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Crystal Palace laying the foundation for stronger community spirit

Crystal Palace’s timing was perfect. It was Tuesday back at Selhurst Park, with the majority of those present still pinching themselves at the riotous dismissal of Arsenal the night before, and the buzzwords at the launch of the Palace for Life Foundation were community, opportunity and responsibility. All seemed to carry considerably more weight with memories still fresh of Wilfried Zaha bamboozling Mesut Özil on the touchline or Jason Puncheon swarming around central midfield less than 24 hours previously.

“If you have a core of a team that has that connection to the local community, who can explain to people when they arrive at the club what it all means, it makes a big difference,” said the Palace chairman, Steve Parish. “Wilf and Punch were brought up round here. They’re from the same streets and have experienced the same problems as the kids they’re now inspiring. They sense it.

“The first thing Puncheon did when he signed for us from Southampton was buy a [hospitality] box, which I thought was quite good because no one wants their family to watch them be bad. The gaffer has made him captain and he has grown. He’s gone all serious now whenever I try to talk to him. You can see what it means to him emotionally. So if you can get a club like Palace pointing in the right direction with the local community behind it, you can achieve extraordinary things. That’s what you need at a club this size. You’re not going to outgun people with money or resources, so you’ve got to do it a different way.”

The rebranded Foundation – with Ed Warner, the chairman of UK Athletics and a fan for 40 years, taking on the role of chair – is Palace’s attempt at doing just that. The vast majority of clubs run community schemes geared towards retaining that status at the hub of their locality, with Palace for Life to concentrate efforts on 11 core programmes through Bromley, Sutton and Croydon, one of the country’s 10 most deprived boroughs but a hotbed of football talent, and potentially up into Lambeth.

“A lot of non-statutory youth provision has been lost, given austerity and cutting back on public services at local level,” said the Labour MP for Streatham, Chuka Umunna. “There is simply not enough for our young people to do out of school to channel their energy, so the kinds of initiatives the Foundation does are vital.”

It worked with 9,143 participants in 2015, more than three times the number from 2012 when Palace were in the Championship, on its various programmes, from mentoring the disadvantaged to promoting physical and mental health. More than half were under 12. The hope is the numbers will grow, particularly with Palace close to securing a fifth consecutive season in the top flight for the first time. They host Leicester on Saturday, eager to build on five wins from six matches.

Sam Allardyce strode around the pitch at Selhurst Park watching the club’s Down’s syndrone team training, the children occupying the central third of the turf while a Premier League Kicks session and an elite academy game were staged on either side. Matt Sharp from Palace’s powerchair football team was also present; the Foundation, benefiting from donations from the Julián Speroni fund, the Premier League and the BT disability programme, has purchased a chair per player. Each costs £6,000.

Those present heard testimonies from people such as Angel O’Dwyer, who grew up on Stroud Green estate a few miles from Selhurst Park and, having been doggedly persuaded to participate, freely admitted she “would have been in prison or dead” without the Foundation’s support. “It is about giving young people a better chance in life,” said Warner. “There is so much this football club can do with the power of the Palace brand in south London, in areas of deprivation, to change the lives of young people in the community. Palace for Life is the hidden gem of this football club.”

Parish said: “It’s incredible how, when you put a football club badge on someone or something, it engages kids. Everton have a school [the Everton Free School on Liverpool’s Spellow Lane] they have part-funded and, since they’ve been involved, the school has had better engagement from the kids and, remarkably, from the parents. Look at the Primary Stars videos: there’s one where they engage a kid who loves football, but has been a bit of a bad lad in his time, in education by telling him every time he scores a goal in a game he won’t get credited with it until he has solved a maths question. It’s clever stuff.

“There is a massive difference between being ‘stupid’ and ‘uneducated’. These kids have not been exposed to education because it is not cool. But if we can make someone like Angel come out of a life of crime and inspire her to get into something else, whatever it is, then great. It’s not just about Crystal Palace. Clubs up and down the country are doing this, but it gets lost. There’s a tremendous amount of good work being done.”

Relegation, still not entirely out of the question, would affect funding. The Premier League contributes heavily to clubs’ community schemes, as well as those of clubs up and down the pyramid whether they are former members of the elite or not. Palace for Life, which does benefit from some local authority funding, gains around 47% of its money from the league’s central pool. “It’s a big chunk and, if the worst did happen, it would affect everything,” said Parish. “But we would look to try and replace it. Once you see the amazing work the Foundation does, you’d hate it to get to the point where it couldn’t do as much, just because we went down.”

Warner has been encouraged by the Premier League’s focus on Palace. “They have a clear strategy geographically and see this club as absolutely integral to what they are trying to do in this part of London,” he said. “This is an area which has loads of challenges, lots of deprivation, but also almost boundless opportunity. The Premier League’s work is massively underrated. But this is a relatively modest charity that is working extremely hard almost to outperform its resources. There is scale to come, but it can’t just be from the Premier League. Over time, we want to become more independent.”

New fundraising initiatives will be stepped up locally aimed at increasing the 2.2% provided by donations. The more money raised, the more full-time staff can be employed and the greater the scope of the project. “We have a tremendous responsibility,” said Parish. “We want to be the focal point of the community and to be about everything that is good in south London.”

That dismissal of Arsenal provided some short-term cheer. The growth of Palace for Life is aimed at longer-term improvement in this corner of the capital.