Con FC: A Season With A Prison Football Team

Prisoners play football for her Majesty's pleasure. Home fixtures only.
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Prisoners play football for her Majesty's pleasure. Home fixtures only.

Wimbledon struggled to find their away kit...

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There’s a thief in midfield, a crackhead in the hole and the murderer up front is lethal.

Every pub footballer boasts of having played against a team of hard nuts but those competing in the WBW Solicitors South Devon League Division Three last season won the argument hands down. They got the chance to go toe-to-toe with the official team of HMP Channings Wood, one of the few prison sides ever permitted to compete in the football league system. Playing all their fixtures at home for security reasons, packed with wasted talent and denied the booze and curries that would inevitably slow down the opposition, Channings Wood FC were tipped to run away with the title. But of course, as you might imagine with a team made up of convicts, the journey was anything but smooth…

Until now the closest I’ve ever got to being inside a prison is watching reruns of Porridge. The reality, however, is considerably less funny. No one is laughing, for example, when I’m asked to sign a Home Office waiver stating that my safety “cannot be guaranteed”. My stomach is doing somersaults as I approach the jail, a depressing battleship grey 800-man hulk that somehow manages to suck all the colour from the beautiful Dorset countryside that surrounds it.

Built on the site of a Ministry of Defence base by a mix of contract and prison labourers in 1974, this medium security clink specialises in locking up drug addicts and sex offenders. However, its greatest claim to football infamy is prisoner Harry Roberts who continues to serve a life sentence here after having murdered three unarmed policeman in 1966. In the years that followed his crime, Roberts’ name was sung on many a terrace by those looking to taunt the local constabulary: “Harry Roberts, he's our man; he shoots policemen, bang, bang, bang,” they jeered to the cheerful tune of ‘London Bridge is Falling Down’.

Sometimes, when you’re out here, it’s like you’re not in jail at all

Mass murderer he may be, but should Roberts fancy a kick around, then Channings Wood is the place to be. Since 1981, the prison football team has been a source of pride as the full trophy cabinet testifies. The inmates even used to play ‘away’ games until it was scrapped when, according to legend, one star striker managed to escape at half-time. Today the governor, Jeannine Hendrick insists that sport helps rebuild inmates’ self-esteem and reduces reoffending but can football really transform bad men into good? Or is the beautiful game simply wasted on criminals? On a bright November morning, with Channings Wood FC riding high at the top of the league, I went to see what was really happening behind the bars.

“Sometimes, when you’re out here, it’s like you’re not in jail at all,” says Geordie prison officer Jo Dickson, as we emerge at the prison’s football pitch after making our way through a series of towering iron gates. She seems surprisingly chirpy for someone who at all times must carry an anti-ligature knife to cut down suicide victims. She does have a point about the pitch though. Kind of. If you can ignore the fact that running around the perimeter of the ground is a forbidding 30-foot high, lethal barbed wire tipped fence - a man-made mountain that separates this life from liberty. It’s not hard to see why opposition teams don’t enjoy playing here.

Today is training day and the squad has been divided into two teams for a practice match. The sights and sounds of football are so familiar, you can see how playing the game helps inmates to briefly help forget they’re banged up. They pass and move like free men, bellowing their support for each other as they charge up and down. A few talents stand out from the rest. One forward strikes a shot from outside the box with such venom that it hits the inside of the post and flies past the keeper. This is Carl. Peckham born, he used to play for his local side Dulwich Hamlets alongside Rio Ferdinand. Now he’s serving a life sentence for murder. Feeding the ball to him is a small but brave former heroin addict called Shaun who dribbles around the pitch with all the enthusiasm of a Jack Russell on the beach. Paul, a flame-haired hardman from Manchester who’s doing six years for street robbery, anchors the midfield.

Behind all of them, marshalling the backline, is officer Chris Dearing. The team’s player-manager since joining the prison seven months ago has completely turned their fortunes around, inspiring the inmates to a new level of commitment. Unlike previous seasons, players now happily reorganise visits from their loved ones just so they won’t clash with training or fixtures. Dearing himself is so committed, he even plays on the one day off he gets a week.

“All our rival teams are currently asking about our demon winger, Roachy,” laments Dearing. “They know his release date is soon.”

“I play the game to win,” says the salt and pepper haired 40-year-old, as he tries to catch his breath, “I’m the worst out of the lot.” So far this season, Channings Wood FC have won nine out of their nine games, banging in 63 goals along the way, but managing the team is never easy. The team line-up constantly has to change as prisoners are freed or moved on to a category D prison. “All our rival teams are currently asking about our demon winger, Roachy,” laments Dearing. “They know his release date is soon.”

Nevertheless, the prison side does have one key advantage over their opposition. Their home ground is a fortress. Literally. “They’re shitting themselves when they come in,” says Paul mischievously. “Their heads are down and the game’s won before we’ve even kicked off. I play on it a bit and say ‘Nice tracksuit. I reckon that would fit me’. You know, just having a laugh.”

The cons don’t get it all their own way though. They are locked down at 4.30pm every day to allow the night shift officers to take over guard duty. For this to happen all prison football matches are required to kick off half an hour earlier than the standard time of 3pm. League officials have given them special dispensation to do this but opposition teams are still given the choice. If they don’t agree, then Channings Wood must forfeit the three points. According to Dearing, some sides in the past have taken unfair advantage of the situation.

