extra privilege of receiving their medals from Liverpool midfielders Jordan Henderson and Lucas Leiva. The Brazilian understood how thrilled the kids must have been at taking part in the finals.
"Today has been fantastic," Lucas said. "It is great to see the kids enjoying themselves and getting a unique opportunity to play at Anfield. As a kid I dreamt about playing at stadia like this, so this is an experience they will remember for the rest of their lives."
As well the history of Anfield, which made it such an important venue for the kids, the warmth of the welcome given by Liverpool and by volunteers from the Liverpool FC Foundation helped to make the tournament a success. Liverpool's chief media officer Matthew Baxter expressed his pride at Anfield being given the opportunity to host the finals for the first time.
"The Premier League Schools Tournament is a perfect example of the all parties, the Premier League, the clubs, the FA, the schools and sponsors, coming together for a perfect grass-roots initiative, something that we do at Liverpool," he said.
The positive effect of the finals was best summed up by Chris Naylor, PE Teacher at the victorious Congleton High.
"From being picked up from school, to arriving in Liverpool, staying in the hotel and having meals together as a team, getting to the stadium, going down the Anfield tunnel and having their photos taken with the Barclays Premier League trophy, they have loved it," he said. “Doing it here at Anfield, with its history and the great things that have happened here is special.
"There has been a real buzz at the school this week. We’ve had 50 kids come over today to support. It has helped us to sell football to girls at the school and even today a couple of girls watching said to me that they would like to join and when does it start again. It is one of those where success breeds success."