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A safety net for football's lost souls

Ex-con Michael Kinsella, once a Liverpool hopeful, has launched a scheme to keep former players from drug crime, writes Simon Hart

Michael Kinsella took a stroll down Memory Lane last month when he stepped inside Anfield for the first time since his days as a promising young goalkeeper with Liverpool Schoolboys in the early Nineties. The 35-year-old also visited Melwood, Liverpool's training ground, where he met Jamie Carragher, an acquaintance since they turned out for the same Sunday league team in their early teens. They were together not to discuss old times, though, but because of Carragher's support for a project Kinsella is putting in place to provide a safety net for some of the lost souls discarded by football's dream factory.

With the backing of the former players' charity XPro, Kinsella has established Onside (On Sport Intervention Development and Education), a scheme to combine educational courses with football training for those who fall out of the game. "It is just about mentoring them and having something there for them for when they drop out," explains Kinsella, who knows only too well the pitfalls that can await a young man cast through football's exit door.

Kinsella trained with Liverpool and had spells with Bury and Tranmere Rovers but got no closer to the big time than a pre-season outing with the Birkenhead club before, with his hopes "fizzled", he became a drug dealer. "I got disheartened, had a few little chances again where I got offered contracts but my head was gone," he remembers.

Kinsella saw the inside of jail cells in Spain and the Netherlands, and in 2007 earned a 10-year sentence for his involvement with a Merseyside drugs ring. "I've lived the two lives and you live the same life: you go and have everything you want. That is why it is so easy to fall into. The only thing is the bizzies [police] are only going to come for you for one of the things."

According to Kinsella, there are 129 ex-players currently in prison, all but four serving time for drugs offences – including Michael Branch, the former Everton and Wolves forward jailed for seven years in November. It is a depressingly well-trodden path – with Branch the highest-profile victim since Mark Ward, another former Everton player – and no surprise at all to Kinsella.

"Another one has just been arrested who played with Jamie Carragher and Michael Owen when they won the FA Youth Cup. I am trying to help lads now who have played international football, who are selling drugs. They haven't got a club. I can't name them but I am trying to help them.

"Young lads sign a decent two-year contract on one or two grand a week [but then] come out of football, get an injury and think, 'That's the life I wanted, I want a car', and there's only one other way they know how to do it."

Kinsella's goal is to help to provide an alternative. "My gran and granddad died while I was in prison. It changes your mindset and that's what I want to show to people – you don't have to do [crime] to have a life."

He was let out of prison each day for six months before his release late last year to work on the Onside project and has wasted no time, setting up an office at Liverpool Hope University and attracting interest from prospective partners, including Virtual Learning UK, with whom he also wants to provide online courses for prisoners. There are plans too for a football-based pilot course for the unemployed with Liverpool City Council.

Kinsella's determination to make a difference has been cemented by his success in helping his younger brother, Gerard, to rebuild his career. After rejection at 19 by Everton, the club who nurtured his talent from the age of seven, Gerard went to Plymouth with hopes of earning a contract but suffered a cartilage injury and ended up with nothing. "It kills you. It happened so quickly," the 21-year-old, now at Fleetwood Town, says of rejection and the loss of the focus that football had provided.

Gerard concedes that he came "very close" to stepping into a world of crime, but for his brother's intervention. "I heard he was in and out of cars with some of the lads in our area, the local drug dealers. I found out about it, made a few phone calls and told them to stay away," explains Michael, who, though in prison at the time, arranged for an old friend to help his younger brother. "He put Gerard on a bricklaying course. After that he did a personal trainer diploma. Then he started training again and went on a trial for Fleetwood and signed a two-year deal."

The elder Kinsella's conviction – shared with XPro's founder Geoff Scott, a former Stoke City and England Under-21 defender – is that football clubs are failing to prepare their youngsters for a life outside the sport. He did 17 different courses in prison and speaks about education with all the zeal of a convert. "If you sign a scholarship at a football club you've missed vital years of getting an apprenticeship – be it as a joiner, in construction, plumbing, whatever it is."

Onside's planned first intake of 25 will train and play friendly matches, with the aim of finding students a route back into the game – but, crucially, they will earn the qualifications they did not gain as teenagers. Gerard Kinsella, recalling his Everton experience, explains: "One day a week we went to a college and did a Sport BTEC but nobody was interested. We were still in that bubble thinking we were going to be footballers."

The cold statistics tell otherwise. XPro estimates that only 4 per cent of players who sign on as scholars at 16 are still playing with professional clubs at 18; moreover, only 2 per cent who sign professional contracts are still in the game aged 21. Closer to home, Kinsella recalls how 13 members of his Liverpool Schoolboys squad joined clubs but only two had prolonged careers in the game, while six went to prison. Hence the interest from his old pal Carragher, who was interviewed by the BBC about Onside last week. "He's supportive because he knows it should be there," Kinsella adds. "It wouldn't get to the point where so many people were interested if it were not needed."