It was Croydon as others see us on Sky Sports 1 last night, with the first episode in the new series of the School of Hard Knocks. It was not pretty.
School of Hard Knocks is Sky Sport’s social outreach project. Presented by Will Greenwood, who played rugby for England, the Lions and won the World Cup, and Scott Quinnell, who played for Wales and the Lions and didn’t win the World Cup, they spend a couple of months working a couple of days each week on camera with assorted ne’er-do-wells, forging them into a rugby squad, transforming their lives (copyright Sky Sports 2009-2011).
It is easy to sound cynical or trite, but judging by the broadcast programmes, they really do manage to achieve something if previous series filmed in some of the grottier parts of Liverpool, north Wales and east London are anything to go by. Now it’s Croydon’s turn, with Streatham & Croydon’s Frant Road ground being centre stage.
The TV producers lay it on with a trowl in their grim portrayal of Croydon, as Greenwood delivers a scene-setting piece to camera from outside the Fairfield Halls with the Nestle building looming in the background.
Grey, peeling paint, weeds growing from between the unswept slabs of concrete, police in anti-stab vests, a Chinese restaurant called “Won Kei” (#thatissocroydon), and rather too many young men wearing hoodies who for some reason are reluctant for their faces to appear on television. This is hardly Crime Watch, lads…
It does not begin well. Recruits gathered from outside a job centre fail to show up, or give Quinnell and Greenwood bogus contact numbers. Even those with some rugby experience, the likes of Micky Freeman and Kieran Scutt, recruited from nearby clubs like Purley John Fisher or Warlingham, don’t help much when they show up late for training.
But as anyone who’s worked in youth services or sports clubs will tell you, fitness and sport and working with a group of others can have a transformational effect on the long-term unemployed and persistent petty criminals. That may be why the Metropolitan Police is also using a sports project locally through athletics and football. Rarely, though, do such local schemes have the manpower and resources available to the TV producers over the concentrated period of filming School of Hard Knocks.
This week, for instance, they were able to take the rugby virgins for a work-out and good talking to at the gym used by heavyweight world champion David Haye. Haye is a bit of a star, but the Bermondsey boy was also impressed by what he saw in the dedicated fitness of “Michael”.
At 39, Michael is older than most of his new team mates, and he was earnest enough to go on camera and admit to being not proud of his past as a former con who was involved in drugs. You can sense that he will have a role to play through the series.
It is engrossing viewing well worth following through the coming weeks, and deserving a wider audience than that offered at 10pm on a weeknight on a subscription sports channel. Set your digital recorder.