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“Football saved my life – I want it to save others’ too”

Football saved Pete Bell during a bleak period in his life following release from prison. Since then, he’s been determined to use the game to help others break the damaging cycle of reoffending.

Released after three months of a six-month sentence in Lincoln Prison in 1992, Bell spent three years “in the wilderness” and on the fringes of society, blighted by personal problems and the death of his son.

But a coaching role at Notts County Football in the Community began his path to recovery. He went on to work in South Africa and America and in several roles around his native East Midlands. He graduated to becoming a Coach Educator for the FA for 14 years and is now a Coach Mentor at grassroots clubs in Derbyshire, Leicestershire and Northamptonshire.

Bell’s dedication to rehabilitating lives through football is relentless and he’s now making great progress with concerted attempts to deliver his message within the criminal justice system.

He firstly devised a bespoke pilot coaching course which he delivered with 16 inmates in HMP Oakwood last summer. Its intention was to give offenders a flavour of what it’s like to be a coach and introduce them to the possibilities and benefits of working in grassroots football.

Eighteen months on and his project now has a name – Step Out, Stay Out. He’s soon to be working with students from disadvantaged backgrounds in a school in West Yorkshire as well as in five prisons including Lincoln – the jail in which he spent three months as an inmate. Whilst there, he revisited his old cell, a moment he describes as “surreal”.

Pete Bell outside HMP Prison, Nottingham, UK on the 16th January 2018. Football coach Pete Bell pulled himself out of a downward spiral of crime by getting involved in grassroots football. Now a professional coach, he does work in prisons to help rehabilitate offenders and restore their self esteem. Photo: Anna Gowthorpe for FA

After delivering initial coaching sessions with the inmates in Lincoln he received a letter from the Governor, Paul Yates. He told him: “I would imagine it must have been a little daunting coming back, albeit as a valued contributor to help others. Your credibility to other prisoners as someone who has been there is very valuable. You should be proud of yourself, Pete. I am grateful for your time and experience as someone who will help change, I suspect, more than one or two of our prisoners.”

It’s still early days for his programme, but Bell is establishing links with potential recruiters, including those in football, with whom offenders can join up after their release. That ongoing through-the-gate support will be a key factor in the project’s success.

“I go in and tell them my story in plenty of detail. It’s important they know everything I’ve been through. Once they hear that, it usually makes them sit up and listen,” says Bell.

“The aim is to inspire them and make them realise there is hope for them, as long as they are prepared to meet people halfway – or ‘come to the halfway line,’ as I call it.

Pete Bell during a coaching session at Melbourne Recreation Ground, Derbyshire, UK on the 16th January 2018. Football coach Pete Bell pulled himself out of a downward spiral of crime by getting involved in grassroots football. Now a professional coach, he does work in prisons to help rehabilitate offenders and restore their self esteem. Photo: Anna Gowthorpe for FA

“We talk about their issues and the things they want to step away from, be it drugs, their peers, robberies, lifestyles etc. We then talk about their barriers – poverty, lack of money, lack of opportunity and those in society who won’t give people a second chance. I still have my non-embracers even this long after coming out, so I can sympathise with them.”

After sessions on the qualities of a football coach and some practical learning, Bell leaves them to organise sessions between themselves and set up a tournament inside the jail. “Hopefully in that time they will be engaged to work as a team, share ideas and put on a successful event,” says Bell.

“Even if they’re lifers, they can get a lot out of it and it keeps them focused and motivated when I’m not there with them. The curriculum centres around football but the ultimate offshoot is they can be signposted towards whatever direction they want to take next with their lives. That could be within football, but equally it may be another sport, construction or a lorry driver. I can be that link between the inside and their future life outside.”

Bell’s next task is to establish solid links with potential employers, both within and outside football, so he can link graduates from his course with opportunities once they have completed their custodial sentence. He is currently meeting with recruitment agencies and potential opportunities through his grassroots football contacts. Recently, he’s met with Novus, Leicester City, West Bromwich Albion and former Arsenal vice-chairman and businessman David Dein (below), who has agreed to share a talk within one of the prisons and is keen to see Bell coach offenders.

Pete-Bell-David-Dein

“Ultimately, I’d love to have someone stood beside me who started off on my course, has come through the system and is a product and role model for what can be achieved,” says Bell.

Already he has worked with a former national under-18 player from Africa plus several former youth players at professional clubs. He says: “There is so much untapped talent and potential inside the criminal justice system. I want to use football to give those individuals the support they need so they can profit from the same opportunities that ultimately saved me.”

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