Banning ‘No ball games’ signs in Islington is a start – but it won’t solve everything

The removal of 'No ball games' signs is a welcome move - but the borough's issues with engaging young people in football go far beyond signage.

Football in Islington, Copenhagen Youth Project
Football in Barnard Park. Credit: Copenhagen Youth Project

A commission set up by Islington Council last week recommended taking down “No ball games” signs in the borough’s estates. Although this is sensible, with nearly a third of children aged 2 to 15 in the UK overweight or obese, it can’t be allowed to paper over cracks which will only be filled by more dynamic measures.

Of course, it is a positive move. Sophie Bolt, the Campaigns Officer for Play England, a charity which campaigns for children to have freedom and space to play throughout childhood, told Islington Now this week that “it sends a really strong message that children playing outdoors is something to be welcomed and celebrated.

“This could not come at a more important time – children’s time spent playing outdoors is in decline and it is having a detrimental effect on their health.”

However, the reality is that Islington’s issues with engaging young people in football go far beyond signage. According to data released by Islington Council in 2013, the borough has the second lowest density of green space of any Local Authority in England, behind only the City of London. And with 87% of its total area built up, Islington also has the smallest amount of open space per head.

If you need an indication that Islington borough is failing young footballers, Copenhagen Youth Project is a worthy paradigm. It is twenty minutes from Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium, the most expensive place in the UK to watch a football match, where a season ticket starts from £891 and can be as expensive as £1768.50. In a borough where 38% of children are living in poverty, according to data released by Trust for London, it is easy to see why many kids see the gap between dreams and reality as unbridgeable.

Stephen Griffith has been the project manager at the youth project since it started in 2002. In the project’s fledgling years, Stephen ran a three-tier football programme funded by the Football Foundation. It began with estate-based football, progressed to competitions and tournaments, and culminated in trials with clubs. The programme was so successful that it won a Beacon Award for Philanthropy in Sport from the Football Foundation. But Stephen says the motivation among young people in his area to play football is fading.

“What we had ten or fifteen years ago is boys walking around with footballs under their arms and wanting to play all the time. We had sessions on the pitches where we would have forty kids there, no problem. That’s what they wanted to do and they were all so motivated. A football session now on the estate isn’t engaging half as many kids.”

It is pretty clear what Islington does wrong. Firstly, football facilities are seen as an unnecessary obstruction by many of those moving into the area, where green space is already at a premium. Last year, it took six months of campaigning from local organisations, including Copenhagen Youth Project, and an eleventh-hour intervention from Communities Secretary Sajid Javid to persuade Islington Council not to reduce the size of the borough’s last free 11-a-side football pitch by 70%. But the council still plans to reduce the pitch to a 3G nine-a-side pitch with the backing of the Friends of Barnard Park, who have complained about the noise disturbance from the pitch.

Secondly, in a borough like Islington, where professional footballers have been few and far between since the days of Arsenal greats like Pat Rice, there is also a creeping sense of ennui. When you walk into Copenhagen Youth Project, you pass a table teeming with football trophies. They used to reach the 5-a-side National Finals in Manchester every year; they have toured in Israel, France and the Netherlands; two of their players are in the U16s setup at Arsenal. But despite the talent which continues to come through the doors of the project, Stephen has never seen anyone make it professionally. “Lots have got to a certain level within the academies but then they’ve just gone to pieces, normally because of behavioural issues.”

Sanchez Watt was an Arsenal youngster, who made a notable impact in the League Cup when he scored on his debut in a victory over West Brom in 2009. After all his initial promise, Watt is currently playing for Hemel Hempstead in the National League South. He is the kind of negative paradigm that makes young Islington footballers lose hope. “Two guys at Copenhagen knew that guy,” Stephen says. “They were close to him. And when he disappeared, they suddenly thought, ‘well it’s not going to happen for us’, because he was great and look what happened to him.”

That so many kids in Islington are never getting the chance to fall in love with football has ramifications beyond the game itself. “Football used to be a saviour for a lot of these boys, as they saw the journey they could have.” But as the path towards professional football obfuscates, the path towards crime comes into sharper contrast. “It’s almost as if criminal activity has taken over the lives of our kids who used to play football.”

Caledonian Road, which is adjacent to Copenhagen Youth Project, has become notorious for the gangs of young children who patrol the road at night, delivering drugs and threatening locals. “We’ve just had quite a lot of kids in the area, young teenagers, go to prison for stealing phones, for moped crimes, and in some cases for murder,” Stephen says.

“That leaves a void in their gangs for people to fill. People want to fill that void and do so by being more violent.”

Some, of course, retain hope that football will offer a way out. Alex Ikenwe, 20, is a long-serving member and award-winning volunteer of Copenhagen Youth Project. He plies his trade as a semi-professional footballer at Tower Hamlets FC and is still aiming for the professional level. “If someone in the area did make it pro, there’d be more people playing. There have been so many who have been close. If one of my friends made it, I’d be ready to believe that I can.”