The Carlisle United first team squad had a session with a difference last Monday night when they popped along to the Carlisle Youth Zone to join over 200 youngsters in a range of activities and games.
Carlisle’s Youth Zone, which welcomes over 1,000 children through their doors every week, made sure the players were kept busy with penalty shoot-outs, football competitions, table tennis, dodge ball and arts and crafts, with plenty of selfies and the signing of items from shirts to foreheads and shoes thrown in for good measure.
Speaking about the blossoming partnership, Youth Zone team leader Jessica Butler said: “The link between the two organisations is very much in its infancy. We initially spoke to David Holdsworth a few months ago, after he’d been introduced to us by one of our ambassadors, Andrew Dunning.
“Andrew is also a vice president at the football club, and he told us that David was keen to develop community links with organisations like ours as much as possible. It was then just a case of sitting down and seeing if there was any way we could build a relationship.”
“Having had the first meeting, we started seeing players come along to the Youth Zone for our Saturday afternoon sessions, whenever there was a home fixture, to play games and talk to the children, and that was a fantastic way to kick things off for us.
“As you would expect, there are so many kids here who look up to Carlisle United – the players are aspirational and inspirational to our young people. Along with that we’re only located around the corner, so it makes sense that we have links.
“Many of the youngsters who come here don’t necessarily have a role model, particularly those who live in the city, so it’s a massive boost for our Youth Zone members to see and meet the players and to find out what goes in to becoming successful in something as high profile as professional football.”
Following on from the fortnightly Saturday afternoon appearances came the invitation for the players and management staff to meet the children and take them on in an all-action football match, which took place as part of Monday night’s activities.
“This event is huge for us, and it means so much to us, because over 200 youngsters are getting to see their heroes up close,” Jessica told us. “For our children to get to play football with the players is unbelievable, it really is.
“As I say, one of the best things to come from the partnership so far is being able to use the players as positive role models. There are a lot of boys who come to the Youth Zone and they take football so seriously, so to be able to tell them that the players will only come if everyone is behaving themselves gives them a reason to be on their best behaviour, because they so dearly want to be close to the footballers.
“When we told everybody that all of the players were actually coming to visit us it had a major impact. We had young boys and girls who haven’t been to a session for a while get in touch to ask if they could come back. That tends to be the harder to reach children, so for us to be able to make inroads with them is really important. I can’t thank Carlisle United enough, they’ve helped us to achieve that.”
The bond is set to be strengthened further in March when 28 children from the Youth Zone play on the pitch at half time during the Cambridge game, with one lucky child also taking their place in the pre-match line up as one of the club’s match day mascots.
“The children are really excited about being on the pitch,” Jessica commented. “Again, it’s all about behaviour, so there’s a real incentive for the kids to be the best they can be, all because of this link with Carlisle United.
“They’ll vote for their own mascot, so that’s another way we’ve been able to promote fair play, because it’s got everybody thinking about how they act and interact, which is a really good thing.”
And with the partnership clearly taking off, we wondered what could come next as the organisations continue to get to know more about each other.
“We’d love to get to the point where individual players are signing up to mentor children,” Jessica said. “We have children here from care homes and we have foster kids, for example, who don’t necessarily have male role models in their lives.
“Jabo Ibehre did some mentoring for us when he was at the club, and it worked so well. The child he met with still talks about it now, and the change we’ve seen in that young person is remarkable, even from that short period of interaction.
“There’s so much we could do and taking these first steps in making a relationship with the club will hopefully lead us to that, and more.”
Having played a part in bringing the club and the Youth Zone together, Andrew Dunning said: “This is hopefully the start of a much closer relationship which will be of benefit to all concerned.
“There have been various attempts to develop it in the past, but I think there’s new enthusiasm at the moment to make it work. David Holdsworth has met with staff here and he made it clear that he wanted the club to be more involved with as many areas of the community as possible.
“That’s brilliant because it adds to the good work John Halpin and his team do, and also the fantastic community work the club staff and players are doing every week anyway.”
“We have about a thousand kids a week come through the Youth Zone and so many of them are into football,” he explained. “Potentially, therefore, a lot of them could be the Carlisle fans of the future, so strengthening this relationship is a bit of a no-brainer in my opinion.
“The other positive from this relationship is that the facilities here are excellent. There are 3G football pitches and a state-of-the-art gymnasium which, we hope, the club will be able to use.
“Roger Smith and I are both ambassadors here and vice presidents at the club, so it also provides a link between the football club, the business community and the Youth Zone. It’s just now a case of pulling it all together.”
Thank you to Youth Zone staff and, more importantly, the children for giving us a night to remember on Monday.
Click HERE to find out more about the Carlisle Youth Zone.