giving kids hope

Steve Mowlem strides purposefully through the car park, past the single-storey change-rooms block to the edge of the pitch.

Steve Mowlem strides purposefully through the car park, past the single-storey change-rooms block to the edge of the pitch.

Immediately he is surrounded by a milling, chattering swarm of boys and girls. They want to play football, and seek his approval.

All of which is a remarkable testament to the power of football for hope. Mowlem, not so long ago, was the last person likely to be considered a role model.

Today he helps run a programme coordinated by the local regional officers of the crime reduction charity Nacro in the English south coast town of Bournemouth.

Founded in 1966, Nacro runs rehabilitation and preventive programmes throughout England and Wales for people at risk of getting into crime, who have perpetrated offences and have antisocial behaviors. Football is just one of the many tools used to pursue its mission.

The charity runs more than 60 youth activities and additional projects, working with more than 15000 young people between the ages of eight and 21. Many of the projects use football and other sports to engage young people.

Nacro's first football project was launched in Salford in 1994 and the charity has been a member of the streetfootballworld network since 2002.

Not so long ago, 36-year-old Mowlem was a follower, reaching out to the Nacro football programme in a belated attempt to pull his life back together after things had began going wrong from the age of 10.

"I started fighting at school and stole whatever I could find, even from my parents, just to get cash. At first, the money was for little things like cigarettes, then later for drugs," recalls Mowlem.

"Once, some pals and I broke into my own home to steal stuff. I also learned how to get myself kicked out of school."

Playing football did not feature in Mowlem's life back then. He was encouraged by the lure of the bad company.

His mother says, "We knew he was in trouble, we knew he was stealing from us. He would take things, and we wouldn't notice immediately. We didn't know he was into drugs, it was difficult to cope when we found out. We were so worried that eventually I called the police to arrest him."

Life at his home proved impossible. Mowlem ended up sleeping under the docks and wandering the beaches of Bournemouth and Brighton.

Eventually a drug clinic course helped him triumph over his addiction to the extent that he could marry and become a father of a son and a daughter. Thereafter he awoke to football.

Mowlem says, "Whenever I thought about what I wanted to do with my life, I imagined working with children. With my record I thought I didn't stand a chance. My little boy loves football. I wanted to get involved, first for his sake then for my own."

That was when Mowlem learned about Nacro's football programme. The charity had a site for a pitch but needed community help in organising playing and coaching.

This was an opportunity which helped him channel his energies into a worthwhile project and saw him progress to become chairman of the joint sports association.

Mowlem and his committee took over a neighbouring pitch to expand the project. They cleaned up the deserted changing rooms and began organising 'real football' for children aged between seven and 18 years.

In due course Mowlem took up part-time, paid employment to look after the site. He completed several coaching courses and is now taking a refereeing course.

Don Weir, Nacro project leader who runs the football programme in Bournemouth says, "It's remarkable, what Steve has achieved for himself, for us at Nacro and for the people of the local community.

"You cannot overstate the effort, dedication and sheer personal will it takes for someone to come from his background and turn himself around like this."

Mowlem is a firm disciplinarian with his youthful charges. He keeps a strict eye on the children's behaviour, obedience to the rules of the group, laws of the game and personal manner. It ranges from keeping the dressing rooms clean, participating together in pre-match training disciplines, right down to keeping not just their football but their language clean.

Weir says, "Steve doesn't tolerate any nonsense. He appreciates the importance of making sure everyone develops within the team. The children learn interdependence through football. Hopefully what they learn will help carry them a long way in far more than sports tournaments."

The world of Steve Mowlem, on a community football pitch fringing one of the largest housing estates in the south of England some 85km from the nearest Premier League club, may appear light years distant from football's glamorous, high-profile upper reaches.

But there is a direct connection: Nacro draws financial support from various national government agencies but the football project is also funded by grants from the Football Foundation and Fifa's Football for Hope programme.

Mowlem has no doubts about the power of football. As he watches the eager youngsters warming up for a big match, he says, "I'll always be grateful to Nacro for giving me a chance to show that I can be a useful member of the community.

"Honestly, a few years ago I would never have believed it myself... I'm very proud of what I've achieved."