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Real Football: The crucial role of a Community Trust

18 September 2012

By Russell Kempson

Ashton Gate is peaceful. It is midweek, international week, there is no Championship match, no need for hustle and bustle. Yet in the Bristol City Community Trust (BCCT) offices, on the Ashton Road by the main entrance near the megastore, there is a buzz of activity. A genteel kind of buzz, perhaps, but everyone clearly has their tasks and they're getting on with them.

Enter Amy Kington, the Trust director, and that buzz maybe steps up a notch or two. A sort of 'let's get busy, guys. The boss is here' natural response. Kington is blonde, bubbly, a bundle of energy. She checks her mobile for texts, her emails for messages, chats to the troops, steers them in the right directions, issues a few orders. Always on the go, always on the move,

It is not difficult to see how the BCCT has progressed from its humble roots as a 'Football in the Community' set-up 12 years ago. How it has rapidly expanded to become an integral part of the Avon region; how it reaches out, especially to the more impoverished areas of Bristol, and attempts to make a difference.

And how the arrival 12 months ago of Kington, a Bristolian through and through, has provided a fresh, get-up-and-go impetus.

"Sorry, I can chat, can't I?" she says later, having spoken for close to an hour about her hopes, aims and ambitions for the future of the BCCT.

But why shouldn't she? I had no idea what the Trust of a Football League club involved. Does any average football fan? And yet the more Amy talked, the more I began to understand. It was hugely enlightening, her articulate and in-depth explanations guiding me through the ups and the downs, the ins and the outs, of overseeing a multifaceted independent charity.

A charity that needs about £300,000 a year to run, to pay for its 20-plus staff of full-timers, 'itinerant' coaches and casuals. The Football League does provide funding for individual projects and the club's City Foundation also chips in with indirect financial help from its new, improved matchday draw, which offers the chance to win £500 from a £1 ticket, and its weekly lottery.

"It is very important for us that although we don't make a profit," Kington says, "that we do cover our costs. But if we do make a surplus, we make sure we reinvest it into doing more. Nobody likes a badly run business, a badly run charity is much worse.

"The club is very good at placing the Trust at the core of everything. They can see the benefit in having it. It's a great way of engaging with the fan base and the communities, which will be existing fans or potentially future fans. Some of the positive impact of getting involved in good causes can really affect the morale of the place.

"Sometimes, you can't control what goes on on the pitch. But we can control this. So regardless of what goes on over there [on the pitch], this is very consistent. And to be honest, this is very low cost but very high return. And I'd like to think that people can see that."

Scott Murray, the former City winger and now club kitman, as well as John Stead and Cole Skuse - the first-team players - most certainly can. They are Trust ambassadors, a crucial link between the team and the supporters. "They're the three we mainly call on," Kington says. "They understand what their part is in it all and they are very socially responsible. They will always go that extra mile for us."

Kington, 30, has found a quiet office, across from the Trust headquarters, in which to chat. It is opposite the pretty tree-lined Greville Smythe Park and in an ante-room next door to the IT centre in which the BCCT first-year scholars of Futsal - a five-a-side version of the game, played with a smaller ball - are being taught. Chris Stenner, a sports lecturer and Futsal coach, keeps the pupils in check and interested.

Ian Parkes, the Education Lead, teacher, Futsal coach and England international in the sport, is a vital member of staff, too. And the two second-year scholars in the ante-room, gazing at their laptop as Kington holds court, eventually and politely take their leave to film the first-years in training.

"They don't really need to be here but they're just supporting the younger lads," Amy says. "They'll record the training, put a DVD together and run some stories on a website that they've created.

"They'll write some match reports as well, stuff like that. I find that lovely."

Kington launches into the hard sell. Well, not hard sell, but an exercise in the art of gentle persuasion that would convert even the most ardent Trust sceptic into a believer. The four 'goals' of Health, Social Inclusion, Education and Increasing Participation get an extravagant airing; the three 'enablers' of Facility Development, Promotion and Workforce, also. When Amy pauses, it is only when the door opens and she is interrupted.

"Our aim at the Trust is to use the professional game responsibly," Kington says.

