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Football deals its cards in anti-gang campaign

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Pablo Blackwood, a former England youth international, works for Queens Park Rangers community trust © AFP / Daniel LEAL-OLIVAS

LONDON, United Kingdom, Apr 12 – Yellow card for a suspended sentence, red card for going to prison — these are the simple but stark analogies used in a revolutionary football programme to prevent young men falling prey to a life of crime.

Football, or “Sport for Thought”, is being used as a powerful tool in British charity Key4Life’s campaign to prevent youngsters becoming embroiled in gang warfare and knife crime.

Pablo Blackwood, a former England youth international who works for second-tier English side Queens Park Rangers Community Trust, told AFP the so-called Beautiful Game lends itself to using analogies that can be easily understood by young men who are grappling with how to deal with tough situations they encounter in life.

Knife-related crime rose by 23 percent in London last year and a spate of stabbings and shootings have left more than 50 people dead this year, pushing the murder rate higher than New York’s.

Blackwood is heavily involved with Key4Life, an organisation set up in 2012 by dynamic Irish woman Eva Hamilton after riots across England the previous year.

Its aim is to create solutions to help reduce youth offending and gang warfare as well as rehabilitating young men when they are released from prison.

“What football is good at is linking into real-life environment and situations,” Blackwood told AFP at a session last week at QPR’s Loftus Road stadium where 20 young men on the six-month-long preventative programme ‘At Risk’ learned about putting together CVs.

“I give them the example of a yellow card and red card.

“If you get the former, a referee will normally tell you what you have done to merit it and he or she will tell you if you do it again you will get a red card.

“Because of where these young men are I tell them it is like a suspended sentence, with them being told what they have done wrong and what they have to do next. People in general tend to modify behaviour as a result.

“But as we also well know some players three seconds later commit the same offence and get a red card.

“I link stuff like that in as I tend to find it is about giving them a hook.”

Blackwood, who as a youth player was on Chelsea’s books before his career was cruelly cut short by injury, says practice sessions on the pitch are also used to educate.

“I say to them ‘some of you don’t like rules and regulations, but guess what, you were able to stay onside, you were able to play within the confinements of the pitch’.

“If you can do that, why can’t you take that mindset and apply it in a societal environment?”

– ‘Need to take a step back’ –

Blackwood, who was instrumental in organising the charity match last year at Loftus Road which raised £1 million ($1.42 million) for the Grenfell Tower fire victims and their families, also gives the young men a lesson in how to avoid trouble.

“If you head into a fight and you run into that situation you don’t know what you are running into,” he said.

“You need to take a step back and see the big picture, which allows you to take a more informed decision.

“The player who runs into a blind alley, normally he or she ends up making the wrong choice.

“It is imperative to have that understanding of putting your foot on the ball, assessing the situation and taking a mental step back or even a physical step back,” added the 45-year-old.

For Eva Hamilton, football — along with horses and music — play crucial roles in unlocking the emotional pain inside the young men, either in the “At Risk” programme or those on a scheme in prison.

Hamilton, whose work for a series of charities of whom Prince Charles was the patron earned her an MBE, knows all about the emotional pain which culminated in her having a breakdown when she was 28.

Her long-term goal through Key4Life is securing employment for the people on the programmes — albeit for a lot less than they have been earning through criminal activity.

“We need to find ways of getting them a proper job that is going to yield obviously not £10,000 a week but gives them fantastic self-belief and confidence,” she told AFP.

“What Key4Life is really about first and foremost is getting more businesses in Britain opening up job opportunities and help these young men back onto a positive path,” added Hamilton, who has persuaded some high-profile companies to place their faith in her proteges.

Anthon Dinnall has become a key mentor since being released after serving a prison sentence for robbery. He is responsible for recruiting young men from housing estates in London for the “At Risk” programme.

Dinnall — who could see his home from the prison — is also knee deep in the music part of the programme but what gives him the greatest pleasure is his changed relationship with his mother.

“Before she used to ring me and ask me where I am and where I have stayed all night,” said the softly-spoken 24-year-old.

“Now she is ringing me to sort out everyone else in the household.

“To be able to now ring my mum and vice versa and collaborate over these preventative thoughts and have these conversations on how we can help others… it’s great, you know.”

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