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'Without football, I'd be six-foot-under'

24 November 2014|Tottenham Hotspur

In tonight's Evening Standard, Tottenham Hotspur Foundation coaches, Richard Allicock and Omari Chambers-Alert, speak about how working our award-winning charitable body has changed their lives.

The newspaper are working in partnership with the Foundation, alongside another 13 London club community schemes, to train 100 disadvantaged youngsters from the capital towards FA Level coaching badges through the London United programme.

A goal kick away from where Mark Duggan was shot dead by police, Richard Allicock gazed out over the floodlit pitch on the Ferry Lane Estate in Tottenham Hale and said: “This is where my life changed, this is where it all started for me.”

The 32-year-old football coach, who like Duggan grew up on the nearby Broadwater Farm Estate, was about to start an evening session with 30 teenagers who live on or around the estate where events sparked the summer riots of 2011. He is employed there by the Tottenham Hotspur Foundation as their community development manager.

“As a child, I witnessed terrible things,” he said. “When I was 12, I watched my friend get stabbed by another friend. That year my older brother Marlon came out of prison and was killed in a car crash. Then my cousin Denzil Sutherland, who I saw every day, got murdered. He was stabbed in the chest and died on Mother’s Day in 2003. There was no escape from the gangs where I lived — it was on my doorstep, in my household. At one point my mother was so worried that I would be killed that she sent me to hide in the Caribbean for six months.”

He shook his head wearily. “But when I look back, it was only football that gave me immunity. I used to train with criminals who were high on the police ‘most-wanted’ list. We would go running at 6am and play football in the evenings and the only reason they didn’t force me to do robberies and gang warfare was because they saw I was talented and might have a future in the game. Without football, I would be six feet under. That’s why I am so passionate about what I do now. Don’t get me wrong, we’re not miracle workers, but we do change people’s direction, we do save lives.”

Mr Allicock heads a team of 15 coaches who are employed by the Foundation to train 300 disadvantaged teenagers a week in the London boroughs of Haringey, Barnet, Waltham Forest and Enfield. They run the club’s Kicks social inclusion programme, which was set up as a pilot on the Ferry Lane Estate in 2006 in partnership with the Metropolitan Police, the Football Foundation and the Premier League. It has since been adopted by 41 other clubs and become a countrywide programme.

Next year Mr Allicock and his team will be joined by coaches trained through London United, the Evening Standard campaign set up in partnership with the health and life insurer Vitality, that seeks to change lives through football. Tottenham Hotspur is part of a consortium of 14 London clubs which have agreed to back our campaign by “supporting, mentoring and developing” 20 coaches our campaign is training up to FA Level-2. The consortium includes Chelsea and Arsenal and takes in the community trust of every London football club, from the Premier League to League Two.

The 20 coaches will be handpicked from the 100 disadvantaged youths who have been undergoing FA Level-1 training through London United and for them it offers what Spurs boss Mauricio Pochettino has called “a life-changing” moment.

For Mr Allicock, now a father of two, his life-changing moment came nine years ago when a friend introduced him to the Tottenham Hotspur Foundation. “I was 23 and it came at a point in my life when I was losing hope. I had been talent-spotted by a Crystal Palace scout who saw me playing in the park at Ducketts Common in Turnpike Lane. I joined their academy at 16, but when I was 19 Steve Coppell had to decide whether to offer me a professional contract. It was a devastating blow when he said ‘no’.

“After that I gave up on the idea I could make a living through football and I lost my way. I had left school with Es for my GCSEs and been unemployed and signing on for six years when I heard about a free FA Level-2 coaching course on the Broadwater Farm Estate. I hadn’t even done my Level-1, but I knew the person running the course and they let me join. Soon after I qualified, I interviewed at Spurs, who must have seen something in me because they hired me as a football coach in the community on a casual basis. That was my first job. That was when my life started.”

Today Mr Allicock sees himself more as a life coach than a football coach. “We’ve had fights kicking off here because of postcode stuff, but because the young people respect us, we can dilute the situation. These youngsters face a lot of challenges, just like I did, and our job is to be a sounding board. Sometimes we offer our own experience, but mostly we just listen. We’re ears for them. We win their trust. We save a lot of people from going in the wrong direction.”

Those who have been helped to do a handbrake turn on their lives include Omari Chambers-Alert, Mr Allicock’s deputy and right-hand-man. The 28-year-old had several convictions and had served a two-year sentence for knifepoint robbery and grievous bodily harm when he emerged from prison in his early twenties and resolved to put his violent gang life behind him.

He tried various things. He enrolled in a college business course, but that never lasted. He went to work with his father, who owned a restaurant, but they didn’t get on. Then about five years ago, his mother got cancer and Omari was asked to step in to look after his autistic younger brother.

It turned out to be the making of him. “I was at a loss and didn’t know what to do, so I took him down to the Tottenham Kicks programme at Northumberland Park,” he said. “I saw how much my brother enjoyed it, so I took him back, and one day the head coach asked me if I wanted to volunteer.

“Football had been my passion in school, so I said yes and ended up doing 250 hours as a volunteer. The head coach became like a mentor. He helped me think differently about where I put my energy. I started to get jobs, I started to become successful, I started to feel for the first time that my life had direction. Then I got my big break — a job coaching for the Tottenham Hotspur Foundation.”

Five years later, Mr Chambers-Alert is a coach and mentor to hundreds of young people. He recently became a father, but he is especially proud of how he helped his brother, now 18 and enrolled on a painting and decorating course, to negotiate the hurdles of his teenage years.

“Never in a million years would I have thought that bringing my brother down to a football project could change his life as well as mine,” he said. “Now I change other people’s lives. Being a mentor means the world to me. They come to learn football, but they leave with life skills. It’s a simple formula, but it’s also quite magic.”