FROM PRISON TO THE top soccer league

Caroline Gillies

Caroline Gillies

When a youngster gets into trouble, people make excuses like 'he got involved with the wrong crowd'.

"I was the wrong crowd," confirms Jamie Lawrence, who, at the age of 23 was released from prison after serving a four-year sentence for robbery and violence. Three months later, he started a career as a professional footballer in the English Football League.

Prison is often accused of teaching prisoners how to be more shrewd, how to deal drugs, burgle a house, rob a bank, and so forth. It is not often that an ex-convict is released from jail with a success story. Since they can't get a job because of their criminal record they feel compelled to go back to a life of crime.

Jamie is an exception. He became a top-level footballer and made it his mission to mentor disadvantaged youth who are at risk of ending up in the same downward spiral of bad behaviour and crime that landed him behind bars.

Jamie's family came to Britain from Jamaica in the 1960s. When he was at the age of 16 his mother and stepfather returned to Jamaica. They wanted him to join them, but because of his love for his sports he decided to stay with his sister in Britain. Life was hard as they had no money.

He played football locally and did trials for professional clubs, but none of them signed him up. He became disheartened and had no purpose, thus started getting into trouble, doing petty crime with his friends.

He was eventually caught with a stolen car and sent to a young offender's institution in Feltham.

He was released from custody, but was unable to settle for a real job. Full of aggression, Jamie slipped back into crime and was caught on robbery and violence, landing him in Camp Hill Prison on the Isle of Wight.

This is where his life changed.

He started playing football for the prison football team, where they played against local teams on a regular basis.

"I am greatly indebted to Eddie Walder, the Principal Officer of Physical Education at Camp Hill who believed that I could be a professional footballer and motivated me towards that," says Jamie.

Walder, an ex-professional player himself says: "One Christmas we played a friendly match against the local side, Cowes Sport. The manager, Dale Young, saw Jamie and asked if he could play for Cowes Sport. The governor saw this as a benefit for Jamie and generally for the rehabilitation of prisoners and agreed. I decided at that point to make Jamie the gym organiser, doing normal gym duties but also keeping him fit."

"Jamie was in a different class to the rest of the players. They were assigned to full-time jobs and trained twice a week while Jamie worked in the prison gym. He was incredibly strong and fit, it was impossible to get him off the ball," says Young.

This was the start of Jamie Lawrence's life. Scouts from professional clubs heard about him, they came to see this rather remarkable player amongst the prison population. Eventually it was Terry Butcher an ex-England player and manager of Sunderland who offered him a one-year contract.

"Moving north was probably the best thing that happened to me. Being away from my friends meant I had to start afresh. At my debut match 'Jailhouse Rock' was played when I came onto the pitch at Middlesbrough, I thought that was a big laugh. I couldn't believe that I was rubbing shoulders with the same players I'd been watching in the FA Cup on TV, six months earlier," Lawrence confesses.

His career as a winger in professional football lasted ten years. During this time he played for clubs like Leicester City and in the Premiership with Bradford City. At 37, he is now playing for Harrow Borough in the Isthmian League.

Harrow Borough is one part of Jamie's life. There is another side where he is putting his experience to good use. During early last year, Jamie started the Jamie Lawrence Football Academy with the aim to train and mentor young players and give them an identity through football.

"They may not become professional footballers but they can make something good of their lives," he says.

Jamie is an articulate intelligent man with an instant street credibility. An ex-convict and Premiership footballer is a wise mixture to impress any short-tempered youth.

Jamie's headquarter is at Nightingale School, a South London special needs school for boys. Jamie's new business partner, Carl Samuels, was working at the school and realised the potential in what the footballer was doing. "Jamie understands kids and knows how to build a relationship with them. We work with kids who are at risk of breaking the rules and are involved in crime from a young age. We want to re-engage young people into full-time education, football teaches them discipline and life skills," explains Carl.

Head teacher at Nightingale School, Richard Gadd, explains: "We take care of boys with various problems, ranging from Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, Tourette's Syndrome (uncontrollable twitching and verbalising) to abused or disadvantaged youth. Often they are outsiders because of inappropriate behaviour or lack of communication skills.

"Jamie understands why young people get into the gang and drug culture and direct them away from that by giving them something different to focus their minds on."

Jamie visits Nightingale School daily and trains the boys on the small football pitch behind the school.

Football teaches the youth discipline. Jamie and Carl use it to engage the youth. Many of them might never play professionally, but their training makes them fit and their role in the team makes them feel wanted.

"One of the things I'm trying to teach the youngsters is that, when you get a knock-back your confidence suffers, but that's when you dust yourself and come back stronger," says Jamie.

l Caroline Gilliesis the author ofFootball's Hidden Story