Grassroots football is the heart and soul of the game. For the hundreds of thousands of participants, it is their opportunity to be involved in a sport they are truly passionate about.

Kick It Out will speak to figureheads and representatives of the grassroots game, in a series exclusive to the organisation’s website, as they offer their unique thoughts from the amateur and community level.

Within society, social disparity exists in many different forms, racial, gender and social injustices are prevalent in many aspects. In Aylesbury, Craig Freeman aimed to address some of these issues through football, and the Friday Night project.

The project targets young people aged between 11-17 years old, who have, in some way, been marginalised or disadvantaged. Education on contemporary topics to enhance life skills are then delivered to the group in a sports environment.

“The project is based on sporting activities, with a football focus, but we also include key topics and themes throughout the year, for example hate crime would be one of them; other themes covered include sexual health, physical health and drug and alcohol awareness.”

The Friday Night Project works with young people who have been side-lined from society, either through exclusion from school or anti-social behavioural orders.

Isolation and separation from the wider community can foster anti-social behaviour, and in some cases criminal behaviour. However, the Friday Night Project has been able to combat issues, through sport and education, creating a positive environment for the young people to engage with.

Craig continued: “We had one lad in particular who had two older brothers involved in gang-related crime and drug running. At the age of 12 we identified he too was involved in criminal activity and had been for some time.

“Through the Friday Night Project he’s been brought out of that environment and is thriving. We couldn’t do this on our own however and are supported by other agencies including Youth Offending Service and the Police, but I’m proud of what we’ve achieved.”

Further to this, the Friday Night project works closely with schools to help those excluded return into education in some form, providing a base for these young people to grow. Thanks to this, the relationships between the participants and the community have improved with many enrolled on to apprenticeships or on to college courses.

“We’re working with 15 year-olds that have been excluded from school or that haven’t been able to get back into school, however we’ve managed to get them involved in a college placement for two days a week, or get them involved in an apprenticeship.

“We’ve also got placements at a local garage so they can begin to build skills in the workplace, learn a trade, and keep up their college work as well.

Craig went on to further explain about police relations in the area.

“One of the PCSOs visited a session in plain clothes and joined in with a few games. It’s fantastic that the police and the kids can do that, because it fosters better relationships day to day. The Friday Night Project has created a whole new level of engagement between communities where antisocial behaviour has been rife over the years.”

Kick It Out also partnered with the project to help deliver sessions that help educate the young participants on equality and inclusion. Craig mentioned how working with the organisation has helped the project focus in different areas.

“We have a diverse group who regularly attend and in doing so it’s important that they believe in Kick It Out and don’t feel isolated. We’ve broken down barriers and removed community tensions within the group. Kick It Out has highlighted the importance of communities being integrated.”

Projects like Friday Night demonstrate the power of football to be a positive driver of social change, using the sport as a vehicle to bring diverse people together and focus on a greater goal. So after their initial success and growing influence in the local area, what’s next for the project?

“We’ve been looking at creating a more regular environment for participants to engage freely with each other, so they can engage in activities and benefit from one to one support from the coaches.

“We’re also in the process of engaging the group on to the Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme; allowing them to continue building on their development, to achieve great things and learn some important life skills along the way. We are all very excited by the next stage in their ongoing development.”