Friday night lights that bring kids in from cold
FAI and Garda project giving hope to Dublin's disadvantaged areas, writes Marie Crowe
ON a freezing cold Friday night, the car park at Irishtown Stadium is filled with Garda vehicles, buses and taxis. There are even a few boy racer cars scattered round the place.
Inside, the stadium is bursting at the seams with youths all waiting patiently for their instructions. At first glance it seems it's an intimidating scene as guards in full uniform swarm the congregation but closer inspection revealed that things are not at all as they seem.
In fact there is no trouble brewing and no one has any cause for concern. The boys are there to just play football and the guards are there to mentor them. It is a big occasion for all involved: the final of the Late Night Leagues.
Finals night is the culmination of months of games held on Friday and Saturday nights for young footballers in 19 centres around Dublin, all located in disadvantaged areas.
"The concept was developed in 2007 by the FAI along with the Dublin City Council, South Dublin County Council, Fingal County Council and the Dun Laoghaire Rathdown County Council," explained Gerry Riordan, FAI regional manager.
"Then the guards got involved too. The four local authorities co-fund our 20 development officers who are tasked with running the project."
Initially the project was aimed at youths between 16 and 19 but as a result of its impact and success in the community it has since grown to encompass the 12 to 15 age bracket. Garda research has suggested that sub-divisions that deploy the LNL programme see a 26 per cent reduction in anti-social related calls into local stations versus sub-divisions where LNL aren't deployed and it's easy to see why.
The programme is rolled out twice a year in the winter months during prime anti-social hours when kids have few other social options.
"We'd usually just be sitting on the streets or in our mates' gaffs playing FIFA," says one teenager who has been involved for the last three years. "It's great to get out and have something to do, not be bored all the time."
The LNL presently cater for 1,100 youths mostly male, however a female League has recently started in Hardwicke Street, North East inner-city Dublin.
The kids who partake in the LNL usually don't play organised football; they don't have a team to train with or go to youth club. This is their outlet. As well as giving them a focus for their weekends the LNL gives them an understanding of the Gardai and their role in society.
"Before this I thought the guards were just there to protect the bleeding people," comments a young player from Tallaght. "I didn't know that they did community stuff, that they would play games with us. We know their names now and they know ours, they give us lifts home and we can ask them things."
Tallaght is one of the most successful areas in Dublin for the LNL. It has been running in the heavily-populated area since its inception and they now have 21 teams playing on a Friday night, with more than 120 players turning up. Pat Courtney is a community guard in the area and he sees the benefits first hand.
"We get to know the kids very well and we get to communicate with them regularly," says Courtney. "It makes community policing a whole lot easier when you have programmes like this. The Friday nights can be tough enough with all the kids. We always have three or four guards down there.
"Tallaght is a very diverse area, there is a lot of social housing and there is a lot of private housing, there is a good mix. The kids come from all ethnic backgrounds. We work hard to keep the kids in the area involved in our leagues. They are the target audience. The leagues keep them off the streets."
On Friday night 450 kids played in the finals, 10 pitches were used and Peamount United's Stephanie Roche was one of the referees.
"It's great to get the kids off the streets," says Roche. "They were very well behaved and disciplined. I'd love to have done it when I was young, it's a great concept. They know if there is any bad carry on they will be straight off the pitch."
Part of the ethos of the LNL is to reward good citizenship. There are extra points on offer for teams who don't curse, shake hands and encourage their team-mates.
Of course running the LNL costs money. The lottery funding and sponsorship from the ESB are vital, but with big plans to expand the project, the news that IPB Insurance are coming on board as a sponsor was a big boost.
"We are delighted to support the national roll out of the Late Night Leagues and I look forward to working with the FAI , the local authorities and An Garda in building on its success," said IPB CEO Ronan Foley who was in attendance on the night.
A Steering Group, consisting of the FAI, local authorities, the Department of Youth and Children's Affairs and the Gardai, meet four times a year to plan and review.