Brendan O'Neill on Newcastle United's scheme to turn Geordies into good boys and girls
Ha'way the (well-behaved) lads
'For the first time in the world a football club has devised a programme to support pupils' achievements in school as well as on the pitch.' Mick Ferguson, Football and Community Officer at Newcastle United, is excited about the club's latest initiative. Launched in March, 'Scoring goals to success' aims to improve young people's attendance and behaviour at school by offering professional football training to those who stick to the straight and narrow, and showing the yellow card to those who do not.
'Children involved in the scheme get their own "Scoring goals" booklet', explains Ferguson. 'Inside the booklet there are three goals for each day: one for attendance, one for punctuality and one for behaviour. If the child attends school they score a goal and the teacher stamps their booklet; if they are punctual for lessons they score another goal, and if they behave to the school's standards and code of conduct they score a third goal.'
Pupils have to score at least ten goals a week to take part in the professional coaching sessions. 'Kids who stick to the rules and score the right amount of goals will be involved in a six-week coaching course', explains Ferguson, 'culminating in a tour of St James's Park with a presentation of certificates and prizes'. And what about kids who do not 'stick to the rules'? 'They will be given a second chance. If a child is going off track they will be shown a yellow card and given the opportunity to get involved again. So there is some flexibility, but ultimately it's about improving behaviour.'
Since when has a football club been in the business of telling young people how to behave? For many young people, particularly in a 'football city' like Newcastle, football offers a respite from the tedium of everyday life; they rush home from school for a kickaround or for training with the local under-11s, relieved to be away from the stuffy atmosphere of school. Now Newcastle United has bound the two together: those who play by the rules at school get to play serious football, as long as they have enough stamps of approval in their 'Scoring goals' booklet.
But Mick Ferguson denies that 'Scoring goals to success' is a 'good citizen scheme'. 'It has nothing to do with turning out the right kind of citizen or being moral', he told me. 'It's about teaching children the importance of good behaviour in achieving what they want at school. Children who pay attention and behave are most likely to be successful at achieving what they want.'
Some of the 'toon army', however, remains unconvinced. 'It's a bit insidious, isn't it?' says lifelong Newcastle fan Paulie. 'Kids in Newcastle now walk around clutching these little booklets like young people in Chairman Mao's China did with their "little red books".' Flicking through the 'Scoring goals' booklet does bring to mind the kind of 'standard of citizenship' expected by Mao, and more recently by Chairman Blair. Alongside the ominous empty goals of 'Attendance', 'Punctuality' and 'Code of Conduct' (awaiting that all-important stamp), the booklet has pictures of Newcastle players offering words of encouragement to the young participants.
'Lead by example, and always try to score the maximum', orders Gary Speed. 'Make sure you achieve your goals target...and then some!' intones Alan Shearer, apparently not convinced that attendance, punctuality and brown-nosing quite covers everything on the road to good citizenship.
Another fan, John, likes the idea of young people training with Newcastle coaches, but thinks it should be open to everybody, 'not just swots and girls'. 'Some of the best footballers have been bad boys', he points out, 'who admit they took up football because they were crap at everything else. In this scheme those kind of people would be stuck in the park on their own while their mates trained with the professionals'.
In recent years we have all become used to the footballer's message to the kids: 'stay in school, don't do drugs, be good to your parents.' Newcastle United appear to have taken this moralising a step further by launching a campaign which aims not only to 'advise the kids', but to reward good behaviour and punish bad. In an age when young people see politicians as irrelevant, but know every detail about David Beckham's love life and worship the ground that Michael Owen walks on, sportsmen and women are being recruited to help get the moral message across.
According to Football and Community Officer Mick Ferguson, 'Scoring goals to success' has already started to achieve its aims: 'We piloted the scheme in a special school where we knew there would be some problem pupils, and attendance, punctuality and behaviour improved by 35 per cent, which was exceptional.' Now 'Scoring goals to success' is spreading from Newcastle's 'special schools' into schools in working class areas, and from there plans to move on to schools for middle class kids.
'Scoring goals to success' is the ideal good citizenship scheme for Blair's football-friendly Britain, where it seems the majority of children are seen as 'problem pupils' in need of some special counselling. New Labour education ministers want to launch lessons in citizenship, to fill the gap left by the decline of religion and whip the nation's faithless youth into shape. So perhaps the kind of churchy 'football in the community' scheme pioneered by Newcastle United could soon find its way on to the national curriculum.
Some might think Newcastle an inappropriate club to start giving moral lectures to children, given the recent disclosures about the attitudes and behaviour of some of the club's directors. In fact, the disgraced Douglas Hall and Freddie Shepherd are great adverts for the scheme, having given an exhibition of the kind of brash Geordie machismo that 'Scoring goals to success' is designed to wean the next generation away from. And whatever else the pair might have said to the undercover reporter from the News of the World in that Spanish brothel, their description of Newcastle and England captain Alan Shearer, 'boring...Mary Poppins', brilliantly invoked the role model which the good citizen brigade would like young Geordies to emulate.
Reproduced from LM issue 110, May 1998