Interview: Geoff Thompson - Street-fighting miracle man

The 'Karate Kid' is committed to the cause of keeping the young out of crime's way. By Alan Hubbard
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The Independent Online
THEY WERE celebrating another sporting success story in Manchester last week, with the fervent hope that a long-cherished dream is about to be realised. This one, however, is far removed from the glamour and clamour of Manchester United's great European adventure - although it is very much about making Manchester united.

There is a car valeting service within sight of Old Trafford which has a stark, simple slogan: "We clean them, we don't nick 'em". It is run by 26-year-old Trevor Campbell, a Manchester Giants basketball player, with a little help from others who, like him, have been enticed from darker endeavours on the streets of Moss Side via the Youth Charter for Sport, a Manchester-based organisation devoted to giving opportunities back to the druggies, the drop-outs and assorted deadbeats written off by society and the system.

Campbell never quite plumbed those depths, but his promising basketball career had been interrupted by an 18-month prison term following a spot of mischief. On his release he sought the help of Geoff Thompson, the former karate champion who is the brains - and much of the muscle - behind the YCS. "I want you out of the gangs," said Thompson. "No more drugs, no more crime." Hence the car wash with the slick line in attracting custom - and a ray of hope for Campbell and hundreds more like him.

Thompson was delighted not only to be able to set Campbell up in business, but also to assist his return to the Giants. But he remembers as well that he was powerless to prevent another promising basketball player, Jermaine Bell, being gunned down in a dispute between warring gangland members. Bell was a friend of Darren Campbell - no relation to Trevor - who was later to become the European 100m champion and was himself rescued from the crime culture of Moss Side by Thompson. "That death made me so angry," said Thompson. "But it convinced me that sport could be a way out for these kids - a catalyst for change."

Thompson's charter has been in operation since 1993, and he moved to Manchester at the invitation of the former West Indies Test captain Clive Lloyd. In that time he has raised some pounds 15m from private and public sectors to fund the scheme, without a penny of Lottery money. Now, with the Manchester Youth Project up and running, the story moves on from Moss Side to Merseyside.

In Toxteth, which Thompson describes as "the most challenging neighbourhood in the country", there are still no-go areas for those with less than a black belt in karate or a bullet-proof vest. But there, too, another sporting miracle is taking shape. In partnership with the former Liverpool footballer Howard Gayle, he has formed a charitable trust to fund the pounds 3.5m Toxteth Centre of Excellence, which will emerge from the ruins of a derelict 150-year-old former Presbyterian church in Princes Road, known locally as the Toxteth Cathedral.

At the moment it looks more like a rubbish tip, protected - but not totally - from vandalism by wooden boards and steel shutters, and surrounded by litter and broken glass. By April they hope it will bring together the deprived and even the dangerous to complete a jigsaw of facilities in Toxteth that already embraces a leisure centre and more esoteric pursuits such as dance and drama.

And Toxteth already has an emergent sports icon in another basketball player, the 18-year-old David Aliu, who is on a playing scholarship with Notre Dame University in Virginia, USA, the YCS having helped find the pounds 5,500 funding in the face of some remarkable competition. For Aliu, the star of England's junior team, had been targeted by local drugs barons with an offer of cash support because they "wanted to put something back into the community".

It was, of course, an obscene gesture with a hardly hidden agenda, and one that he was easily able to resist. "But this is typical of the problems we have to overcome," says Thompson. "Like everyone else in the streets they are looking for credibility. This is what makes YCS excellent value. It costs at least pounds 21,000 to keep a young person in custody. We can keep them on the rails for pounds 5,000."

Thompson, 41, is the original Karate Kid. Five times world champion he captained the Great Britain team during an illustrious period when they won 30 gold medals. Few people in sport have a better idea of the real score. "I came off the streets myself too," he said at the YCS offices at Salford Quays, the Canary Wharf of Manchester. "Without sport I would be outside waiting for you rather than inside talking to you." His is a classic story of a skinny runt having stones kicked in his face. "I was bullied at school and took up karate to protect myself. I soon found it was a different pathway to opportunity. My temper was legendary. I was looking at a very short-term existence but karate provided me with the focus, target, goals and discipline I needed. It was the vaccine which probably saved my life."

Thompson was seven when his father died of a liver abscess, leaving the family broke. "My dad came over from Barbados and fought in the Second World War. He ran a haulage business, but things got tough after his death and we had to move from Wolverhampton to the East End of London. It was only my mother's Christian upbringing which kept me sane - until sport found me. This is why I am so committed to getting kids away from crime and gangs and into something worthwhile."

To date, all Thompson has, apart from street cred, is an MBE and a seat on the English Sports Council. He was a candidate for the chairmanship, but lost out to Trevor Booking. He does not hide his disappointment at the political manoeuvring, which included attempts to supplant both of them with Tessa Sanderson. "As I said at the time, I've been discriminated against all my life because of my colour and now it seemed I was being discriminated against because of my gender. I did think of resigning but I do have respect for Trevor and, anyway, karate taught me never to walk away from any situation."

His work as executive chairman of the YCS is unpaid and his is a four- day week commitment, 12 hours a day. Once the Toxteth project is finished he says he will need serious employment. "I am having to acknowledge that I am first a husband, a father and a breadwinner." He earns that bread as a karate coach and motivational speaker.

"People tell me I'm the best-known unknown in sport because karate is a relatively low-profile activity. Being a Bruno or a Fashanu might have been an advantage, but what you need with these kids is cred. I know all about racism, which I believe is more acute now than in my own schooldays, although I have to say I have only once ever been called nigger - and that was by another black man. Don't think my life hasn't been threatened. It has because I have trodden on a lot of toes, but I have always been quick to say sorry. I know all about social exclusion. And there are still people out there who look at me and turn away."

But, thankfully, the majority do not. "It's very difficult to say no to Geoff," says Sir Bobby Charlton, a YCS vice-president. "He's a great role model for the kids because he suffered the same problems and he knows the power sport has to change lives for the better." Charlton's influence helped to create a football club called Moss Side Amateur Reserves, formed mainly from feuding gangs. Some of those players were subsequently given trials with professional clubs.

Similarly in Toxteth, Gayle helps teach deprived youngsters not only football skills but social skills. "There are a lot of potentially good footballers who don't make it because they don't even know how to adapt to the environment of a football club. We try to teach them values so they won't be thrown out because they don't know how to behave."

Like Thompson, Gayle receives no payment and at present lives off a football pension. As a volunteer "social coach" he helps run Stanley House Youth where footballers between 6 and 16 are coached, their education monitored and family consulted. Two of his products are now at the Anfield School of Excellence. Gayle says: "There tends to be a lot of scepticism because outsiders want to portray Toxteth as a nasty, negative place, but the kids can identify with my background. We tell them they do matter and that there is another way, apart from crime."

There have been scores of enquiries about setting up more YCS centres, here and abroad, but soon it will be mission completed for Thompson. He is, as you might gather, very voluble and, at 6ft 4in, highly visible. He may get up the noses of some of the blazer brigade but his qualities of leadership deserve better recognition.

Thanks to Thompson, the YCS is now established as one of the most important social influences in the country, a refuge for the under- privileged and a rescuer of lost ambition. But it is much more than a sporting Sally Army and it would be heartening if, amid the euphoric cacophony emanating from Old Trafford, a little drum banging from the vicinity of Salford Quays could make itself heard.