Good Causes

Charlie Hyman’s unique football club is changing young lives

For as long as he can remember, Conor, a 16-year-old from London, has loved football. He said, “It takes my mind away from a lot of things. It has nothing to do with anything else in your life, you just put your passion into it. I love the feeling of being on the winning side, but just playing is fantastic.”

Conor has been a member of several grassroots football clubs, but they focused on training, matches and little else. He never felt at home or properly supported until the day he was introduced to Bloomsbury Football, a London-based grassroots football project supported by funding made possible by National Lottery players.

Bloomsbury Football aims to provide high quality coaching to young people regardless of their ability, gender or financial means. But that’s just part of the story; the organisation uses football as a way to build long-term relationships with its members, developing their self-confidence and teaching them life skills with every kick of the ball.

Conor said, “Before I joined Bloomsbury I felt under a bit of pressure with school and my behaviour wasn’t always the best. I had stuff going on and I didn’t feel as though I had people who were looking out for me, or who necessarily wanted to see me do well. When I came across Bloomsbury I saw it as a fresh start.”

Have Conor’s teachers noticed the way he’s changed since joining Bloomsbury Football? He said, “Yeah, 100 per cent. This year, Year 11, you have to knuckle down and do the work. I’ve been doing that.”

As the world watches the FIFA World Cup in Qatar, the spectacle of the world’s best players competing for football’s ultimate prize will doubtless inspire a new generation. But the grassroots game, the place where the international stars learn their skills, is not a level playing field and young people from less privileged backgrounds need to be given more opportunities to take part.

That’s the view of Bloomsbury Football’s 26-year-old founder, Charlie Hyman (pictured). He said, “I’ve seen how incredible football is – not just what it is, but what it can do. But if you can’t access it you can’t reap the benefits. The experience of coaching that many young people are getting is really poor. We’re talking flat footballs, badly organised sessions and unqualified coaches.”

In less than 5 years, Bloomsbury Football has grown into an organisation with 25 full-time staff and 60 part-time coaches. It provides weekly training opportunities to about 5000 young players in several London boroughs.

Bloomsbury Football’s work starts with visits to schools, community centres and housing estates. The aim is to make a profound connection with young people, particularly those who haven’t had access to sport.

Charlie said, “We get them enthused and help them build a great relationship with a coach. Then they make the step of coming to our evening, holidays and weekend programmes. The idea is that a 6-year-old comes along and builds up trust and plays with us twice a week for 10 years. That creates a meaningful relationship and you can help them build life skills.”

Several future Premier League stars have already been unearthed by Charlie’s organisation. But finding the next Harry Kane or Beth Mead isn’t the main game. He said, “Football is simply the engagement tool. If they get better at football that’s great, but that is not what we’re here to do. We’re broadly working towards physical and mental wellbeing, social cohesion and building life skills.”

Young women face their own hurdles when it comes to getting involved in football and Bloomsbury Football is doing all it can to help them. Ella-Rose McCourt-Cox, the charity’s Girls engagement and project manager, says substantial challenges remain despite the buzz generated by the Lionesses’ historic victory at Euro 2022.

Ella-Rose, 22, said, “The interest that’s been sparked by the Euros is so exciting. I know from my own experience how much getting out into the air, getting a bit sweaty, training and working towards a common goal adds so much to a young person’s life.

"I just want to get as many girls on the pitch as possible. The level doesn’t matter. We just want them to train together, exercise together and make friends. So many girls hit puberty and don’t want to continue in sport. It’s about creating an environment where they feel safe and valued.”

Rio Rosenberg, 20, (pictured), a former captain of Crystal Palace’s U23 women’s team, knows full well how difficult that can be. Rio – who used to coach Bloomsbury’s U10 team and assist the coaching of its U14 girls team – said many girls still struggle to get a kick of the ball.

She said, “You get put off by boys or teachers or even coaches who might not see it as a pathway for girls. Before you even get a kick of the ball at school you have to gain the respect of the boys. When I was at secondary school I had to start my own girls' football team. We were always being told we had to play netball or do gymnastics.

“It’s one of the things that drew me into coaching at Bloomsbury because I grew up facing all the barriers myself. I think having a female coach is vital – a female role model they know they can talk to.”

Bloomsbury Football Foundation runs workshops for girls focusing on body confidence, nutrition and issues around training while you’re having a period. Ella-Rose said, “We want to have those conversations with them, to not shy away from them.”

Charlie has big plans for the approach developed by Bloomsbury Football Federation; he wants to bring the same opportunities to young people in cities outside London.

He said, “We work with kids from the first kick of the ball to adulthood. A star for us isn’t someone who goes to a football academy. It’s someone who wasn’t engaged at school and is now really confident.”

As far as Conor’s concerned: goal achieved. He said, “I was introduced to Bloomsbury Football at a time when I needed someone to see a bit of light in me – somebody who’d give me a chance. Bloomsbury’s helped me be confident with people not just my own age, but older too.”

25th November 2022

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