"It's all about improving lives through the hook of sport, the inspirational power of sport and also the brand image of the football club. Yes, the Olympics, we're kind of riding on the back of that already. It's acted as a massive catalyst and has increased the numbers of people wanting to get involved and engaged with what we do. It's been great."

Amy halts, momentarily. "I can talk passionately all day about what we do," she says, "because I genuinely believe I've got the best job in football." She has, for a City fan since the age of six and for a Special Constable who has helped to serve the city in many other more stressful avenues for ten years. Amy turns on the Powerpoint on her computer and takes me off into the all-encompassing world of the BCCT.

"Health is a really important strand to the communities that we serve," she says. "We've got an opportunity, hopefully, to improve the health of these youngsters and also their families. We're currently working with ten primary schools and one secondary. It's a 10-week programme that looks at activity levels, what people are eating, what they are drinking. We also look to engage the youngsters' families because you invariably find that it is not they [the youngsters] who are the decision-makers. They don't go to the supermarkets and make the choices.

"We have physical activity days with groups. That's the carrot, that's what most of the kids really enjoy. And they also get the chance to come along to the stadium, to watch a game. But we're not exclusively working with Bristol City fans. The point of the Trust is not to dissect the city but to bring people together.

"We are deliberately Bristol City Community Trust, not Bristol City Football Club, because we run multi-sport offers. It's not just about football. There might be kids who want to be cyclists or athletes. Football might turn them off so we're quite careful that this is about trying to make sure that we're providing opportunity, not necessarily telling people who they should be supporting or what sport they should be playing."

Kington clicks the Powerpoint. On to Social Inclusion (SI). "Sport, in general, but football, in particular, has a really good role to play in instilling values of respect, tolerance, fair play and teamwork," she says. "With our SI, we look to use the power of sport to bring out all of that. From sporting activity, we can we can develop youngsters' leadership or communication skills or problem solving."

A pilot project in south Bristol, embracing many kids who were walking on the wild side, has worked wonders and is to be extended into the north and central areas of the city. "By going in and providing diversionary but meaningful activities, we noticed a huge reduction in the anti-social behaviour," Kington says. "As a consequence, a lot of the youngsters who came on board have gone on and achieved national qualifications in sports leadership. No longer are they involved in the dark side.

"But we didn't want just a group full of the most disengaged and disenfranchised youngsters because that marginalises them further and makes them seem to be different. We needed to offer a balanced approach so that there is a blend of every youngster out there."

Twins Sam and Billy Downes were veering close to the dark side. Too close for comfort. Instead, both opted for the route to somewhere - as opposed to nowhere - and are now full-time community coaches with the Trust. They are, perhaps, the shining examples of SI, of the BCCT, of triumph over adversity.

"Yeah, when we were younger, we did get up to a bit of mischief," Sam, 20, the older twin by one minute, tells me later. "We misbehaved, sort of bounced off each other. But once we got involved in the projects, we just focused on them and stayed away from trouble. We were told 'If you do this, then you can get this'. So we did. I've now got a lot more responsibility - we both have - and it's very enjoyable."

Back to the laptop, click, Powerpoint, Kington moves on to Education and the Futsal, which is for 16 to 18-year-olds, two-year scholarships, regular Wednesday fixtures against, among others, Cardiff City, Reading, Swindon Town and Bristol Rovers, City's rivals. "This one is really close to my heart," she says. "I was lucky to use sport in a really positive way to advance my personal and professional life.

"This programme is fantastic because it provides educational opportunities for kids who are interested in sport and maybe want to enter the professional world of sport but, before this chance was created, the nearest they got to it would have been to travel all the way over to the north of the city. Which, for sure, would have meant two bus rides and an awful lot of hassle.

"It's an educational scholarship, first and foremost. We want the kids to enjoy it, achieve and reach for the sky. But the education side of it just cannot be forgotten. Yes, play Futsal on a Wednesday, represent Bristol City, it's important, but it's not the sole reason. These are the kind of students who if they want to join us at a later date, then having the advanced qualifications as well as the experience of having worked with our coaches, it's ideally what we're looking for. Our future workforce is in front of us."

Laptop, click, Powerpoint, Increasing Participation. Amy is off and running again, explaining about the player development centres at Filton, Keynsham, Portishead, Whitchurch and Withywood. "Demand is really good," she says. "So we want to get as many kids as possible to get involved and fall in love with the game.

