Street soccer coach from Chorley wins national award for harnessing the power of sport to tackle crime and anti-social behaviour
A sports coach from Chorley has won a national youth award for using the power of sport to tackle crime and improve the lives of thousands.
He spoke to Catherine Musgrove about where it all started, how it's going, and what the future holds.
"People said it wouldn't work. I said 'watch me'."
That's the mantra that drives Paul Maloney forward everyday, and it's what's seen him win the Youth Development Award at the Community Sport and Recreation Awards 2021.
The 50-year-old grandfather-of-two is out on the streets every day, harnessing the power of sport to help thousands of people by tackling anti-social behaviour, exploitation, county lines drugs problems, violence, and signposting children to help.
It all started in 1996 when Paul was made redundant as a mechanic and successfully applied for a job on the YTS scheme.
He was given a six month contract to work at Bolton Wanderers Football Club to work on their Football in the Community scheme, and then, eventually it was made a permanent appointment.
After 14 years and climbing to become head of the scheme, in 2010 Paul decided to leave the club and persue his own scheme - Freestyle Urban Soccer CIC - concentrating on working with youngsters for free, on the street.
After a 'Dragons Den-style' grilling, he won a £20,000 kickstarter from Chorley Community Housing, and his dream was born.
"I wanted to do street sports, literally on the doorsteps of families, so they could look out of the window and see where the kids were", said Paul.
"Plodding along" on small bits of funding from various community pots, Paul and his team would be posted all over the North West, going to areas after contact from the police or housing associations.
Three years ago, they won Big Lottery funding, and have been able to expand their work, becoming involved in tackling child exploitation, as well as working with Lancashire VRN (Violence Reduction Network) and exploitation network NWG.
They will soon be running a county lines educational workshop.
But Paul is clear that his mission remainds the same as day one - delivering free sports on the street.
"We mainly deliver street soccer. It's old fashioned, lets get a game going", he said.
"But not everyone likes football, so we also do cricket, rounders and boxing skills. We've also got a project called Totally Board that's for skateparks. We're seeing a whole new group of people there who are vulnerable and might not be so sporty."
Paul hails from a community background, but also has a counsellor in his team and workers are all NHS-trained in issues such as alcohol awareness, as well as being inregrated with NHS services for things like sexual health and substance abuse.
Paul said: "When we go to an area a lot, the kids see us a lot and they open up to us about things.
"We can also tell how fit they are when we see them play."
Even though the scheme is concerntrated on youths, the sports activities are for anyone. The youngest participant was two, and the eldest 65.
Sir Linsday Hoyle has even got stuck in with a bit of street football.
During the pandemic and Covid restrictions, the team have been unable to carry out mass participation events, so have done detached work, where staff walk the streets, talking to young people and handing out masks, sanitiser gel and explaining the restrictions.
"Not everyone has a happy home, and as we know, when we've been made to stay inside, things like domestic violence have gone through the roof", said Paul.
"So there's a lot of young people who haven't felt safe at home and that's why they're out on the streets. They feel safer there."
During one welfare check in Liverpool, Paul passed a young man who he sensed was distressed. Twenty minutes later, he was talking to Paul about how he wanted to end his life.
Now seven months later, that man is still in contact with Paul and credits him with saving his life.
Paul's team are also on the lookout for what he calls 'sharks' who look for young, vulnerable people to groom with expensive gifts and drugs before getting them to take part in illegal activities for them.
The nature of the work takes Paul and his team into some unsafe and undesirable areas. While in Manchester there were shootings in the area the team were working, and houses targetted were by brick-throwers and arsonists.
Another time, a 10-year-old on a skatepark in Liverpool threatened to attack Paul, then later turned up with a gun.
Paul said: "It can be scary, but I've worked on the streets for a long time and it's about keeping your distance and knowing when to walk away.
"We never work alone and we never go busting in. We ask them if they want to join in a sports activity, then talk to them.
"There are now thousands of kids playing sports for free, and we're doing what they want, not what I want. These are streetwise kids. They don't necessarily want to go to a Youth Zone, they want to be on the streets.
"Some organisations can't work with kids like that, but we do.
"I don't judge them, I respect them. I come down to their level, not them to me, because a lot of them can't do that."
Paul also mentors 10 young people a year, taking them with him to work in other areas away from their homes.
He said: "I teach them that there is life outside their communities. Strive for bigger and better things."
Through his work he has seen teenagers go back into education, get qualifications and get jobs.
This has lead to the organisation and Paul being honoured with awards including the Lancashire FA Youth Coach of the Year 2020, and a Queen's Award for Voluntary Service, along with the rest of the team involved in Mid Lancs Colts Junior Football League.
Paul gives his spare time as League Development Officer for the league, and is sharing his work with the 60 clubs who are part of it.
>>>Click here to read about the league's Queen's Award for Voluntary Service.
Proudly, Mid Lancs Colts were the first junior football league to join up with the Kick Racism Out of Football campaign, and with them, Paul is rolling out a Smoke Free Sideline initiative, which he hopes to take nation.
He said: "On a Sunday morning you'll see parents stood there, smoking and drinking lager on the sideline.
"It's not an environment we should be bringing kids into."
For more information on Freestyle Urban Soccer, click here.