Voice4Change meets Lewisham Sports Consortium

Mike Garrick and Harry Powell are two of the founders of the Lewisham Sports Consortium – who run Firhill Road Sports Ground, a facility in South London which allows people from across London to play football together. Mike and Harry both have footballing backgrounds – with Harry having played professionally for Charlton and other clubs in the 70s, when black players were a rarity in the top division. Now they are dedicated to giving young people the opportunity to play together and have reliable facilities to do so. I meet Harry and Mike at Firhill Road to talk about their work.

Firhill Road Sports Ground

The first thing which I pick up from talking to them is that this project is about much, much more than football. For them it’s about teaching kids discipline, helping them connect with one another, and giving them a vision for their futures. It is very much a community, rather than just a few football pitches.

“We don’t just give these young people facilities,” says Mike, “we give them a community and a structure which can be so valuable to them. They make connections with people who they might never have met before, and we give them something to do when they’d otherwise be on the streets. Even those of them with a clear family structure are often alone in school holidays while their parents work full time. We provide a place for these kids to go, and teach them positive values like discipline and hard work when we need to.”

But two decades ago when they started their mission, alongside a number of others from four local football clubs, there were many struggles. The first was trying to find a site.

“This wasn’t the first site that we worked on back at the start,” Harry explains. “After lots of hassle with the Council, the first site that they let us use was a local park which was not being maintained. They allowed us to use it so long as we did all the work to create the pitches and repair the changing rooms. This was temporary until the Council was able to tender out the management and maintenance of the park to a commercial company. So it wasn’t a long term solution, but it was all we could get back then.”

It has never been easy for them to get help from the Council, who are typically low on funds. And funding has unsurprisingly been a struggle for the Sports Consortium - who rely solely on fundraising.

And alongside these issues of location and funding, the organisation has had to grapple with racism as well. And this hasn’t just been subtle, subliminal prejudices (although there have been those too) – but undeniable, in your face racism.  Following on from restoring football pitches in a local park, the Consortium was offered a nearby disused area of land with a building. But this building this was burned down – in a racist arson attack by people who didn’t want this project in their area.

“Some local people just didn’t want our type around,” Mike says, “and our site was very blatant and out in the open. So one day we arrived to see that it had been burned to the ground.”

“And did this get much coverage at the time,” I ask, horrified.

They both laugh at once. “No,” says Mike simply, “it did not.”

This is one of the rare moments when Mike and Harry respond in total unity. They are clearly good friends and partners, but come across differently. Mike is more business-like and professional, and speaks more about the practical challenges of running their organisation. Harry’s responses are less focussed, and are often about the goals which they want to achieve and the messages they want to pass onto young people particularly from the BME community. Both men emphasize that they have different skills, and have learned to complement each other over many years of working together.

“But it hasn’t just been us,” says Mike. “There have been so many wonderful people who, like us, have given their time, skills and talents to this project. Harry spoke to some local workmen, strangers, who gave us half a day and used recycled materials to create office space for us. This was just one example, of many, of people from the community giving what they have to making things better.”

Harry Powell (left) and Mike Garrick (right) in front of their office.

After their previous site was burned down, the Consortium followed up an opportunity to secure use of Firhill playing fields. When first acquired this site was nothing like as pristine and attractive as it is now. It was a local rubbish dump. Throughout the whole conversation, neither Harry nor Mike ever tire of emphasizing just how much work needed to be done to make this site into something usable.

“It was an abandoned mess,” says Mike, “it was overgrown, needed levelling out and was covered in junk. When people go by on the train now they look out on a field of well-kept football pitches. Before they would have seen nothing – just bush! The local residents were quite thankful actually, because the houses which back onto this site had had a lot of trouble before. With teenagers hanging out here and causing trouble, taking drugs, making noise and that sort of thing. So they were relieved that someone had come along to turn the site into something useful.”

“And this is where the hard work of the volunteers has really made a difference.  Clearing the site took a lot of hard graft, none are trained and most have full time jobs. And there was so much that needed doing. As well as clearing the field we needed electricity, running water, changing rooms and some sort of office. This cabin was donated to us from the local Synagogue. It has all been such a community effort.”

Another challenge which emerged was learning how to mark out the pitch. It costs a lot of money to get it done professionally, and they didn’t have this in their budget.

“It’s very important that the pitch is marked out accurately,” Harry says, “if you want to play proper games. You can’t have the dimensions wrong or the penalty box the wrong size! So I had to go on a course and learn how to do it myself. It’s wasn’t easy at first, but I’ve learned how to do it well now.”

Football pitches at Firhill Road Sports Ground

Teams come from across London and the Home Counties to play at Firhill Road Sports Ground and, as Harry emphasizes, they get much more than just the chance to play football.

“People will come along to play and then stay talking outside for three hours afterwards! They meet people who they wouldn’t otherwise meet here. And it isn’t just football. We provide children’s holiday schemes, cultural and community activities, education, training and mentoring programmes.  We have books available in the cabin, there are two kids who always come in, and the first thing they do is pick up a book to read.  We want to create an environment where young people are safe and happy.”

“I make sure to teach them discipline and good manners too. When they come into here they have to say good morning. And if they don’t – I send them out to do it again. These are the values I was taught as a young person, and they are still valuable and important today.”

Educational materials inside the cabin at Firhill Road

Despite the huge strides they have made, Mike and Harry still view Lewisham Sports Consortium as a work in progress.

“I have so much more I’d like to invest into this project,” says Mike, “but it takes time. Funding is always difficult of course. One of the challenges with big funders is the huge emphasis on funding something specific and measureable. It’s not always that simple, but it’s what they want to see.”

And dealing with people’s race-based assumptions has been a struggle at times.

“I feel like I have to justify myself a lot,” says Mike. “Like I have to constantly explain what I’ve achieved and how reliable and professional I have been. I shouldn’t have to say these things so much, but some people are prejudice and need constant reminding of our achievements.”

But despite these barriers, the story of Lewisham Sports Consortium is an inspiring one. Harry and Mike’s attitude is exactly what you would want from people organizing this sort of project. They are dedicated, professional and know exactly what they want to achieve. And they have made a real difference to the lives of young people in their area.

Voice4Change have been supporting their efforts along the way, in partnership with Locality and the City Bridge Fund, as part of our interest in developing Community Asset transfer programmes. We helped them acquire the 30 year lease extension on their site, and are supporting their aim to secure £500,000 to finish developing the new club house and training centre. We are delighted to have worked with such inspiring people, and are hoping that the next step is an equally positive one.