Big Interview part two: Centre of opportunity
Craig Salmon takes an in-depth look at the work of the Sir Tom Finney Preston Soccer Development Centre with its co-founders Peter and Kath MasonSuccess for Peter and Kath Mason is not judged by how many gleaming pieces of silverware are sparkling in the trophy cabinet.
The co-founders of the remarkable Sir Tom Finney Preston Soccer Development Centre gain their pride and fulfilment from seeing the many happy, smiling faces playing football at its UCLan Sports Arena base, in Tom Benson Way.
From a six-year-old kid enjoying his first taste of the beautiful game to a 40-year-old disabled adult, the centre – which came into existence in 1999 and took on the name of Preston North End’s greatest ever player six years later – is a beacon for diversity and equality.
Achievement is not judged on winning and losing – rather giving everybody an opportunity to partake in a sport they love.
‘Football For All’ was an off-the-cuff term used by Sir Tom when he witnessed the centre’s work at first-hand and it has become its all-encompassing mantra and ethos in the years since.
The centre’s expansion and growth over the last 18 years or so is all the more remarkable bearing in mind the couple set it up just to provide their five-year-old son Phillip some football coaching provision.
But now – under its Sir Tom Finney FC guise – the club boasts countless junior teams, several able-bodied adult male and female teams, as well giving disabled people – both adults and juniors – the opportunity to experience the thrill of competitive football.
Over the past year, the centre has also reached out to refugees, who have fled persecution in their home countries and have settled in Preston.
“For us, success is about the kids enjoying themselves,” said Peter, the chair of the organisation. “It’s not about trophies.
“Our success is shown by the number of teams we have.
“It’s shown by the diversity we have every Saturday morning at our training sessions. We have girls, boys from all different backgrounds – socially, economically, religious...
“And when you are down there, it is just a really nice atmosphere.
“It is a real buzz for us.
“People ask why we do it and we must enjoy doing it, else we wouldn’t do it.
“Seriously, we set it all up just so our son could get some football coaching and it’s just grown and grown.
“People started to approach us as our reputation went bigger and better.
“I have not got the capacity to say no when it comes to something football-related.”
Being the biggest name in local junior football circles, it could be expected that the centre has the pick of all the best players in the area.
However, one of its major principles is that it only provides competitive football for players who are unable to get a game anywhere else.
“Around 2014 when Sir Tom passed away, we were asked whether we could become the hub club for the North of England, working in partnership with the FA, UCLan and the LFA,” said Peter.
“That was all about better utilising university and other sport fields for community use.
“What we wanted to do at the time was branch out a little bit.
“ Our philosophy had always been ‘Football for All’, so we had never had competitive teams because by definition you have then to become selective.
“But with the FA and UCLan, we decided we would create some competitive teams but with a twist.
“What we decided was to take all those children, who were deemed not good enough to get games with other clubs or they could not afford the fees or they had fallen out of love with the game and were not playing at all.”
Kath added: “We had to go to all the leagues and the LFA and prove to them that this is what we were going to do.
“Other clubs thought that because of the name, all their kids would gravitate to us and we would steal all the best players.
“But it was the complete opposite of that – we wanted those who couldn’t get a game.
“We started off with five teams, which included an adult male team.
“We are now coming to the end of our third season and we have 25 teams.
“They are made up from Under-7s to Under-14s; three ladies’ teams – two open-age and one youth; two adult male teams – one on a Saturday and one on a Sunday; four disability teams.
“Next year, we will add an extra three teams.
“So within four years, we will have gone from nothing to 28 teams.”
Peter continued:“The ethos will always be kids who can’t get in other teams.
“All the seven to 14-year-olds have to have come through the soccer centre on a Saturday morning.
“By definition if they are at the soccer centre then that means they are not playing anywhere else.”
The expansion of the centre’s disability provision is something which gives the couple huge satisfaction.
From having 20 unruly adult disabled footballers, the centre now has 65 players on the books, who are all coached in a structured environment.
They also offer opportunities to children with disabilities.
“We have four competitive adult teams, playing in the Lancashire League and Everton FC’s community league,” said Peter.
Kath added: “Everton run a fantastic league at UCLan. They bring together a lot of teams from the North West of England.
“The children’s disability sessions run on Saturday mornings and they are free.”
Perhaps the newest initiative the organisation has undertaken is to provide opportunities for refugees.
“We were approached by the British Red Cross as to whether we would provide football coaching for refugees and asylum seekers,” said Peter.
“These lads came down – the youngest being about 18 and the oldest was 52.
“All they had were the clothes on their back – they had no football kit.”
Kath added: “The majority of them live in areas such as Plungington and Deepdale and they walk to the sports arena every Friday night for a game of football or training.
“They are from Somalia, Afghanistan, Kurdistan – places like that.
“What it does is bring them all together, they make friends and they have their own little community.”
As well as giving opportunities for anyone who wants to play football, the centre also provides a platform for people who would like to become coaches.
From the age of 12, children can train to become coaches, while students from UCLan are also able to take advantage of the centre’s facilities to gain experience and qualifications.
“The thing which really floats our boats, certainly around the UCLan students, is they come for three years with us,” Peter said.
“They come from all around the country and at first, they are quiet and shy.
“But by the end of it, they are getting jobs as a result of working with us and the references that we provide.”
Kath added: “We are like parents to them all, but it really is fulfilling.”