Our featured article commemorating 25 seasons of Football in the Community.
Back when England were gearing up for the 1990 World Cup – and Mansfield Town’s front line was being led by Trevor Christie and Steve Wilkinson (remember the latter’s five goals against Birmingham City?) – the Stags’ Football in the Community scheme was first being set up at the pre-redeveloped Field Mill, now known as One Call Stadium
Born of out the successful Manchester City FITC model that had begun life three years earlier, the project had such modest beginnings that there could have been no predicting its longevity, nor the impact it would have on thousands of children’s lives along the way.
When the concept was first rolled out across the 92 Football League clubs, as they then were in pre-Premier League days, it was former Stags, Chesterfield, Rotherham and Doncaster midfielder Dave Bentley who was tasked with establishing it in north Nottinghamshire, even though he was the only full-time member of staff.
It meant only a handful of schools could be visited in those initial days, making it very difficult to get a lasting message across to the youngsters of the time, who were more likely to be lured by the talents of Liverpool’s John Barnes and Peter Beardsley, or Manchester United’s Mark Hughes and Brian McClair, than Mansfield’s Steve Charles.
However, a quarter of a century later and the scheme is still going – and stronger than ever. Now there are five full-time staff, as well as those employed part-time and who volunteer. It has given the Stags a vehicle to push what they have to offer in front of youngsters like never before – and ensured that a steady stream of support has come the way of the first team come matchdays.
At the heart of much of the good work has been FITC director Mark Hemingray, who has, remarkably, been associated with the project since December 1992. It has not always been an easy journey for him, not least when, in 2006, he had to oversee a transfer of the scheme so that it operated with charity status and as a limited company. Thankfully, the worth of those endeavours are now clear for all to see.
“I think the Football in the Community has played a vital role in developing the next generation of Mansfield fans,” he explains. “I see kids all the time at games who have been introduced to the club when we have visited them and then they have been invited back to the One Call Stadium.
“Of course, if they like it, and their parents enjoy coming along, then they come back again and that’s when you can have supporters in the making. There have been plenty who have been involved with FITC who are now avid season ticket holders and, in fact, there are people who have been on it whose sons and daughters are following them into being Stags fans too.”
But while putting bums on seats is one of the scheme’s reasons for being, it also plays an important role in the wider development of children, with four key areas at the forefront of the staff’s work, namely education, social inclusion, sports participation and health.
They are lessons that will serve youngsters well not only in the immediate future but as they grow into their adult lives. Football is the vehicle that helps get some of the most important messages across in a way that is easy to understand.
Mark adds: “Football has always been, and always will be, at the heart of what we do, but we also know we can teach kids the value of things such as staying fit and active, as well as good teamwork and sportsmanship.
“One of the biggest barriers that we have to break down in our work is the poverty that some of the youngsters find themselves in, so we know we can’t charge too much and the costs to people have not gone up all that much from when we first started.”
These days, the FITC staff can make use of a smartly decked-out classroom housed in the north corner of the Ian Greaves stand that has been recently been revamped with the help of donations from NatWest and the Football League Trust.
But aside from the sponsorship, the scheme has to generate much of the money it uses to keep operating itself, not taking a penny out of the football club. Success in raising those funds has enabled a gradual expansion into more schools, so that at least 25 are now involved every academic year from across the likes of Mansfield, Sutton, Kirkby, Ravenshead and Shirebrook.
“I remember in the early days we used to get the bus when we went into some schools,” smiles Mark. “We only had a few markers and a few bibs, but we used to make the best of it and make it work.
“But it is nice to have the facilities we have now and be able to get around so many more schools. It’s come on in leaps and bounds and I’m very proud of what we have achieved so far.
“You need good staff to help make it work and that is where we have been very fortunate. Sometimes in this area of work there can be a very high turnover of staff, but we have been lucky to have people who have been here for a number of years and are very committed to what they are doing.
Football in the Community celebrates 25 seasons at Mansfield in 2015-16, and to mark the occasion a number of the schemes coaches from down the years will gather in the classroom prior to today’s match against West Country side Yeovil Town.
Among those currently helping out the FITC team are first team squad members Jack Thomas and Liam Marsden, who, when they can, do the odd bit of coaching that has been facilitated with the help of the Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA).
“They have both been helping out with our school sports project, which is a relatively new activity – and we’re very grateful to them for doing it,” says Mark. “I’m sure there will be some days, when they have a hard training session, that they won’t want to be doing the coaching, but the kids really value it and I think they recognise it’s good to put something back into the game.
“Certainly Jack is one who has come through the Football in the Community scheme himself, as did another first team player Nathan Arnold before him (now at Grimsby Town), and so he knows what we are trying to do.”
As the volatile economic climate over the past few years has demonstrated, nothing is set in stone, but Mark is determined that the Mansfield Football in the Community Scheme will continue to thrive, adding more projects to its ever-widening repertoire.
In addition to the current offerings of bike rides, rock climbing, trips to Premier League football grounds and a Futsal education programme, plans are in the pipeline to introduce disability football sessions and build on an already strong relationship with West Notts College to develop even more activities.
Mark insists: “I have always met some interesting people doing the role I have and I know that continues to be the case for all the staff. We all enjoy what we do and that’s why we continue to try to deliver to the best of our abilities.
“We hope to get into even more schools in the future and keep moving forward. We don’t want to go too fast for our size, but at the same time we want to grow the staff and the project as wide as we can.
“It’s great to see the kids out there playing matches at half-time and the parents coming in to watch them. Who knows, of those who get the experience of playing in front of the crowd on the One Call pitch, there just might be another first team player of the future among them.”