BENEATH the never-ending saga of Swindon Town’s boardroom spat, the ever-changing face of the first-team squad and a managerial revolving door which has a habit of spinning into hyperdrive, one constant remains at the County Ground.
The good work of the Football in the Community Trust team, which offers thousands of amateur enthusiasts an education in the game, largely goes unrecognised beyond those families and individuals who benefit from a hardy group of coaches providing relentless sessions to men, women and children from all walks of life.
Those beneficiaries include a community in Zambia, who for six years now have been twinned with FiTC’s domestic programme by way of a project which has seen equipment and coaching sessions delivered to the town of Livingstone and its surrounding area.
This month, for the first time, five natives of the African country were given the chance to travel to Wiltshire to experience what life is like on the other side. For both the FiTC Trust members and their Zambian guests, the three-week visit has been eye-opening.
Three coaches, Bata Soko, Patrick Kasoka and Fillard Bwalya, and two young players, Mwikisa Sinyama (known as Mike in Swindon) and Albert Siwakwi, have lived a helter-skelter life since touching down at Heathrow on April 6.
In a world far departed from their own, where life expectancy is little more than 50 years and average income doesn’t even come close to £1,000 per capita, they have been treated to trips to Wembley, Craven Cottage, Stamford Bridge and, of course the County Ground, coached in the FiTC set-up, trained with the Robins’ youth team and integrated within the local community.
It’s been a tough task getting the five to these shores. The visa process, which required paperwork to be bounced like a tennis ball between the Zambian capital Lusaka and South Africa, was only successfully completed the day before they were due to fly to the UK, and FiTC have benefited from the immense generosity of local property owners, who have put up the club’s guests for little or no charge.
For project leader Jon Holloway, however, the stress in finalising the arrangements has been well worth it.
I meet Holloway at St Joseph’s School, where the Zambians are involved in a midweek holiday coaching course. I’ve known him for many years and, in a very strange coincidence, was sat next to him almost nine years ago when the seed of thought for this programme popped into his mind.
That was at Gothenburg’s Ullevi Stadium in 2005. I was part of a squad of players Holloway took to the Gothia World Youth Cup and we were watching the final of an event attended by hundreds of youth teams from across the globe.
A Zambian side had made the last two and Holloway was impressed by what he saw.
From then on the rest is history, as he explains: “The project came from the Gothia Cup when we saw a Zambian team out there in 2005. That really gave us the spark to try to set up a community project in a small part of Africa that would try to mirror some of the community projects we’ve been delivering in Swindon.
“We got in contact with some guys from Livingstone and set up our first visit in 2008. We’ve been across on four visits and have really created a mini Football in the Community project in Livingstone.
“That now has a main coaching association which has 30 or 40 solid members who coach within their own communities and continue delivering sessions. We’ve now got local leagues set up, there’s a girls’ development arm of the association and last year Clive (Maguire, FiTC coach) led on disability coaching – the first time disability coaching had been delivered within that area.
“They now have a disability section. A big part of it is our coach education and each visit we deliver coaching workshops to the local coaches.
“When we first set up the programme our long-term aim was to set up a reciprocal visit, where we could bring over some coaches and some young players to experience our football development in our country, through our projects.
“We’re fortunate enough for that to happen this year, with the coaches and players who have spent three weeks with us and have had a great insight into the variety of programmes we run within our Community Trust – working with children of two or three right up to our Extra Timers, people within their 80s.
“It’s broadened their horizon on what can be achieved with football as the key driver – to try and impact on as many people in the community as possible.”
FiTC’s sterling work in Zambia has been assisted by not-for-profit organisations, including Lights For Learning - a company which installs solar panel lighting in rural African schools – and Green Machine.
Five Swindon schools have been twinned with places of learning in Livingstone, as a result of the initiative – Grange Junior, Crowdys Hill, Robert Le Kyng, Lambourn and Baden – while 1,000 pairs of boots, 500 sets of kits, 20 portable goals and around 800 brand new footballs have also been exported to the heart of Africa, a remarkable undertaking.
“It’s a really special part of what we do,” Holloway says. “What is fantastic as well is lots of children and parents who are involved in our mainstream courses, over the last four or five years, they have supported our Zambia project – not just with fundraising activities but with donations as well.
“That’s made a major impact on football development in Livingstone. It’s a project that’s really important to us but this visit has really highlighted how the project is mutually beneficial, not just for the Zambians but for us as well.
“For our coaches and our workforce to learn about football development in Zambia, to work alongside the Zambian coaches, learning from them on their coaching techniques is certainly an educational experience and something that’s really special.”
Holloway has been touched by the authenticity of his Zambian guests, their willingness to learn and their abundant enthusiasm during their three-week stay in England.
I get a brief chance to meet one of the group, Bwalya, at St Joe’s. His smile is ear-to-ear – rivalling the Cheshire Cat for intensity. He tells me that he “must love every minute of life”. It draws a rival grin from me.
It’s not just Bwalya who has enjoyed his time in Swindon, however.
Holloway recounts: “One of the young boys, Albert, said to me at Wembley, walking up Wembley Way: “Jon, I just need to say to you, a year ago in class my English teacher asked me to make a sentence up in English and I said ‘this time next year I’m going to be in England, without knowing about this project, and my whole class started laughing at me’.
“He said: ‘Now, to be stood here at Wembley, my dreams have come true and you’ve made my dreams come true’. That makes everything so worthwhile.
“For the young guys it’s really special to see them really embracing this programme, wanting to get as much as possible. They’ve really got stuck into the programmes, it’s great. It makes us realise how special our jobs are.”
Sinyama and Sinakwi have been training with the Town youth team and have matched up with their English counterparts remarkably well.
“We were really nervous about it before they arrived but they’ve coped with the standard,” Holloway says. “Mick is slightly stronger than Albert and has coped really well. I think Albert physically has struggled just a touch but technically he’s really smart.
“That’s something we found when we’ve been out to Zambia – the technique of the youngsters over there is, for me, far greater than ours; mainly due to the playing conditions they have to play on.
“The majority of the children play bare footed and they play on gravel, on rubble, anywhere they can find an area to play. By playing on those surfaces it has to improve your touch and you can clearly see that.
“Our youth team stop every 20 minutes to have a sip of drink. They don’t need that. They’ll play from morning til night and their fitness levels are first class.”
Today, a little after 5pm, the five Zambians will go home. For Holloway and his team it will be a sad farewell, though, with a little help from nPower funding, plans are in place to fly out to Livingstone in the autumn once again.
“It’ll be really tough to say goodbye,” Holloway says. “Not just professionally, we’ve built really solid friendships. Fillard in particular is one I liaise with on a weekly basis, when he gets a chance to find an internet café somewhere.
“Though it will be a tough goodbye on Thursday, hopefully we’ll be seeing them back out in Zambia in a few months’ time.”