Working gang man style at Albert Road

Tom Jamesin Public Places

AlbertRoad RobbyThe achievements of Albert Road Recreation Ground in east London offer up a perfect example of the ConLib's localism model, with the hard work and enthusiasm of local residents the driver to lift the project off the ground and ensure its sustainability and commercial success.

Project pioneer, Robby Sukhdeo, owns the Pavilion Sports & Café sited within the recreation ground, and it is this facility that has proved the catalyst for the success of the whole site, which now offers local residents football (including Aussie Rules), tennis and rugby at minimal cost.

It's of little surprise that the charity Fields in Trust's 'Getting Active' award was bestowed upon the Haringey site, after the ground's transformation from a disused hang-out spot to a year-round sports venue where respect and sports participation underpin the ethos of the community hub.

The recent 'Getting Active on a Queen Elizabeth II Field' award, supported by Sport England, was given to the QEII Field showing a "marked increase in participation in outdoor activity".

AlbertRoad FootballCoaching3Albert Road Recreation Ground has been celebrated for its efforts to offer as diverse a range of local community facilities as possible, from toddler tennis to Aussie Rules football, award winning basketball courts and an annual family sports day when the site offers a taster of the spread of sports available.

The ground was also shortlisted for the Most Loved QEII Field for the commitment of the local community to the facility, ensuring that it has continued to be strongly supported since its transformation which is, in large part, down to Robby's valiant efforts.

"I wrote to the council thirteen years ago with the view to turn the run down park from disrepair into a community tennis centre," he explains. "The existing changing rooms were used for some adult football at weekends, but they were rundown so, an early aim for us was to improve these, and massively increase the amount of adult sports by introducing more full sized and some junior pitches as well." The ground now boasts three full-size adult pitches (11-a-side) and two 7-a-side real turf pitches, used for football and rugby. "There's never an inch of space not utilised," he adds proudly.

AlbertRoad RobbyTrainingThe sports on offer at Albert Road, which re-opened eleven years ago, grew out of Robby's desire to create a tennis hub. "We opened the tennis courts first and the café later," he recalls. "The park suffered from gang problems, so it was important for us to create a safe haven where the locals and sports users all respected the park and worked together to ensure it was a success. We soon realised that the key to the whole park was the café, linked in with sport. It was this aspect that made the whole thing financially viable."

Robby's lease is for the tennis and basketball courts, so he and London Borough of Haringey (which carries out the maintenance) work in partnership to deliver the aims of the park.

Born in Guyana (South America), 56 year-old Robby has spent most of his career working in education, having also run successful tennis schools in the UK and overseas. It was the death of a school colleague that prompted his career switch. "It just wasn't that same without him, so it seemed like the right time to take on a new challenge," he explains. "That was when I decided to contact the council, as I saw plenty of potential with Albert Road."

AlbertRoad TennisInitially, no funding could be sourced to get the tennis centre off the ground, so attentions switched to the café and the income potential that it offered. Strong bonds were created from the outset, with schools and community groups involved in the park's development, to the position they're in today, where local schools are able to use the sports facilities for free and, in turn, sports clubs at Albert Road can use school amenities for no charge.

Once the success of the venture became evident, the tennis centre was given a boost with a £300,000 cash injection by the Lawn Tennis Association (LTA) in 2010, which enabled the construction of four hard courts - also designed to accommodate basketball.

The café-centred sports model is growing fast in London, the rest of the UK and worldwide, with Australia now a leading exponent of it, thanks to a meeting between Robby and a Tennis Australia representative two years ago.

"I met Robin O'Neal from Tennis Australia, who was keen to see what was making this project tick," he tells me. "I'd had success and won awards in Australia for helping to make the sport more accessible, so he was keen to link up with me."

T AlbertRoad Youngstershe meeting brought the 'eureka moment' for O'Neal, who saw immediately the importance the café played in the success of the project and how, without it, the sporting facilities would not have the same level of impact.

The Australian connection goes further still. On top of more traditional park sports, Aussie Rules football has become a regular fixture, with three teams now playing weekly fixtures at the Haringey site.

