Ex-Preston North End captain Oshor Williams salutes PFA’s vision

Gordon Taylor retires next month after 40 years in charge of the Professional Footballers’ Association. Taylor and former Preston North End captain Oshor Williams look back at the beginning of the Football in the Community scheme, first pioneered at Deepdale...

Sunday, 23rd May 2021, 4:45 pm

There is a striking mural on the wall as you climb the stairs to Gordon Taylor’s office that illustrates the chaos and confusion of English football in the 1980s.

The collage captures football’s decade of despair: The Hillsborough tragedy, the Heysel Stadium disaster and the terrible fire that consumed Bradford City’s main stand, killing 56 spectators.

They were dark days, almost unimaginable now with the Premier League the richest and most lucrative football league in the world.

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Former Preston captain Oshor Williams

“That era, the 1980s, was probably the most challenging time football had faced in the last century,” said Taylor, who retires from the union’s top job next month.

“I remember sat at a PFA emergency meeting, thinking, ‘What can we do to improve the image of the game?’ There was no social responsibility from clubs and hooliganism was rife.

“We needed to see them (the clubs) as the focal point for community activities because our game was the one sport that brought together the community on a regular basis.”

A pilot scheme in 1986, Football in the Community, was launched at six clubs in the North-West – Preston, Bolton, Manchester City, Bury, Oldham Athletic and Manchester United.

The PFA

Oshor Williams captained North End to promotion from the old Fourth Division that season. He later became Deepdale’s Football in the Community development officer.

“It has proved to be one of football’s greatest success stories,” said Williams, now the Professional Footballers’ Association assistant director of education.

“I must salute the part the PFA and Gordon Taylor played because they were right at the heart of this initiative.

“Gordon Taylor had this vision – and the community scheme breathed fresh life into clubs, with many transformed because of their community involvement.

“His legacy will be that he took the PFA from an archaic union with a great tradition to a modern one.

“Gordon was a moderniser and schemes like Football in the Community will, arguably, be his greatest legacy.”

Williams took charge of PNE in the Community following the death of Mick Baxter, who had initially established the Deepdale scheme.

The popular ex-Preston defender died aged 32 following a brave battle against cancer.

“We were lucky to have this incredible man at Preston – Mick was an inspiration to so many people and was very highly thought of,” added Williams.

“Mick’s death was a great loss to his family and Preston North End.”

The Deepdale surface was artificial then, meaning the plastic pitch was used by the Preston public seven days a week and it proved a huge hit.

“Deepdale had become this vibrant place and people wanted to be part of it,” added Williams.

“You’d go past Deepdale at 9pm on a wet January evening and the floodlights would be glowing, there was always something happening.

“We had a little community mini-bus, and I’d drive to Frenchwood, Penwortham, Ashton and Ingol, and you felt like you were part of something very special, engaging with so many folk.

“We’d put on tea dances at sheltered accommodation, did great work with mental health groups, the disabled and the unemployed, some who found work with the Community Scheme.

“The players embraced it too – and they were working in the community as the ambassadors of Preston North End.

“The Football in the Community scheme took Preston North End to the heart of the community and it generated a wonderful feeling in the town.”

Williams added: “I do see that legacy in the modern community work going on today with Preston North End’s Community and Education Trust recognised for their incredible work when they crowned the Community Club of the Season in 2020.

“They delivered 1,300 food hampers to some of the most vulnerable people in Preston during the coronavirus pandemic and that’s just astonishing.”

The Football League Trust, based at Preston, now governs the national community scheme and every Football League club in England have their own thriving community scheme.

“When the original Football in the Community started 35 years ago people were quite cynical at first, but the response was absolutely remarkable when we got going,” added Taylor.

“I received letters from headmasters, police chiefs and fans, telling me how people, young and old, were engaging with football again due to the community scheme.

“The Football League Trust has developed the programme, tackling society issues like knife crime, racism and literacy through their excellent social inclusion and education programmes.

“Not only did we come out of that terrible period in the 1980s, but football came out of it stronger, more civilised, with all-seater stadiums and families going to football together again.”