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'I'm proud of everyone here, no matter what they go on to do'

14 Apr 2015

Premier League Kicks coaches and participants in Croydon explain how the initiative has made an impact to them and their community

It was clear that a Premier League footballer was watching; the sprints were faster, the tackles harder, the tricks more exuberant. It is not that often that youngsters can display their skills in front of someone like Wilfried Zaha.

For the 60-odd young people attending a recent Premier League Kicks session at Canterbury Road, in Croydon, Surrey, having the Crystal Palace winger among them was special, especially because only a few years before, he too had attended the project, played on the same pitch and dreamt of becoming a professional footballer.

Zaha's story of PL Kicks participant to top-flight star is not unique. A handful of youngsters such as Liverpool's Raheem Sterling have also made the same journey. While the development of such players inevitably gathers most publicity, the project is more than a talent-spotting scheme.

Since it began in 2006, PL Kicks has used the appeal and interest of the Premier League and its clubs to engage young people in some of the most disadvantaged areas of the country, giving them the opportunity to do something positive with their time, taking them from playing sport, moving them to volunteering, then to coaching and finally earning qualifications.

Michael Lacey has been coaching at Canterbury Road for the Crystal Palace Foundation for the last 12 years.

"There's not much around here and this is something for the kids to do," he says. "Young people get a bad press but I work with them. I know they are not that bad.

"They feel safe here. The coaches look after them and they are running around laughing and are behaving themselves. You can see the respect they have for the coaches. No one is rude. They like the discipline we give them.

 "There's a good structure. Without this project, on Friday night they would probably be hanging around the streets doing what most young people do on a Friday night with nothing to do. But these guys they come here, play for three hours, they are tired, they go home and they relax.

Michael Lacey, Crystal Palace Foundation
Crystal Palace Foundation coach Michael Lacey has been at Canterbury Road for 12 years

"The scheme means a lot to me. I see some of the young people that have come through the scheme a few years later, and they are at college, playing for the college team, and I think, 'If they had not been here, they would not have gone on to that.'

"Having Wilf [Zaha] come and see the young people here will have done them the world of good. I am proud of what he has achieved but I am proud of all of these guys. Whatever they go on to do."

Professional football is one of many pathways open to PL Kicks participants. Damola Eniola, a former PL Kicks participant, is back volunteering at the project as a lead coach and is taking charge of a game with younger players at Canterbury Road when Zaha visits. The 23-year-old was encouraged to attend university by his PL Kicks mentor, and he has gone on to become a primary school teacher.

"PL Kicks made me a lot more confident," Eniola says. "It gave me many routes to go down such as coaching and youth leadership.

PL Kicks participant Frederick Agyapong has just earned his Level 1 coaching qualification

"It brought out my desire to teach and it helped me go to university. My mentor was always pushing me, showing me ideas, giving me different opportunities and courses to go on, and I learnt that education is the key, so I thought, 'Do it.'

"Without Kicks, I have no idea where I would be. I probably would not have gone to Uni. I would have finished college but I would probably be in a part-time job somewhere.

"I love seeing the amount of kids that we get down here because I know they want to better their lives. They don't want to be on the streets messing around. A lot of them then want to volunteer and become coaches just like us because they see the impact that we have on them."

One of those young people who are making that transition from participant to coach at Canterbury Road is Frederick Agyapong, 17, who has completed his Level 1 coaching course and is planning to take his Level 2 qualification.

"I had thought about coaching but I never thought of a way of how to get into it," he said. "Kicks has expanded my knowledge of football, technically and physically. It's given me opportunities such as volunteering which has led to Crystal Palace letting me do my Level 1 coaching.

Crystal Palace winger Wilfried Zaha meets PL Kicks participants at Canterbury Road

"This is really important for kids in the local area. If I wasn't here I would probably be at home playing video games or watching TV. It gives me something to do and it's been very beneficial. I would recommend it to anyone."

Canterbury Road is one of nearly 200 projects delivered by 50 clubs in England and Wales. This is thanks also to the support of Sport England, and Phil Smith, Sport England's director of sport, says projects like the one in Croydon show the partnership is working.

"Sport England's main aim is to get more people playing sport more regularly and you can see from the numbers playing here we are doing that very well in Croydon," he said. "But on top of the sports participation is the fact that these young people are all hopefully going back into education, training or employment and therefore will end up doing something better with their lives than they would have done before they found Kicks.

"It is about finding something you are good at and fulfilling that potential, challenging yourself to have aspirations. Wilfried Zaha is fulfilling his and these young lads could go on to have interesting careers and to do great things themselves, and Kicks will be responsible for starting them off.

"This works really well because the partner has a vested interest in the outcome, the clubs really want to work in these estates and these environments, they want to work with these kids, and they want to make sure that these young people have got an opportunity."

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