Paul Stewart column: How I’m helping the next generation of Fylde footballers

Paul Stewart
Paul Stewart

This week, as it’s my last column, I wanted to write about the work that I will be doing with grassroots sports clubs around the North West and, in particular, a junior sports club from the Fylde; Spirit Of Youth FC.

As many people may be aware, I came forward in 2016 disclosing the abuse I endured as a young footballer at the hands of my junior football coach.

Since my public disclosure I have been working closely with the FA and other governing bodies looking at the landscape in terms of safeguarding at grassroots sports organisations, and whether or not I could influence a change in how junior clubs can do more to protect youngsters and adults at risk within their clubs.

What is certainly apparent is that junior sports clubs are responsible for hundreds of children and, in some cases, thousands.

They have a duty of care to these children, the same as is afforded at schools and other regulated settings.

While most clubs have volunteers in positions of trust, this does not exonerate them from responsibility or liability.

If we take professional clubs for instance, most can afford the best safeguarding procedures because of the revenues they generate from sponsorship and TV rights.

Therefore their elite young athletes have the best safeguarding measures that are available, so why should children at grassroots have their safety compromised because they are in a setting where volunteers are responsible for their wellbeing?

With this in mind my organisation ‘SAVE’ have introduced an ‘Excellence In Safeguarding’ initiative that we are rolling out within grassroots sports nationwide. With the backing of the Football Association as well as funding from Sport England we are offering a professional standard of safeguarding to grassroots clubs.

This is a two-year project, and the aims are to educate support and implement safeguarding in line with the Child Protection In Sport 10 standards of safeguarding.

Many organisations are unaware of these procedures but ultimately these are the standards that all sports organisations are audited to, yet most are completely unaware of the document.

I am delighted to say that our initiative has been embraced by many organisations who we will be working with over the next 24 months, but I wanted to single out one junior football club on the Fylde, Spirit Of Youth FC, who are the first to engage with us from the Blackpool area.

The club have highlighted the fact that safeguarding is a number one priority at their club, and by entering into the scheme, have demonstrated that the wellbeing of their children is paramount.

Club treasurer and U14 coach, Jonathan Barrett, said: “We are delighted to be working with Paul and the Save Association.

“What Paul, David White and many others have done has brought safeguarding to the forefront of any junior sports club.

“We want to show that the safeguarding of all our children is our utmost priority, and we want to make Spirit of Youth JFC the safest place on the Fylde for your children to play football.”

We will be working closely with the children, coaches, parents and everyone associated with the club over the next two years, so that everyone connected has a real understanding of what safeguarding should look like and how an organisation should operate within the correct framework.

The initiative will be evaluated and validated by Edge Hill University and will shape the future of safeguarding within grassroots sports.

We can no longer be complacent, and with the emerging issues highlighted regarding social media and the emergence of county lines, the problem still remains that children are still at risk.

However, if we can educate and communicate then hopefully we will not have a repeat of the scandal that hit the media in 2016.

If you are an organisation that prioritises safeguarding before winning, then the likelihood is that because you have created a safe and happy environment you will achieve winning.

If you put winning as a priority it is unlikely that you will ever have a safe and happy environment for the children to enjoy.

Well, that only leaves me to say ‘well done’ to two of my former clubs, Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur on what can only be described as the greatest comebacks in the history of the Champions League following their semi-final wins.

Tuesday and Wednesday’s victories against Barcelona and Ajax respectively were what can only be described as amazing and I don’t think anyone would have given both teams much of a chance.

However, football throws up some incredible nights and these two were certainly up there with the best.