“Last season, teams were taking the easy three points,” he says conspiratorially. “They wanted to drop us out of the league.” Increasingly teams refused to turn up, a situation that was exacerbated by allegations made on the league website that opposition players were being strip-searched on arrival and then intimidated by guard dogs and gangs of prisoners on the touchline. It was all nonsense, insists Dearing, although non-playing inmates are tellingly now banned from watching the games. Nevertheless, the rumours took their toll and Channings Wood FC was set to be relegated at the end of the season.

It was only a desperate appeal made by officers Dickson and Dearing during the league’s AGM that rescued the team from expulsion. In the end, the prison outfit’s fate was put to the vote and their rival teams chose, almost unanimously, to keep them on board. “Whether you’re a person banged up for 20 years or a man working in civvy street, sport is sport and there shouldn’t be any boundaries,” argues George Thomson, Foxhole United’s club chairman and ardent advocate of Channings Wood. “We’re keen to keep them in the league,” agrees South Devon league chairman Michael Beer. “We’ve made a lot of dispensation because it’s good for them to have involvement with the outside world and we have had no problems with them. Their disciplinary record is nothing short of excellent.”

On this count, you have to hand it to Channings Wood. Dispel all images of players with chips on their shoulder and shivs in their socks. The lure of Saturday’s treasured 90 minutes keeps the players firmly in line and if they do misbehave there’s harsh penalties to be paid. The fine for receiving a yellow card is £14 and a red, £20. That’s a huge incentive for inmates who earn just £8 a week for working in the prison laundry, woodmill and farm. The results speak for themselves: Channings Wood FC has been presented with the league’s fair play award for the last three years in a row.

Nevertheless, the prison side does have one key advantage over their opposition. Their home ground is a fortress. Literally.

Paul, who once had a trial for Preston, is considered one of the team’s success stories, having tamed a problem temper in order to play. His self-control was first tested in matches against other prisoners and now, should he so much as swear on the field, he’ll find himself benched for the next game.

“I’m a bit crazy me, you see.” he admits in his thick Manc accent. “I’m a bit Roy Keane. Not as good as him, of course. I just tend to hold grudges and look to settle them on the pitch. That’s probably one of my problems.” During a recent training session, one ‘strong’ tackle saw Paul dropped from the squad for a fortnight. The punishment had the desired effect. “If you’ve got the chance of playing you keep your head down,” he admits. “I wouldn’t like to think what it would be like here if we didn’t have football. If you haven’t got anything to do you just go and do drugs.”

For 25-year-old Shaun, a reformed heroin addict, playing for the prison side could prove to be the very key to his rehabilitation. A goal-scoring midfielder in the mould of Paul Scholes, he played at Stoke City’s School of Excellence and claims to have even been invited to join Ajax. Then, when he was 13, disaster struck. His mother contracted cancer and Shaun swapped his boots for needles. Plunged into a life of crime, he was eventually sent to the Devon jail last years for possession of drugs. Only the lure of a role in the team’s midfield, he confesses, has helped him kick the crack.

“For the 90 minutes I’m playing football I’m free,” he says. “Once the game’s finished the problems build up and I’m behind bars again.” Shaun believes his success in keeping away from the drugs has also been down to the support of his teammates. “If we can trust one another on the football field then we know we can trust each other on the wing.” Now, two months from release, he’s been offered a trial at Dr Martens League side, Yate Town. “I’ve been given a second chance,” he says, a look of determination on his ash grey face. “Now I know what I want to do for the rest of my life, I can’t make a mistake.”

The very existence of Channings Wood FC is far from a triviality. It lies at the very heart of a long-running debate about the purpose of prisons within our society.

The very existence of Channings Wood FC is far from a triviality. It lies at the very heart of a long-running debate about the purpose of prisons within our society. Depending on what side of the fence you stand, they’re either there to punish our criminals or help reform them. For the former, the idea of convicts playing football is madness: a pointless practice of giving ‘treats for cheats’ and just another example of ‘political correctness gone mad’.

Angela Herlihy, who founded the campaign group ‘Justice for Victims’ following the murder of her husband Garry in 1996, vehemently believes that inmates shouldn’t be given such privileges. “I think it’s outrageous that people convicted of heinous crimes can enjoy a nice pastime and something that’s usually reserved for those who have their freedom,” she says. “I’m pretty sure that the fathers and brothers and sons of people who have been raped and murdered won’t be going out to enjoy a game of football… their lives are destroyed.”

Not so, insists Channings Wood’s governor, Jeannine Hendrick, who in her tailored trouser suit and fuscia pink nail varnish, appears more like TV’s super nanny than a Prisoner Cell Block H battleaxe. “Football helps them build belief in themselves and their ability to achieve things. It can be a positive contributing factor to reducing reoffending,” she says. Being part of the prison team isn’t just about the fun of Saturday afternoon; inmates must also study for a national qualification in coaching and refereeing that could help them gain employment on release. “It isn’t our job to punish them when they’re here,” she argues. “Our job is to prevent the next crime and protect the next victim. I would hope that victims would want us to do that.”

So can football really turn bad men into good? Like any football team, it’s only fair to judge Channings Wood FC on its results at the end of the season. By all accounts, they were remarkable. Despite losing eight key players to freedom, the side managed to secure third place and succeeded in winning promotion to the South Devon League Division Two. Most rewarding of all, however, is the fact that after picking up just three yellow cards, they were also awarded the fair play trophy - the fourth year in as many years. “For us,” says Chris Dearing, “that’s an even bigger achievement than winning the league.” Unfortunately, the success was not unadulterated. After failing a drug test, it became clear that Shaun, the team’s brightest star, was using heroin again and was refused his trial at Yate Town. Why? No one’s quite sure. As Sir Alf Ramsey once said, “The missing of chances is one of the mysteries of life.”

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