Albert Road has also played host to two amateur international matches. Not only is the popularity of the sport growing amongst users of the park, but the ground is fast becoming 'the place' to play the sport.

"Frequently, visiting teams comment on the quality of the set-up here and we're always being told that it's the best venue in the capital for Aussie Rules," Robby enthuses.

Last spring, Australia called once more, O'Neal inviting Robby to present at the Australian Open to a host of luminaries, including Kate Lundy, Australia's Sports Minister.

AlbertRoad FieldThe series of talks, presented to other coaches and managers the day before the opening of the event, saw Robby address the audience on issues of participation and on raising the profile of the sport amongst sections of the community that might not traditionally have access to it.

The café-driven business model was hugely popular among attendees and his talk was greeted with a standing ovation. "The important points about what we are doing for tennis is that we're opening it up to everyone," he insists. "There's no dress code, no basic standard required and we give out racquets and balls for free. We expect nothing in return, other than the facilities are respected, and the trust we've built has worked tremendously well, and virtually everyone makes use of the café."

The project is working too as a fresh focus for jobs. Robby employs five coaches and three full-time staff, whilst seasonal employment swells to as many as thirty-five in the busier summer months - many of them local young people.

"Our philosophy is to capture the kids and fire their interest in sport at a young age, so they grow up not thinking a certain type of sport in not for them, which has been a problem with tennis."

The boom in tennis participation has been so great at Albert Road that both the Lawn Tennis Association (LTA) and the Tennis Foundation (TF) are pushing forward the model to other parts of the capital and the UK.

Burgess Park in Southwark, south London, is the latest of these to gain the green light. The LTA has also ploughed in £250,000 into another Sukhdeo project - the Bruce Castle Park in Tottenham - a site that was at the heart of the 2011 London riots. The aims here will be to emulate the success of Albert Road and create a community hub, with tennis at the core.

Robby firmly believes that continued success at Albert Road is "an organic process" and he remains committed to long-term development at the park, which involves not only major investment but also bringing underused facilities back to life.

Significant future investment is already being planned, with further improvements to the changing facilities and drainage for the natural pitches earmarked as a priority.

"Our London clay base means drainage is poor and, when there's heavy rain, we rarely see fixtures played through the winter months," he says. "Good drainage would be a real boost, but it doesn't come cheap. Our future expenditure is likely to run into the £100,000s, but, as with all our spending, it's delivered as part of the partnership, where we're all involved."

A more immediate goal for the park is a radical one, bearing in mind the catchment and sports mix. Robbie wants to bring bowls back to life at Albert Road and establish it as a sport for all.

The end of 2012 saw Haringey's last remaining bowls green close, triggering Albert Road's desire to re-establish a successful lawn once again at its own site. The Albert Road bowls club folded two years ago and has seen no play since then, but the green sits in a prime location behind the café, so Robby has high hopes that the sport could, once more, become a centrepiece, and is confident that there will be mass appeal for the sport from all those that use the park.

The bid is currently going through and, subject to the council accepting their proposal, Robby hopes to bring the green back into action this year. "When it initially closed, we weren't in a position to do anything, but now is the right time and we feel we can tie it in to everything else we are doing here," he states.

"I have experience of the sport from back home, where it was very much a community sport, played by old and young. I want that for Albert Road, and we wish to have the green as a backdrop to the café, so people can sit outside and watch the action."

"I acquired a lot of equipment from the bowls club, so we'll be able to offer free bowls and, hopefully, lessons as well. I don't see any reason why the sport cannot draw the same mass appeal that tennis or Aussie Rules has here."

Grassroots sport needs more characters of the entrepreneurial calibre of Robby Sukhdeo, who can coordinate projects from scratch and deliver sustainability at community level. This is the legacy.

AlbertRoad EventThe council's involvement

Anthony Healey, Haringey Parks Department Area Manager, explains the council's role at Albert Road

"Albert Road is just one aspect of our role at the Council, and it's no easy task staying on top of everything, especially with the volume of different sports and recreation the park hosts," explains Anthony Healey, Haringey Parks Department Area Manager. "The summer is obviously the busiest time of year, and we aim to get out and cut at least twice a week in peak season."

