AS STEVEN Jardine surveys his players, he knows he is preparing them for quite literally the game of their lives.
For Steven is no ordinary football coach and this is far from an ordinary team. Indeed, for some of those currently kicking a ball around in Sighthill, the simple fact that they have turned up at all is a major achievement.
“It’s a big challenge for the guys,” says Steven.
“It’s a big ask for them stepping up to the plate, making a commitment to coming in every morning. But once we get them there, once they are part of it, they reap the benefits.”
We are at the Street League Academy, a project which uses the power of football to get the most disadvantaged young adults into work, education or training – with some impressive results.
Held at the Powerleague centre in Sighthill, it consists of a rolling programme of eight-week courses for around 20 young people at a time. Each consists of employability workshops where participants learn how to prepare for a job by writing a CV and taking part in a mock interview, as well as working on their self- esteem and confidence.
They also have the chance to gain three vocational qualifications, including a Scottish Football Association coaching award, a Community Sports Leadership award and a first aid qualification, and are offered a work placement for a week.
But the hook of the programme, as the name suggests, is football, and students – most of whom join the programme after taking part in the academy’s more informal two-hour street football sessions – also get coaching.
Those taking part come from a range of backgrounds with a variety of skills – and problems.
One graduate, Dean Ballantyne, had signed for Liverpool as a 15-year-old and once had a bright future ahead of him pursuing every boy’s dream as a professional footballer.
His dream, though, fell apart after he suffered a knee injury which brought his three-year career to a dramatic end.
“My life has been a roller coaster,” he says. “I first signed as a professional footballer playing for Liverpool when I was 15. I had my eye set on my future. I wanted to be the best.
“That’s when the injury struck. I was 18 years old when it happened. I dislocated my knee and twisted my tendon. It was unrecoverable.
“I did not have my eye set on anything else. From a young age that was my career. It was horrible, devastating.”
Dean, from Chesser, left Liverpool and returned to Edinburgh where he enrolled in a music course at college.
However, unable to see himself making a career in music, he dropped out and got a job as a store supervisor in Scotmid. Again, it was a short-lived move.
“I misplaced a couple of items and had no idea I had done it. I went to the doctor and was diagnosed with high anxiety. I was on tablets for that. I had no job, I was on Jobseeker’s [Allowance], I had no interest in working anymore. That’s when I found Street League.”
At the same age that Dean was signing a contract with Liverpool, fellow Street League graduate Ross Easton was being kicked out of school for fighting after getting mixed up with the wrong crowd.
After two years of doing little else but running about with his friends, Ross’s prospects improved when a friend put in a good word for him at the furniture shop he worked in.
“At 17, I got a job as a retail sales assistant,” says Ross. “It was the best job I have had in my life.”
However, it wasn’t to last long, and he left after two years when the heavy lifting became too much for him.
“I had to lift heavy chairs and beds up three flights of stairs,” he says. But he adds: “I regret ever leaving.”
Around the same time, he found himself homeless after splitting up with his girlfriend of four years and his life then started to spiral downwards as he moved from job to job.
Ross, who grew up in Whitburn, was unemployed when he found Street League through his advisor at the job centre.
“Before I started this programme I was quite heavily depressed,” he says. “I had nothing to do all day.”
Indeed, having to turn up to the academy on time for 16 hours a week over two months can be the first challenge for many. Some have issues with drugs or alcohol, others come from spending all day lying in bed or playing computer games until 4am, making it tough to adjust to a structured programme where they are faced with the nitty-gritty questions of why they don’t have a job and what has happened to them in the past.
Paul Treagus, who works for Skills Development Scotland, which refers young people to the academy, says: “My job is to try and find the best option for them. There are some who are just plodding along and not doing too much. I may have to do quite a lot of work in the beginning to engage them and get them interested.
“Quite often these youngsters have not enjoyed education. The thought of going into college strikes fear into them. As a result, training programmes like this to allow more informal and experiential learning are more and more common.”
Operations manager Stephen McFadden adds: “The challenge when you get to the academy is it’s about upping your game, challenging yourself. The goal is to get them into employment, education or training.
“You don’t need to be good at football to come to Street League, but there are some good football players.”
From the last group of 16 students, four dropped out early on. Twelve graduated with 34 qualifications between them, of which two are now in jobs and one is about to start working as a youth officer.
In addition to gaining some qualifications, the group has also gained some important social skills.
“Personally they have progressed,” says Steven. “They are now much more confident and can stand up and chat. When you think back to day one, they would not make eye contact with anyone.
“They had their heads down, were texting and had earphones in. Now they can engage in conversation.
“On the social side of things they have come on massively, but also professionally. Some people go through life with no qualifications. They have got three within eight weeks.”
Having graduated from the academy with his three qualifications, Ross, now 25, is planning to volunteer as a football coach. He is also hoping to do a college course in sports and fitness.
“I want to coach my own football team and to get my Highers,” he says. “I feel more uplifted and good now.”
For Dean, now 19, taking part in the course allowed him to regain his confidence and, following a work experience placement as a multi-sports coach, he is now working for the city council’s Active Schools programme teaching everything from gymnastics to badminton. However, he has bigger plans for his future.
“The plan is to go to the US, get some experience coaching kids over there, come back with more qualifications and hopefully get a job,” he says. “Football is my life. I can’t do it with my feet but I can pass it on to the younger generation.”
GETTING A KICK OUT OF SUCCESS
Street League, which also has bases in London, Manchester, Newcastle and Glasgow, has run three academy programmes in Edinburgh since it opened in April.
The next academy will be held at the Lochend Youth Football Club, starting on January 14.
A second academy at the World of Football centre at the Corn Exchange is still to be confirmed.
The street football sessions are held from 2pm to 4pm and are open to unemployed people between the ages of 16 and 24.
Around 90 per cent of students who enrol in the Street League academy graduate successfully.
Three out of four graduates get a job or move into training and education.
The Edinburgh Street League programme is funded by the Scottish Government’s Enterprise Growth Fund, Inspiring Scotland and the State Street Foundation, which is the charitable grant-making arm of State Street Corporation.
For more information about the next Street League Academy at Lochend, contact email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org
For more information about the Street League Academy at the World of Football contact email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org