Paul Newman: Palace celebrates its community roots at a time of need

The Football League Column: 'We're using football to help people who had nothing better to do with their time' says Phil Alexander on Palace's social work

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The Independent Football

The owners of the House of Reeves, the 144-year-old furniture shop burnt down in the Croydon riots earlier this month, will be guests of honour at Crystal Palace's Championship fixture at home to Blackpool on Saturday. Representatives of the fire, police and ambulance services will be honoured on the pitch at half-time and free tickets are being given to more than 1,000 people who were affected by the disturbances, including displaced families, owners of businesses and workers in the emergency services.

If the occasion offers a chance for the public to thank those who serve them, it should also provide an opportunity to reflect on the work that Palace, like so many football clubs up and down the country, do for their local community. It may go largely unnoticed by the public, but underlines the fact that football can reach into areas that public services find hard to penetrate.

For example, Phil Alexander, the club's chief executive, describes Palace's Study Centre as "a diamond hidden away in the main stand which we're all very proud of". Established some 15 years ago in a partnership with local and central government – although local government support was withdrawn after cutbacks last year – the centre employs a full-time teacher and two full-time assistants.

"It's a relatively small part of the club, but it underlines what we're all about," Alexander said. "The centre takes kids who are struggling at school, for whatever reason, and provides a different environment for them over a six-week course with a view to getting them back on track and boosting their confidence.

"They come into a different environment and we give them regular curriculum lessons with a football bias. When we look at history we'll look at the history of the club and the history of football in general. In maths we'll look at things like league tables. In English, we might ask the children to write a report on a football match."

The centre welcomes hundreds of children every year and is also used by the scholars at Palace's highly successful academy, which runs nine teams at different age-group levels. There is a branch of the study centre at the Palace training ground. David Wright, one of the senior Palace players, is the centre's official ambassador, while other members of the playing and coaching staff give regular support. Most of Palace's other work in the community is run through the club's Community Foundation, with the help of funding from the Football League Trust.

"We provide the facilities, the stadium, the offices and advertising on our website and in our programme," Alexander said. "It's the Palace brand, which is obviously very strong in the local area, that really helps the foundation get into places that perhaps other groups can't. It's using the power of football to take a message into hard-to-reach communities that might be difficult by other means."

The foundation runs football courses, some of which are free, and also helps those who want to become coaches. Often after initial contact through football, the foundation offers help in many other areas, including anti-guns and knives initiatives. Social inclusion programmes have been run recently in New Addington, Croydon, Bromley, Orpington and Sutton.

"We're using football as a stepping stone to help people who maybe had nothing better to do with their time," Alexander said.

One of the most successful projects has been the Fitter Fans scheme which encourages supporters to lose weight and promotes healthy eating and healthy living. The club has also developed a good working relationship with the Crystal Palace Supporters' Trust, which is working with Croydon Council to find a site for a new training ground, and supports the Palace Ladies, which runs 11 teams from under-10 upwards.

Alexander said: "As our slogan says, we're 'South London and proud'. The people in the local community are our supporters and we try to do all we can to support them."

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