Convicted rioter: 'Going to prison has helped me a lot'

Jailed for his part in last summer's riots, Michael feared for his future.But it was his time inside that inspired his work as a youth athletics coach, he tells Simon Usborne

If Michael's phone battery had died sooner than it did, he wouldn't have received the messages from his friends telling him to meet them in Ealing in west London. But he did and the 16-year-old, who was days away from getting his GCSE results, made the short journey from Hyde Park, where had spent the afternoon with his girlfriend.

"I'd already seen the BBMs [BlackBerry instant messages] about the riots that night but Ealing's quite a nice area so I didn't think anything would happen there," he says. "I thought we'd just get there and go home but for some reason you get sucked into it and do things you would never normally do."

Michael (not his real name) would pass all of his GCSEs and gain four A grades. He was preparing to start his A-levels and planned to go to university after that. He had never been in trouble and his parents – a plumber and a nurse – are loving and supportive. But mistakes he made in Ealing, where violence had spread on the third night of the riots last year, would threaten it all.

"People were walking out of clothes shops with whole Ralph Lauren tracksuits over their shoulders and arms full of designer clothes," he says. "They were dropping stuff because they had so much and I picked up some Armani jeans. I didn't even need them but you're not thinking at the time."

Twenty minutes later, as rioters and police faced off in the streets, Michael followed his friends into a restaurant that had been smashed up. "What was I going to get from a restaurant?" he asks. "It wasn't that I wanted anything. I wasn't angry, I didn't even think I needed to cover my face, I just walked in there and then we left."

Michael, now 17, eventually made it home. Two days later, a friend sent him a photo of his television screen. Michael's face, shot by a CCTV camera at the restaurant, was being shown on Sky News. He was a wanted man. "I was so shocked," he says. "At the time I stupidly thought that with all the people doing a lot worse I wouldn't get into real trouble for entering a premises."

Michael and his father agreed he would turn himself in. He was arrested and released on bail after a night in a cell. A solicitor told the family that his guilty plea and clean record might typically result in a caution. But a month later, by which time Michael had started his A-levels, a judge at a youth court sentenced him to 12 months at Feltham Young Offenders Institute.

"I got to hug my family just before I went down," he says. "They were all in tears and stuff. It was sad. Then they take you straight there in a van. It was the longest drive, thinking about everything. I thought this was going to ruin my life, that I was going to be a no-hoper. It weren't too nice."

More than a year later, Michael says that, "unbelievably", prison helped him. "At the time you wouldn't have thought anything good could come of it but it wasn't the end of the world," he says. With the support of his parents and youth workers, Michael found motivation in sport. He is a football and athletics coach and helps young people, many with fewer opportunities than he had, to avoid making mistakes more serious than his.

The Government admitted last year it was "very disappointed" in figures showing a drop in participation in sport among young people and a rise in the number of people doing no sport at all, despite pledges linked to the Games. It will be under great pressure to reverse those trends after the nation sat in awe of athletes such as Jessica Ennis, Mo Farah and Laura Trott.

While Britain struggles to drag Olympic hysteria from sofas and into gyms and playing fields, Michael's story shows how a generation really can be inspired far below the elite level.

"The first few days at Feltham were hard but after I had my first visit from my family I knew I had to stay strong," Michael says. "My dad said he was going to lodge an appeal and after two weeks a Crown Court judge reduced my sentence to four months. You only do half of that and I'd done two weeks, so suddenly I had six weeks left.

"It lifted me. I went to the gym every day and trained with the prison football team. I was reading and writing letters to my family and going to bed early. Time started to go faster."

A youth worker, identifying Michael's passion for football (his father had taken him to training every Sunday since he was seven), gave him the details of London football clubs with community programs. They included Brentford, in west London, close to his mother's home. After the relief of his release from Feltham, Michael headed to the club's Community Trust office.

"He came across as quite a scared young man," Chris Edwards, the trust's social inclusion manager, says. "But he showed enthusiasm, which is what we try to grab hold of and turn into something bigger and better. He knew he'd done wrong but wanted to change."

Brentford snapped up Michael, who will restart his A-levels next month. He worked as a volunteer at first, and has been coaching up to three times a week since last December on pitches and courts in the middle of housing estates. He soon gained his Level 1 coaching qualification, after which Brentford began paying him.

The work has given Michael a sense of purpose and helped ease the fears that his conviction would ruin his life. But it was his engagement with children that showed him what sport can do: "Some of them are improving all the time and I tell them they should join a football club and now, while their friends might be going out and getting into trouble, they're going to bed early because they've got a match the next morning."

Regardless of statistics on sport participation, Michael says the Olympics, which had him hooked, can inspire young people like him. "Look at Mo Farah from Hounslow, near where I'm from," he says. "If someone from your area can do it, it's not much different from you."

Edwards agrees. "We ran an athletics day before the Olympics and got really good numbers. I think if we did that again now we'd probably double it."

Michael boxes, too, at a club in Hounslow, where he is inspired by an older guy who he says could have gone to the Olympics but for an injury. He was glued to the boxing at the Games, in which Britain won three golds. The last went to super-heavyweight Anthony Joshua, who last year had been given a 12-month community order for possession of and intent to supply cannabis.

"He'd only been boxing for four years and I've probably been doing it longer," Michael says. "And I'm decent. A lot of people say I could go far."

Brentford FC Community Trust receives some of its funding from Street Games (StreetGames.org) a sports charity partnered with the Give More campaign (GiveMore.org.uk)

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