Arsenal in the Community at 30: Interview with Alan Sefton

Arsenal in the Community at 30: Interview with Alan Sefton

Arsenal in the Community

The Arsenal in the Community programme reaches a 30 year milestone this year. To take a look at what this fantastic scheme does and how it benefits so many, Darren Epstein talks to Alan Sefton, the man who began it and runs it to this day.

Despite what some think, there are a lot of people who have worked for Arsenal for a long time, well before anyone had heard of Ashburton Grove, the Emirates or even Arsène Wenger. Many of these people have influenced the club off-field in ways that just writing an article like this can’t really do justice to.

Arsenal have had some very long-serving employees over the years, hallowed names such as Joe Shaw, Tom Whittaker, George Male, Bob Wall, Ken Friar, David Miles … and Alan Sefton. Some of these long-term Arsenal legends never kicked a ball in anger for the club, but nonetheless have had a lasting impact with the many years of service they have given.

The year 2014 is approaching the 30th anniversary of what we have come to know as Arsenal In The Community. This will be a significant milestone for a programme that has helped tens of thousands of people worldwide and was launched way before it was fashionable for big football clubs to appear to be charitable.

I’ve always enjoyed reading in the programme the pieces on Arsenal in remote places around the world, and what individuals have been doing while wearing the club badge. But 30 years down the road, the Arsenal Community programme is still the only fully integrated scheme in the whole league, and in essence started with a simple conversation over an idea.

In the late 1980s, London wasn’t the pleasant cosmopolitan city it is today. It had been riot-torn, had areas of urban decay, and football was also not the global behemoth it has now become. Arsenal’s fanbase then was, in the main, from North London – as with most teams, support came from the local populous.

The GLC, headed by Ken Livingstone, ran London, and were generally considered to be “loony lefties”. Livingstone had decided that what was needed to help get kids off the streets was to put money into sports programmes. Innovative in its time, the money was put into the Sports Council, run by Alan Sefton, which happened to be responsible for football,

Alan’s area included Highbury, Islington, Camden and the surround. He had already persuaded Arsenal to do some limited community projects, through Vic Akers who had worked with Don Howe, Arsenal’s manager at the time.

“They didn’t need to put any money in,” says Alan. “I went to see Ken Friar and suggested that Arsenal start a Youth Employment Training Scheme, where the club should have someone who would reach out to do local community projects, and Ken basically said, ‘Well okay, but we will only do it if you join us to do it’. So I left the Sports Council and joined Arsenal as the Community Officer, and I’m still here.”

At the time, behind the Clock End at Highbury, Arsenal had the JVC Centre – basically a sports hall with some 5-a-side pitches and gyms.

“That’s where I was based, in that centre, and we grabbed usage any time we could. In those days Arsenal rented the University College London, London Colney training ground, but the club couldn’t use it on Tuesdays.

“It’s just funny saying that now, but the players would train in the JVC Centre on a Tuesday and I was able to tap them up for some help on occasion. Football players, the way they are, are often not the most willing and many need convincing, but in those days Tony Adams, Bouldie and Ray Parlour were the easiest to get.

“Tony Adams was the shop steward so I kind of had to get him and then go through George Graham, but Tony even then felt like he wanted to give something back.”

How did it feel to be asked to do the role?

“It was an absolute dream to join Arsenal and I think it’s fair to say we were one of the first to see how football in the community actually is. In those days we were kind of on our own, though to be fair the PFA also became involved at the time, as they felt it important to try and get their ex-players involved.

“This made the community programme all of a sudden legitimate in the eyes of some, all the way through to today where the Premier League has its own community department.”

People don’t really see what the club gives back?

“It’s part of the ethos of the club, has been since the day I joined, and in fact played an important part when the club decided to move from Highbury. It helped with the planning process with the council.

“We had to demonstrate the benefits of how the club and the ground wasn’t just a once a fortnight event when people came to the match, we had to show how we had programmes in place 52 weeks of the year, and how much more we could do once we moved.

“The thing is that most people don’t know the extent of the Community Department, and I suppose we don’t shout about it. But the ground move was the best thing to ever happen to the Islington area, and the club in general don’t ever get enough credit for it.”

It was a rainy Tuesday when I’d arranged with Alan to have a chat over a coffee. I had been asked by Samir Singh, another of Arsenal’s stalwarts (he was responsible for the 100 Years In Islington exhibition, and is very much the heart and soul of the community scheme), to come to a Give Racism the Red Card Q&A the club were hosting in one of the Emirates Suites.

Over 200 local schoolkids had been doing workshops all day at the ground before ending with a Q&A with Perry Groves and Paul Davis. This was one of four events that day alone held at the club by the community programme.

“Just a normal day,” said Alan. “The local area gets such an enormous benefit when the club runs something, you wonder why people don’t see it. We run BTEC courses of employment, people pass these BTECs and all of a sudden we have a practical outlet because we are able to refer these people for employment.

