Ex-footballers mentor young people in bid to create unity on and off pitch

A football initiative aimed at creating “unity” among young people has been backed by former professionals.

The Kashif Siddiqi Foundation’s Altus Football programme counts former Premier League stars Carlton Cole and Clarke Carlisle, ex-Plymouth Argyle striker Cherno Samba, and Jamaican midfielder Marcus Bean among ambassadors who offer pep talks to teenage participants about mental health, wellbeing, leadership and diversity.

The programme will see teams from its four regional centres – Birmingham, Derby, London and Bradford – descend on England’s training base at St George’s Park on Saturday for a series of matches marking the end of the eight-week project.

Carlisle, a former Burnley and QPR defender who attempted suicide after retiring from the game following crippling bouts of depression, said he spoke with youngsters about looking after their mental health.

Burnley v AFC Bournemouth – Premier League – Turf Moor
Burnley v AFC Bournemouth – Premier League – Turf Moor

The 39-year-old told the Press Association: “I like to talk to the next generation about what I’ve been through, the mistakes I’ve made and the decisions I made that led to negative outcomes, to make them better informed.

“I believe if we can talk to the next generation about the skills of communication – face-to-face interactions with someone you trust, as opposed to communicating just on social media – I think it gives them a real firm footing in how to take on what the world throws at them.

“It’s only really in the last two years through that I have realised, through counselling, how to do that.

“People see me on television, as a pundit, and say I’m articulate but it’s a persona. It’s a mask that I have to put on, and it’s different to the real Clarke Carlisle – the son, husband, human being. I was forever walking with a mask on.

“One of the wonderful things about Altus is the way it unites people. When I tell them what it was like as a 16-year-old on a council estate with hopes and dreams – they can relate to that.”

The eight-week project combines weekly training sessions with coach-player mentoring, promoting teamwork, discipline and leadership, to empower young men with valuable life skills.

More broadly, the initiative seeks to tackle the cultural divides and barriers which prevent many unrepresented communities from getting involved in sport and bring people from all backgrounds together, regardless of religion, economic background or skin colour.

Former Northampton Town and Arsenal youth player Kashif Siddiqi with Obayed Hussain
Former Northampton Town and Arsenal youth player Kashif Siddiqi with Obayed Hussain

The programme was founded by former Northampton Town and Arsenal youth defender Kashif Siddiqi through his charitable foundation.

Siddiqi, a Londoner of south-east Asian heritage who represented Pakistan at international level, said he wanted to give an opportunity for all people – including those from minority backgrounds – to unite through sport.

Siddiqi, 33, said: “When you’re a young south-east Asian on a youth training scheme at Boston United in Lincolnshire, it’s quite hard. I stood out quite a lot.

“I really wanted to provide a safe and inclusive programme for young people from all different backgrounds to come together and embrace their differences really.

Soccer – Barclays Premier League – West Ham United v Chelsea – Upton Park
Soccer – Barclays Premier League – West Ham United v Chelsea – Upton Park

“It’s not about scoring goals, it’s about inclusivity and developing as young adults through sports. The mentoring has been a big help, you can see these young lads responding to the likes of Clarke, Cherno, Carlton and Marcus.

“It is breaking down barriers. When the programme started we had some kids who were in gangs, coming up against rivals. But they’ve developed a lot, I think. They realise there isn’t a place for this, that we need to show maturity and take those lessons into the school and work environment with them.

“Hopefully everyone who gets involved feels this gives them a platform to achieve, to be successful, but to be decent human beings who can talk to other people with respect.”

Birmingham-based Obayed Hussain, who co-founded the UK’s first Ramadan Midnight Football League in 2018, said: “Altus Football enables the different communities to come together on the football field to share their passion and enjoyment.

“It also provides a support framework for young people that lack a sense of belonging and purpose. I am proud to be supporting and helping to run this project, which builds stronger communities.”

– More information is available from www.altusfootball.com