Craig Salmon talks to Peter and Kath Mason, who co-founded the renowned Sir Tom Finney Soccer Development Centre, which is based at UCLan’s Preston Sports Arena
The selfless volunteer coaches who give up their time for free at the pioneering Sir Tom Finney Preston Soccer Development Centre are all bound together by one shared mission.
‘Football for All’ is the mantra which underpins everything that the organisation stands for.
And it was the reason why Preston North End’s greatest ever player – and arguably England’s as well – gave permission for the centre to bear his name more than a decade ago.
Although Sir Tom passed on nearly four years ago, the organisation’s co-founders – husband and wife Peter and Kath Mason – are determined to maintain the highest of standards – befitting of the centre’s iconic name.
No matter what your background is or where you come from, there will always be a place for you to train and play football at the centre.
It caters for everybody irrespective of race,creed, colour,age, ability or disability – there is even a team for refugees.
In fact it is not uncommon to find the daughter of a millionaire having a kickabout alongside a disadvantaged child, who has been referred to the centre by the police.
It was an ethos that really struck a chord with Sir Tom when he once came to visit and view the organisation’s work at first hand.
And the great man had no hesitation in giving his name over – alongside all the values that he stood for both on and off the pitch. Peter Mason revealed that Sir Tom’s blessing certainly put the centre on the map and was the cherry on the cake in terms everything it stood for, but with it also came a huge amount of pressure.
“To have Sir Tom on board initially as our patron and then for him to give his name sealed what we were doing,” said Peter Mason.
“We are all about grassroots football – our strapline is ‘Football For All’.
“There’s no barrier to who can play – ability, disability, religion, disadvantaged. We take all and everybody on.
“So to have Sir Tom; first of all coming down to the centre and then secondly, giving us permission to put his name to it was absolutely superb for us.
“But with that came an awful amount of pressure because for me as the chair of the organisation and for Kath, who basically runs it, we were dealing with a person’s iconic name.
“So the standards that you keep, set, have and uphold have to be – and no disrespect to any other club – better because of the name.
“We are blessed with having Sir Tom’s name but we could have that name taken away from us if the family decided that we weren’t keeping up to the standard. Fortunately, Brian Finney – Sir Tom’s son – is a trustee and the rest of the family support us at various functions.
“Actually I think two of Brian’s grandchildren train with us down to the centre and his son-in-law is a coach.”
A stalwart player for the Lancashire Constabulary team, which played in the West Lancashire League, Peter – who rose to the position of chief superintendent of Greater Manchester Police and superintendent of British Transport Police before retiring two years ago – had got to know Sir Tom through his local football connections.
“We invited Tom to the centre and he came down to have a look around,” Peter said.
“He used to come down at least twice a month to hand out medals – probably the parents were more star struck than the kids.
“But he was that taken by all the kids playing football.
“We would have children of millionaires – Trevor Hemmings’ grandchildren for example used to come down – but then on the other hand, we would also have police referrals all playing together on the same grid.
“Once you have got a group of kids all playing football together on the same grid – nobody knows where they come from or what their background is.
“He turned to us and said. ‘This is great – this is like football for all isn’t it?
“Our strapline is Sir Tom’s. That’s where our strapline came from.
“We obviously took the opportunity to ask Sir Tom if he would become our patron.
“Then we asked him if he would do us the honour of putting his name to it and he had no hesitation in agreeing.”
The centre’s roots go back to the last century – or 1999 to be more precise – when the couple were looking to improve the football skills of their young son Phillip.
Aged just five-years-old at the time – he’s now 23 – Peter and Kath, who also have two daughters Louise (29) and Rachel (27), discovered there was no children’s coaching provision at his school – so they decided to do something about it.
“Because of my contacts in the football world – I used to play for Fulwood Barracks – I had a couple of friends who were in the Army and were also football coaches,” Peter said.
“They told me to bring Phillip and his class mates down to the barracks and we basically opened it up to everybody. In those days we had to give mother’s maiden name, car registration, the day before the training session for security reasons.
“I think we took about 15 kids down for the first session and within 12 months we had outgrown the barracks.”
The opening of UCLan in Preston Sports Arena in 2000 handed the soccer centre an opportunity to expand.
“We became UCLan’s first customers,” said Kath Mason. “We were assisted by Bowker BMW, who gave us £10 and a bag of balls.
“We would get kids coming up to us saying, ‘Can my best friend come? Can my cousin come? Can my next door neighbour come.
“So we started to put a structure in place and this was before the days of the Charter Standard.
“We put insurance in place and made sure we did everything properly – and it just grew from there.”
With Ged Starkie and Charles Gorton as the lead coaches initially, the centre’s rise in popularity was because of its ability to provide affordable coaching – and a fun environment – for children to enjoy the beautiful game .
“We just broke down all the barriers,” said Peter. “We got bigger and bigger because we were putting on a facility where we weren’t providing a 10-week course for such and such money – basically a child paid if they turned up.
“We made it affordable so that parents who could not afford to pay didn’t pay and those that could did.
“We were able to do that through sponsorship and fund-raising.
“It was around about that time that we became a registered charity and also a charter-standard club.”
Next Saturday: We take a more in-depth look at the work Sir Tom Finney Preston Soccer Development Centre carries out on daily basis and the work it does for the wider community – only in the Lancashire Post