Darnall Football Academy making a positive impact on Sheffield kids through the beautiful game

Action on the pitch at Darnall Football Academy
Action on the pitch at Darnall Football Academy
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On a couple of football pitches in Sheffield, a dedicated band of volunteers are guiding some kids through some drills and matches.

In many ways, it’s a normal kick-about, and a scene that takes place in thousands of parks across Britain every weekend - the youngsters enjoying the country’s national sport.

Academy coach Abdul Malik

Academy coach Abdul Malik

But these games have a deeper meaning. The Darnall Football Academy is bringing all the kids together every weekend, regardless of colour, race, religion or age.

The players are getting an education, not just in football, but in life skills. The academy aims to teach them about character building, self-esteem and confidence.

Those behind it also strive to prevent antisocial behaviour, drug and alcohol abuse and gang-related violence in one of Sheffield’s most under-privileged areas.

They are looking to make a positive impact on the kids from an early age - before teenage years when they can be troublesome and led down the wrong life path.

Academy coach Kabier Aslam

Academy coach Kabier Aslam

The academy, which is run by about 20 volunteers and three paid staff, started from small beginnings in 2013.

“It started with a parent taking his own child with a few of his mates on to a local school field,” coach and volunteer Abdul Malik said.

“I approached him to take over with a few of my friends and launched Darnall Football Academy by word of mouth in local mosques and madrassas.”

It grew quickly, Abdul said. The first week, there were 20 children, then 40, then 60.

Action on the pitch at Darnall Football Academy

Action on the pitch at Darnall Football Academy

“Now, there are over 200 children which are registered with us,” he said.

Sponsors soon stepped in, paying for equipment and pitches on Stadium Way, to help keep the cost down so the kids could concentrate on what was happening on the pitch.

It means each player needs pay just £2 for a 90 minute session on Saturdays and Sundays, as well as through the week.

“With the subs being so low, children from disadvantaged backgrounds get the ability to enjoy themselves and be involved in something which is so fun, positive and engaging,” Abdul said.

Zain Rahaq is a young footballing talent

Zain Rahaq is a young footballing talent

“We have children from Handsworth, Tinsley, Firth Park, Sharrow, Nether Edge, Parsons Cross, in fact all over Sheffield,” Abdul said.

They are from all sorts of different backgrounds - Bengali, Pakistani, Somali, and Libyan kids play alongside Yemeni, Indian, Kurdish and English kids.

“What is unique about us we have academy sessions where children that don't play in a team can come and enjoy playing football and make friends.”

Kabier Aslam, 46, said giving the kids someone to look up to was important.

“Just to have positive role models, get people from the community who have been successful to show that Darnall’s not all negative, and there’s goodness in it,” he said.

“You can see there’s a lot of issues in the area.

Coaches Jawad Bari, Burhaan Qadria and Nasaruddin Meah

Coaches Jawad Bari, Burhaan Qadria and Nasaruddin Meah

“We needed to get them involved in something away from it

“Just to take their mind off the negatives that are going on in life, and get them in a buzzing environment.

The kids’ talent has begun to shine through, and the academy entered them in Sunday league teams.

The academy has under sevens, 11s, 13s and 14s teams.

Sheffield’s bigger academies came calling.

“The talented have been scouted by both Sheffield Wednesday and Sheffield United interested in offering places in their academies,” Abdul said.

Wednesday representatives have offered to come on board with coaching.

The support of local businesses, and the community’s trust, has the academy in a strong position heading into the future.

Abdul said the academy had ambitions to branch out to establish a community centre to get the kids involved in more than just football.

“We are in conversation with the council to have access to Mather Road and its facilities to open a community centre to better engage our children to help them with education, have youth club sessions, citizenship lessons, work with the local youth to create a better community and society at large,” he said.

Kabier said it was about increasing awareness of other people.

“Anything for people to have a better understanding of each other,” he said.

“Somewhere where they can get to know each other.”

It’s not just the local mosques and madrassas the school works with.

High Hazels Academy, Sheffield Park Academy, Handsworth Grange Community Sports College and Phillimore School have also come on board to provide pitches for the Sunday league teams, and sponsorship money.

Coach turned his life around

Darnall Football Academy coach and volunteer, Abdul Malik, hopes to pass on some important messages to the kids who play there every week, before it’s too late.

It could have already been too late for Abdul, but he managed to turn his life around.

Abdul lacked a male influence in his life after his father passed away when he was just xxxx

Struggling for identity, he got involved with gangs to find a sense of belonging.

After a brush with the law, including his arrest, he needed to change, or face a lifetime of crime.

“It took me a long time to figure out where I was, where I fit into society,” he said.

“I had no male role model. Here I am with identity issues.

“Am I Bengali, British, Muslim, Asian?”

“I was in trouble with the police, and I eventually thought ‘this is the time to turn my life around’.”

That was 10 years ago, and now, the 29-year-old Abdul is looking to get involved with the kids sooner through the academy.

He hopes the kids can find their sense of belonging on the pitch.

“The one thing I loved is football,” he said.

“It’s where I had some of my fondest memories.”

A host of volunteers help run the academy, and do everything behind the scenes to ensure it continues to go from strength to strength.

They include, Kabier Aslam whose love for the game, and the kids, is obvious.

Kabier is a well-known businessman in the area.

His family business, Aslam Foods, ran for more than 30 years.

Kabier got involved with the academy to ‘give back’ to the community, after illness made him re-evaluate his life.

He wants to pass on his knowledge with a view to ‘building the area up again’.

Kabier is Darnall born and raised, after his parents immigrated from Kashmir, Pakistan.

Kabier’s father Aslam, who worked in the city’s steel mills, grew his business up from a fruit and vegetable shop to one which offered catering, wholesale foods and a butchery.

“We had everything,” Kabier said of the shop.

The store closed its doors in 2007.

Kabier now lives in Woodhouse, but still has business interests in Darnall.

“We’ve seen this community grow,” he said.

“A lot of good people who have been successful have moved away from the community.

“It’s about getting people now to build this community back up where it needs to be, because I think there are a lot of great people here.”

He moved away from the shop and into property development, and through his contacts in that industry, Kabier has managed to secure sponsorship for the academy.

People are keen to ensure the kids remain off the street and on the pitch.

“They want to get involved with communities,” he said.

“It’s been easy for us.”

The sport, Kabier said, was perfect for keeping them on the right track.

“Football’s a brilliant tool,” Kabier said.

“They all enjoy it. They all want to play.

“Nobody looks at each other’s colour, or where they’re from, or what their background is.

“They just want to play football. That’s what it’s all about.”

He and Abdul are just two of many busy volunteers involved with the academy.

Kabier is one of the busiest, but he remains humble about his contribution.

“I think everybody’s doing everything, if I’m honest with you,” he said.

“It’s not just me

“We delegate what we need, and people step up immediately.

“Whatever it is we need to do, we just do it collectively. It’s a joint effort from everybody.”

It’s a wonder he has any time to devote to the academy and his job.

Kabier is also a governor at Handsworth Grange Community Sports College and a trustee at Darnall Community Nursery.

Like Abdul, he is excited and ambitious.

In 10 years’ time, he wanted to see the academy have its own facilities.

“With four or five pitches,” Kabier said.

“And we’ve got an atmosphere of all kids from different areas come in coming in, not just for football. Any support that our community needs

“We want to have the time to do that. It’s not just football.”

Kids love having a game at the academy

Kids love having a game at the academy