Albert Road falls under one of Haringey Council's six 'operational zones', each managed by its own team of six groundsmen. In the summer, these numbers are boosted by help from agency staff, but the core number is adequate enough to handle the various duties that fall within their remit, from recreation parks, sports pitches, school fields and grass verges.

"There are two main periods when any significant renovations take place," he continues, "usually in spring and autumn, and involve anything from repairing damage to pitches to rotovating goalmouths - the areas often in the worst states of repair."

"We have a running programme of repairs and carry out plenty of sanding, spiking, slitting and spot repairs to pitches. We cater for a greater range of sports here than anywhere else in the borough, so linemarking is also a common feature. You'll often see one of us out marking out for one sport or another. No fewer than seventeen different activities are played throughout the year, so we have to mark out in various different colours."

Aussie rules football has proved a big draw at the site and, when fixtures are on, which is usually fortnightly in the summer, it's often "quite a day" for visitors and players alike, creating a real buzz and atmosphere, explains Anthony.

"Maintenance wise, there are no special requirements for Aussie rules. It takes up a lot of space though - two football pitches - and we have help from the Aussie Rules Football Association, which supplies the posts and helps us erect them."

In the summer, the park is chock full - local schools hold events, fun days and sports days - and the grounds team have to get on site whenever they can to carry out works.

"When winter draws in, things naturally slow down," says Anthony. "For the last few years we've been able to cut until November, with the milder weather meaning there's been longer periods of growth."

This year, unsurprisingly, the biggest obstacle has been the rain. "The water tables are higher than they've ever been and there's now nowhere left for the water to disperse," he explains. "With weather like this, we can't go out on site. We had a tractor stuck in the mud at one of our other sites earlier this month, it's not worth attempting it if it's too wet."

Robby highlights the need for better drainage, and Anthony agrees. "It's not a problem unique to us. With a London clay base, sports parks across the capital are susceptible to holding water, which will only worsen if the high levels of rainfall continue. Ideally, all of our parks would benefit from new drainage systems. It's certainly a long term goal of Robby's, and ours," he continues.

The nature of London clay means the team conduct regular soil tests to ascertain what seed mix or products need to be used. "We're currently using a 20/40/60 ryegrass mix and very few chemicals, if any. We're not loyal to any brand really, we follow what tests tell us and take the lead. Also, we have few pest issues, other than foxes, which can be a bit of a headache. We'll often turn up to work to find holes in the pitches and have to spend time we'd rather not filling them in."

AlbertRoad Robby2In August 2008, Robby Sukhdeo was interviewed by The Sun about his project. Here is an excerpt from that interview.

The sound of shots ring out - and a teenage gang member smirks on the other side of the court. Just another day in one of broken Britain's inner cities, you might think. Well, wrong.

For these shots come from a tennis racquet, not a revolver. And it is all part of one man's crusade to keep hoodies out of the law court by putting them on the tennis court.

Robby Sukhdeo has risked everything on transforming a gang-ridden, rundown north London park into a budding tennis club and sports centre for the whole community.

And the dad-of-three has not done this by driving out the young gangsters - he has achieved it with their help.

Since taking over the Albert Road Rec in Muswell Hill, Sukhdeo, 51, has coached tennis to 2,000 local kids.

He has also got gang members off the streets by giving them jobs on the courts and in the pavilion.

Sukhdeo said: "Despite what people think, these kids do want to play tennis. One thing I've noticed is that a lot of gang leaders are really good sportsmen. I believe, to stop knife and gun crime, you have to engage kids - it's no good preaching to them."

"A lot of kids who first started playing tennis here have gone on to join bigger clubs. I hope we can produce a Wimbledon champ one day, but it's not really about that. It's about giving kids another avenue."

"The youngsters who used to hang around here were described as wrong 'uns - now they are known as the 'Pavilion Kids'."