As the terrible events on the streets of London these past few weeks have shown, Britain’s urban youth is in crisis, riven by gangs, drugs, postcode wars and violence.
With a further seven stabbings in London on Thursday alone, the Metropolitan Police has had to deal with 50 murders, the vast majority of whom were young men who were stabbed to death.
Away from the capital, where the Mayor Sadiq Khan has had to deny that the police have lost control of the streets, knife crime in Birmingham has almost doubled in less than five years and crimes involving knives across England and Wales are at their highest level since 2011.
Gang violence, drug turf wars and the government’s continuing policy of austerity, which has led to youth services being decimated and police numbers cut by 20,000 are all contributing factors to this rise in crime. In London, 81 youth clubs and council youth projects have closed since 2011.
Britain’s youth is feeling increasingly marginalised and worthless. They feel they have no future and don’t believe they can achieve anything. Their role models are ephemeral and their values therefore skewed. By trying to keep up with the phoney images of perfect lives – designer clothes and get rich quick – displayed on social media, it’s all about the likes, rather than being real and being themselves.
They’re frustrated, insecure and resentful, which can lead to anger, crime and violence. Given the void that now exists thanks to government cuts it is incumbent on us to do something about it – and to stop this downward spiral and hopefully prevent more young blood being spilled on the streets.
Uniting communities that have been torn asunder by gang rivalries isn’t an easy task. However sport, and particularly football, which requires no expensive specialist kit, can bring young people together regardless of their beliefs, race, ethnicity or gender.
I’m a filmmaker now, but I used to be a neighbourhood football coach in London. I’ve seen how the beautiful game brought kids together and broke down social, cultural and religious barriers, regardless of postcodes.
Football is just such a great ice breaker – you don’t even need to speak the same language to play together, you just go out and play. And you can play football anywhere – you don’t even need a ball, you can play with rolled up socks in your bare feet.
So I put my two loves together and came up with The Last Stand community street football tournament, where six teams of young people play each other, with the top team at the end of the day winning dinner at Nando’s.
There’s also street dance and music from MCs and DJs, plus a load of VIP guests. We manage all this through people and businesses giving their time and money to make it happen – to create real change in young people’s lives and show that someone cares and values them.
To date, we’ve managed to persuade the likes of Everton FC’s Yannick Bolasie to get involved, Troopz from ArsenalFanTV is our host for tournaments, and legend Ashley Cole has given us a video shout out. This Sunday, it’s the turn of local boy and current Watford captain Troy Deeney to take the reigns.
It’s not just about the tournament on the day either – ahead of each one, we get aspiring film makers from the community to make short documentaries about each team taking part ahead of and after the event, soundtracked by local musicians and performers. The films literally give these young people a voice, an identity, and maybe a degree of self-pride.
It’s all about inspiring young people to set aside their differences and concentrate their energies on pursuing their passions – be it music, football, filmmaking, making an app, whatever.
The results have been pleasing too - one former player has gone on to write and make his own films, some have gone into presenting, another has launched a clothing brand, another a production company, another a football academy. Some teams have secured sponsorship deals with sports brands while others have organised charity events.
These kids create real change as they go on to become positive role models within their communities – proving that you’re not stuck, you can change your life and you can achieve great things if you unlock your imagination.
I truly believe that sport has the power to transform lives and young people in Britain need this now more than ever, as evidenced by those shocking statistics of kids killing one another. The Last Stand is just my way of trying to help, but it should be up to all of us to try and make a difference before another young life is lost.