"It's great for those already playing in a team to come along and practise at a more advanced level. Good for those in a team who are perhaps struggling to keep up. But really good for those not playing in a team but might want to test the water first, to have a bit of coaching and training before they make a large commitment by signing on to playing in league fixtures."

Laptop, click, the three 'enablers. Facility Development: "I spent a year with the FA and my job was to identify the football priorities that would receive FA funding," Amy says. "So I've got a good understanding of how to put together facility plans, how to try to maximise the use of existing facilities and get more, how to sweat the asset."

And Promotion? "It's just making sure that people understand what we do, how we do it, why we do it," she says. "Making sure that our four goals are promoted, like supporting, say, the British Heart Foundation's Wear Red campaign." And Workforce? "It's not just about developing people internally, it's also about making sure that we help play a part in the legacy.

"Yes, I want the best staff, I want them to be hungry, to have a passion, to be visionary, but it's also about supporting the people outside of this organisation so that they are not so dependent on us. Everything kind of snowballs and yet dovetails into each other perfectly. Everything we do has a knock-on effect to something else."

Kington is done. Apart from a little personal info. How she played football as a central midfielder, graduated from the University of Gloucestershire with a degree in sport and exercise science and arrived at Ashton Gate via the Somerset County FA, where she was the development manager, and the FA, for whom she was regional facilities and investment manager for the south West. "This post came up a year ago and perhaps I've gone full circle," she says. "It's not nine till five, I work long hours, but I love it. It's the best job I could have possibly had in football."

Amy reminsces; "My first involvement with the club was at six, when my dad [Kevin], brought me to my first game. I've still got my shirt, which I can show you later. It's still got the tomato ketchup stain on the front from the hot dog that dad bought me at half time. We just loved coming to the games on Saturday afternoons together. And I enjoyed screaming and shouting on the terraces as much as anybody."

No screaming, this time. Amy talks softly as we walk back to the BCCT HQ. "That's where we get engagement with the young fans on matchdays," she says, pointing to Greville Smythe Park. "They love it there." More matchday engagement coming soon, too, when the Community Park is launched in a disused hangar, a former vehicle leasing depot, at the back of the Trust offices.

Scaffolding separates the prospective play area from the deep inspection pits, a legacy of time gone by; an inflatable pitch is already in place. "We'll have street soccer, skill challenges, table tennis, DJs, lights," Amy explains. "We want to create an atmosphere, an experience, and although it will be mostly for families, everyone will be welcome."

Kington returns to her desk, checking texts and emails. Mollie Stevens, 18, a BCCT apprentice coach, gets ready to leave to take charge of a one-hour after-school session. "I'll get the kids playing matches, just enjoying it really," she says. "It's just me there today but I'll also be working with Billy and Sam, helping them out and, hopefully, doing more and more."

Paige Fillingham is assistant to Helen Hynam, the co-ordinator for the City Foundation as well as the Trust's business development. It is Paige's first job since leaving school in July - her mother, Lisa, works in the club sales office - and her excitement is obvious. "My main focus is on the Foundation at the moment but, once I've got to grips with that, I'll be doing a lot of the Trust stuff also," she said. "It's all going really well."

In a nearby coaches' office, looking out into the Community Park hangar, 25-year-old Vicky Barlow, the BCCT development officer, stares intently at a laptop. Vicky's responsibilities are numerous - bringing in more business, getting more schools involved, expanding programmes, promoting the Trust, updating its website on a weekly basis, keeping an eye on the player development centres and also, on matchdays at Ashton Gate, looking after the young mascots.

"It's a lot of hours but it's very rewarding," Vicky says. "And it's a great club to work with. We have great relationships with the players and the media and promotion departments and we all get on well together, especially at the big events like matchdays. Everyone helps each other out."

Teamwork is the key, each trusty Trust component playing his or her part for the wider good of the community and club. And it's clearly working. "Here you go," Kington says, on the move as ever, as I make to leave. She shows me the tiny red shirt that she wore when, as a six year old, she watched her first City game. "And look, there's the ketchup stain. I told you."

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