“Maybe it’s with the concert promoters, or other businesses, or even as simple as the club’s catering supplier Delaware North, who instead of going to an agency we are able to give them a list of people who have passed through our work programmes.

“Over 150 people are regularly employed today from passing through our courses last year. We have linked with Debenhams and Barclays as an example, and they have employed people who have passed through the employability courses we run. The club, despite being so big, still means so much to the community it is in.”

People look at Arsène and acknowledge how long he has been at the club, but don’t you think it’s amazing we still have a lot of people who have been at the club for decades – even longer than yourself?

“Well Ken Friar was the go-to person when I started, and has been for many the go-to person at the club. He almost is the club. But Pat O’Connor has been at the club 50 years on the ground staff; Iain Cook, Sue Campbell, Lynne Chaney have been here 25-plus years. People want to be associated with Arsenal, it has always been like that.”

Looking at the 30 years what gives you satisfaction in what you have achieved with the community programme?

“That’s hard, I’m not sure where to start. We have started so many courses that people have passed through to become achievers. Darren Chessman, GB Hockey player, started in the JVC centre for our Hockey in Schools programme; he went on to play for Old Loughtonians Hockey team and then for Great Britain. It makes me so proud to see people who have been associated with the club go on and be a success. Ashley Cole is another one; most people think he came through firstly at Arsenal Youth, but he started in the Soccer Schools we ran and he was identified there, same as Rachael Yankee who started off as a trainee with us.

“But the work programmes have been just as important, so many people have Arsenal Work Programmes on their CVs. I was in a coffee shop last week about to pay for a coffee, and a man shouted out ‘Don’t take any money for that drink, in fact never take it from this man’. It turned out to be someone who progressed through our work programme and it turns out he now owns 17 coffee shops in London. That’s what we have meant to some people.”

And what about the worldwide aspect of the Community Programme?

“The Arsenal Gap programme sends people all over the world, Africa, India, Israel, etc. People go off and have a bag of footballs over their shoulder and people see them and see the club! But of course it’s more than just sending them off with a club shirt and a bag of balls. We put them through FA courses, English language courses, help them link up to community programmes in the countries we send them to and of course link them with trustworthy people in those countries.

“We are in 12 countries at the moment, in three month blocks, and over 30 people this year alone are on the Arsenal GAP programme. We send people all over Africa and people can walk half a day just to come and meet one of the people on the programme for one of our sessions, just to play football. Some of the images that get sent back are amazing: football fields full of cow pats, Giraffes in the background, with bags as goalposts. They see the shirt, they see the club badge, and they see Arsenal, we are The Arsenal.

“I will never forget one of my proudest moments was just after the Bosnian war, we did a Mine Awareness Program end we got Dennis Bergkamp and David Seaman to feature in the images carrying the anti-mine triangle. The leaflets were sent out by the RAF from Brize Norton and distributed all over Bosnia. The bottom line of our ethos is IF we can help we are there, if the power of Arsenal will help we will be there, but we always need partners to do much of what we do.

“The community programme started as the Community Department in 1985. We launched the Charitable Trust in 1992 and launched the Arsenal Foundation in 2012. Previously we’ve had a ‘Charity of the season’; now we have charitable partners at home and abroad, which does allow more focus. What is different about Arsenal’s community department compared to any other club in the UK, is that the community department is employed by the club rather than run as a separate charitable foundation.

“Arsenal pay the staff and cover the costs to run the department, and The Foundation raises money for charities. This arrangement sees every penny raised getting spent on what’s needed rather than on administration. This makes Arsenal unique in the UK and probably unlike any sporting charitable department worldwide. The Community Department, or the club in fact, employs 20 permanent staff, and the department is still growing year on year. The club is totally committed to this department and its Foundation. It’s not just football; we run programmes for seven sports outside football.”

Do Arsenal do any joint initiatives with other clubs?

“Sometimes we do. We link into the Premier League and the PFA and join forces. We did one with Spurs recently in Brazil running some school programmes and to open schools at weekends. Amazing really, I would never have believed 29 years ago that I would be working for Arsenal in Sao Paulo.

“The bottom line is the club is key, it gives miles more back than it’s ever given credit for. This club goes everywhere, the club as an institution will never go away. Employees, players, etc, come and go, but club will last past everyone. The club has certainly been a key influencer for football clubs when it comes to community sport. Whether it be working with local causes or the Willow Foundation or Islington Giving it is all about getting young people to realize their potential.”

It was great to talk to Alan in detail about his work, even though he arrived late for the interview. Where was he? He was taking a football course helping adults with mental health problems, which he hopes will lead them into employment. Despite being able to send a member of staff or a volunteer, Alan went and ran the course himself.

This is a man who doesn’t sit behind a desk; this is a man directly responsible for improving thousands of people’s lives over the course of the last 30 years, and a man that everyone at Arsenal should be proud of.

For more about Arsenal in the Community, visit the official website.