An unassuming door in Hillsborough that many will have seen but never ventured through, opens tardis-like to a new world of ambition, success and achievement. A world of empowerment, filled with laughter and learning, music and dance.
And at the heart of it, is football. More specifically, at its very core, is Sheffield Wednesday Football Club.
While the focus of Wednesday is very much on the pitch, as it should be, it often goes unnoticed just how much goes on behind the scenes in various aspects of football clubs. Each of them will have a community initiative, making sure that they continue to give something back to the people and places around them.
For Wednesday, a huge emphasis in that respect is very much in education and much of that lies behind that door beside the Owls superstore.
“Times change, things change, there’s has got to be a flexibility about how you engage with the community,” says Spencer Taylor, CSR development manager at SWFC Community Programme and, in essence, principal of this aspirational educational facility. “These days you can’t have players walking around the centre of town like they used to but you can break the barriers down with something like an education programme.”
That programme is growing at Sheffield Wednesday. Here, boys and girls come together with a shared love of football, using that as a means of gaining qualifications and helping to forge a career through sport. And there are worse ways of learning.
A BTEC diploma in sport and the Football Development Programme means the students spend half their week training and playing and the rest in the classroom.
“It looked fun and interesting and I wanted to progress in my football,” said student Mariella de Lara. “It’s really good. They provide extra support for people who might struggle or have difficulties with some areas and work is always the most important part of it all.”
“I support United. I feel like I’m betraying them a bit!” Mariella jokingly adds.
Classmate Harry Dunkerley said: “If the work’s not up to scratch we won’t play football, it’s as simple as that. I’m a boyhood Wednesday fan, I’m proud of this and being part of it.”
Being a Wednesday fan, of course, isn’t a prerequisite and the fact that Blades are making their way to S6 on a daily basis is testament to the growing reputation that Wednesday’s education programme is gaining.
“Kids these days are so much more confident and they want to know what you can offer them, because they have so many options available to them,” says Spencer. “Sheffield United’s is good, Sheffield College is good, Barnsley College is good. Why do I have Sheffield United supporters wanting to come on this course? Because the education is good, it’s not because of football.”
And another corner of the building shows it’s definitely not all about football.
In a studio at the far end, eight girls dance in perfect unison. This is the first class of students undertaking a BTEC Level 3 Diploma in Performing Arts and Dance. Of course, there has to be some element of football involved and as part of the practical aspect of their studies, the girls performed in front of over 25,000 at Hillsborough during a Sheffield Wednesday match.
It’s another string to the programme’s bow and one that noticeably cranks up the energy and enthusiasm around the place.
Like the students taking football as part of their studies, the dancers are equally hard-working.
“You look forward to it, coming in every day,” says dancer Ellie Bullivant, who hopes to use the qualification she aims to get from here as a way of getting into a dance school. “It’s a good laugh as well but you get your work done. You need to enjoy it as well.”
“Dance is what I want to do in the future,” adds Katie Ned. “Sheffield Wednesday is a big name, a recognised name. The qualification is the equivalent of three ‘A’ Levels so we could get into university with that. We could have a lot of options open to us because of this. We’ve also had the opportunity to dance on the pitch and get noticed.”
That energy, forcibly brought by the dancers is just what Spencer wants to see running right through the facility.
This is an opportunity for young people to gain qualifications in areas they perhaps didn’t know were available to them.
For many, the idea of sitting in a classroom all day every day, heads firmly in books is not an attractive option.
According to Spencer, who worked for the University of Sheffield for 23 years before being brought to Wednesday by former chairman Lee Strafford nine years ago, education providers must continue to offer options that suit as many different people as possible and ensure that anyone can reach higher.
“The ambition is simple,” he said. “We have got to give ambitions to all. The key thing for me is not making it solely male dominated. We are a football club but that doesn’t mean we are solely interested in football.
“We have performing arts, we have elite boxers here, we have a golfer that plays off a handicap of five who has just been given a scholarship for when he leaves. The programme for performing arts and dance will be expanded next year, the key thing for me is the education will drive the students to this programme.
“The brand is helpful but if you look at our stats, the majority are not Sheffield Wednesday fans, not even football fans. But if we can inspire them to come into this programme then they might become fans, they might be fans of the future and come to the games, buy a kit next door. But it’s important we deliver quality.”
“This football club is inspiring,” he added. “How do we inspire the youth of the city? The way to do it is proving we are going to educate the individuals in your community, give them the opportunity to get jobs, higher education. Opportunities for people who didn’t adapt to mainstream school and that’s important to me and from the chairman right down. It’s an easy slogan... education is the future.”
And so to the chairman. It would be easy for a multi-millionaire club owner to dismiss this aspect of what he’s in charge of. Dejphon Chansiri, however, is not of that ilk.
While the price of matchday tickets has seen the club come in for criticism since Chansiri took over, with some suggesting that the Thai businessman is out of touch with the people of a working class city such as ours, according to Spencer, the big boss cares deeply about this community.
“He wants to inspire,” says Spencer, who welcome more than 300 young people through the doors each day, from a programme which started with 55 two years ago. “He wants to create pathways and opportunities and jobs for people in this city. It’s his club. He wants to be seen as that individual who drives education and gives people opportunities to be better and give them more money. And the only way to for that to come about is to inspire them.
“He’s massively behind it. Obviously 11 players on the pitch is important but education is something he sees he can give back to the city. I’ve seen his passion to show this is a football club that cares about the people of the city.”
“We have a duty to inspire the kids in our community,” he adds. “The benefits are we are creating a good environment. The chairman sees that vision an is inspired by that vision.
“He is inspired that 250 kids comes through here every day as part of Sheffield Wednesday.”