Goals give hope to troubled UK town

Al Jazeera revisits Luton, where football is helping to revive a struggling economy.

Free football and workshops are aiming to raise local hopes [Elizabeth Dunningham]

As part of Al Jazeera’s Downtown series, our correspondent went back to Luton, north of London, to see how football is giving hope to the community and its economy.

Al Jazeera first visited Luton in March. Since then, there has been only bad news for the town known for its international airport and long manufacturing history.

First we heard that its last auto plant will probably close down resulting in the loss of hundreds of jobs. This was followed by news that a local politician was forced to step down after being implicated in Britain’s parliamentary expenses scandal.

New figures show the town is near the bottom of the pile in terms of joblessness – a year ago 2.7 per cent of the population were claiming unemployment benefits.

This June that figure jumped to 4.9 per cent, compared to a national average of 4.1 per cent.

Luton’s fortunes, or misfortunes, are reflected by those of the local football team.

Die-hard fans

One of England’s first professional clubs, Luton Town FC has a long and proud history, but has seen its fair share of the financial troubles beleaguering the surrounding community. 

Gary Sweet wants to share the club’s success with the community [Elizabeth Dunningham]

After years of relegation and near bankruptcy, the club is now languishing at the bottom of English football. But its new owners – a consortium of die-hard fans – are working day and night to ensure the club not only survives, but thrives.

Gary Sweet, the club’s managing director, says the balance sheets are looking healthier.

Attendance has increased by 20 per cent in the year since he and the consortium took over, and the team is attracting big name sponsors, such as the Easyjet airline which is based at Luton International Airport.

Sweet is keen for the community to share in the club’s successes, saying: “We love the fact our ground is embedded right in the centre of town and we want to make the most that, not only commercially but also from an ethical perspective in that we really truly believe that the people who attend Luton Town football matches should be representative of the town of Luton.”

In reality that means the club is converting its corridors and spaces into community classrooms when they’re not in use, as well as embracing projects to broaden its fan base.

Raising hopes

Butch Fazal, a community leader, football coach and Luton Town fan, plays an important role in building these bridges.

He sees no limit to what football can do, from combating joblessness to improving race relations.

The local fire service has been hosting workshops for families [Elizabeth Dunnigham]

Right now he’s working on a project in partnership with local bodies such as the police, fire service and health officials, in which the children play football for free as long as their parents attend workshops.

“In the recession you need to raise hope and our project encourages parents not only to watch their children play football but also raises their awareness about issues in and around Luton,” Fazal says. 
“The key point is kids from a certain background who probably thought the door was shut to them when it comes to football, but no longer.”

When Al Jazeera visited the project, local fire officer Jane Clark was offering tips on fire safety.

Abdul Ghafoor, a drug and alcohol counsellor, was happy to listen while his two boys played football outside.

Through his work Ghafoor understands only too well why sport is important, especially during these hard times.

He said: “If you haven’t got [an] education, it’s very difficult. A lot of our people before would just go into taxis but you don’t need any education for it, but even that’s become very tough competition because there are a lot of guys doing taxis who’ve got degrees.

“I tell my children, they have to have a goal.”

Source: Al Jazeera

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