The dedicated coaches at Boro Soccer Schools keep kids active and help them fall in love with the beautiful game.
In Middlesbrough, football means community.
Head to any field around town on a Saturday and Sunday and you’ll hear the raised voices of footballers, the referee’s whistle, the encouragement from the crowd.
A generation of kids dream of joining the long production line of homegrown heroes turning out for the Boro.
Others just play for fun, and the love of the beautiful game.
It’s a sport that gives young people an outlet, a purpose, a way to stay fit and healthy, make friends and be part of something bigger.
Craig Archer is one of those at the very centre of the game in Middlesbrough and across Teesside.
He started the Boro Soccer School aged only 18 in 2004 at the old Acklam Sports Centre on Hall Drive, with only three kids attending its first session.
Now, 17 years later, it has around 500 players of all abilities and from all backgrounds attending weekly sessions at the Acorn Centre in Acklam. Middlesbrough Sports Village and a host of other locations around the Tees Valley.
Everyone is welcome.
Players can then progress into local football clubs including Boro Rangers FC, Riverside Juniors and Prissick Rovers FC.
“We run sessions for three to 14-year-olds for all abilities in association with Middlesbrough Football Club with opportunities to progress into local grassroots clubs,” said Craig, 34.
“Middlesbrough is where I grew up. It’s my home and I take pride in being part of our community and helping local kids in their first steps on their football journey.”
Some of the children he taught when he started out are now coming back with their kids. Nobody forgets a name. They’re part of the football community, a family, where everyone looks out for each other.
“Our coaching is fun and relaxed. It’s aimed at getting as many people engaged in football from an early age as possible, to ensure they stay involved and progress into grassroots football,” Craig continued.
But the last 18 months has been as hard for grassroots sport as every other sector, with the soccer school having to close during the Covid lockdowns.
And there were challenges to overcome when they reopened.
“The kids were happy to be back, but some of them were a bit wary and our coaches worked really hard to make sure they were comfortable and enjoyed themselves,” he continued.
“Psychologically, these kids were off school and not seeing their friends for months so we had to be mindful of that, things weren’t too intense when they came back.
“Our aim has always been to keep kids active. All over the country you have a problem with childhood obesity, kids are on their computers or tablets nowadays and some don’t get the same amount of exercise as they used to. The lockdown didn’t help that.
“But I will tell anyone – the best toy in the world is a football.”
Adam Rymer, 21, lives in Marton and is a coach at the soccer school.
“I started coaching when I was 16. I’d stopped playing football after playing at Sunderland AFC and a local junior club as a youth player but I knew I wanted to stay in the game, and so I started asking round and got into coaching,” he said.
“Football is a family, a community – especially in Middlesbrough. You see these young boys and girls and see where they progress to, it’s very rewarding.”
We are words by Mike Brown.
We are photos by Dave Charnley.