It is 11 o’clock on a Saturday morning in October. There is a chill in the air but it’s lively and fresh. Perfect conditions for football.
The setting is Heath Town Park adjoining Bushbury Road, a couple of miles out of Wolverhampton City Centre, within a stone’s throw of New Cross Hospital.
All of a sudden, scores of young people from the nearby area descend on the park.
Different ages, different shapes and sizes, different personalities, different cultures, but all sharing one love. A love of football.
The action kicks off on several different pitches – warm-ups, drills, small-sided games, all under the watchful eye and guidance of a team of dedicated coaches.
Beyond the far pitch echoes the sound of a stereo blaring out with the opportunity for parents who have bought along their children to enjoy a workout of their own with a keep fit session. Others prefer to stand and watch, some alone and in thought, others in conversation.
The whole scene is noisy, it’s vibrant, it’s energetic. At times it looks like organised chaos. And it’s brilliant.
This is the ‘Learning Through Football’ programme for four to 14-year-olds run by NPV (New Park Village) Football Development.
And the man at its helm once played for Wolves.
Once is the operative word, because midfielder Joe Jackson made just one solitary appearance in the famous gold shirt, but that is still one more than so many others could only ever have dreamt of.
The thousands, more like millions, who have grown up kicking a ball on many a park such as the one in Heath Town, have never had the chance at that one appearance.
Now 55, Jackson’s experiences with Wolves, followed by life in the upper echelons of non-league as both player and manager, and later as a coach and development officer at a local college, paved the way for what has become 23 years – and counting – running a project which has very much turned into a labour of love.
The original motivation behind its inception is as clear as the sky on this crisp Autumnal morning.
“We set up back in 1998 because of the gang situation in the city, the culture which had developed,” Jackson explains.
“Youngsters around Heath Town and New Park Village were at loggerheads, and we needed to set something up that produced some sort of intervention.
“It needed an activity which could pre-occupy the young people, keep them off the streets and by starting from a young age it gave an opportunity to try and shape them and show them there could be something better.
“As simple as it may seem, the idea of Learning Through Football is to develop the notion of playing for your logo and playing for your colours, playing alongside children from other postcodes which is massive at the moment.
“It’s about getting an understanding of how to turn up on time, being smart in your appearance, developing life skills as well as football.
“If we can start helping teach these kids from the age of four about discipline and some of the other things around that, supporting their parents, it can’t be bad, can it?
“And I think it has made a difference, it is continuing to make a difference.
“Sometimes these things are not what you go out and scream and shout about, but they are happening, you know?”
The motivation developed not just from the gang tensions existing in the area but also from Jackson’s own background, growing up in Whitmore Reans, another of those inner city areas nursing something of a troubled reputation.
As a youngster himself, he admits his own story could have moved in a very different direction to how it eventually transpired.
“I think back to how I got started in football, and how I got started in life,” Jackson recalls.
“I am conscious that on a Saturday afternoon when some of my friends were out and about being hooligans, I was playing football.
“I’m not going to say I was a well behaved kid by any means, because I wasn’t, and I would never deny that I was torn between the paths I could take.
“But the idea of football – my passion for football – that is what dragged me away from going down a different road, that is what kept me safe.
“And that is what we want to do with NPV – offer something constructive for the youngsters to take on to stop them getting involved in the other things which might come along instead.”
Jackson normally tries to oversee the sessions across the different pitches but on this particular Saturday he is a coach down which dictates more of a hands-on approach helping his team of coaches to work with some big numbers.
It also means our chat whilst surveying events is regularly interrupted by a variety of complaints any football coach, of any team, will be all too familiar with.
“He won’t pass to me….he just kicked me…I don’t want to play anymore…”
Out of the corner of his eye Jackson spots one young player booting the ball miles away from the pitch in frustration, and, after successfully encouraging him to retrieve it, there follows the post mortem.
“Now then,” Jackson begins.
“Why are you standing there pulling that face looking like a gangster?”
“I’m bored,” says the youngster, with a sullen face not really in keeping with the overall atmosphere of the morning.
“How old are you? Nine? Ten?” Jackson replies.
“Sometimes life can be hard at that age, we all know that.
“But if you put in the same sort of energy in looking like a gangster to looking like a happy person, see how quickly things could change?”
The approach has worked. The young face cracks. A broad grin. And off he goes, straight back into the fray.
Our conversation resumes. “These boys, when they are kicking each other and what not, or ending up bursting into tears, they don’t even realise it, but they are learning,” Jackson insists.
“They are learning about how to handle pain, how to handle being hurt, how to say sorry and how to get on with others.
“Over a period of time they will start to adapt and get used to it, and develop all of those skills that will be so important moving forward in life.”
A sizeable crowd of parents, looking on from the sidelines, are also very much engaged.
“You can use your hands you know,” is the gentle encouragement from one father as a tentative looking young goalkeeper takes a wild swipe and misses a low shot leading to a goal.
A couple of minutes later, a penalty. It’s saved. The young keeper turns with joyful expression to his equally delighted and proud Dad. A big thumbs-up. A special moment.
When it comes to special moments however, there can’t be anything as special as Joe Jackson stepping out for his hometown club almost four decades ago, even just that once.
May 1st, 1984. Wolves away at Notts County in the First Division in front of a Meadow Lane crowd of 5, 378.
With the team already relegated, caretaker boss Jim Barron threw Jackson in at a time when other young rookies such as Martin Bayly, Paul Dougherty, Stuart Watkiss and later Premier League title winner and England international goalkeeper Tim Flowers were also on the scene.
Wolves lost 4-0. But all these years on, the result doesn’t really matter.
“Do I remember it? Of course I do. Despite the result it was a fantastic day personally,” Jackson reflects.
“I had played the majority of my time at Wolves in the youth set-up, but I was 18 when I got that opportunity in the first team.
“With Wolves relegated a few of us young lads were given a chance at Notts County.
“The result wasn’t great, but for me, I was a young lad from the local community getting that opportunity to wear the gold and black, and it doesn’t get much better.”
Even getting that far had been an obstacle-laden journey for the ambitious young hopeful.
Initially taken on as an apprentice, the Valley Park schoolboy and former Wolverhampton Schools midfielder was released at 15 before later being spotted in a tournament by Wolves then Chairman Derek Dougan, who had popped along to present the trophies.
That led to a second chance, and that first and last senior appearance, in the same team that afternoon as the likes of John Burridge, John Humphrey, Alan Dodd and Scott McGarvey.
There was never to be another opportunity as Wolves began their ignominious descent to the lower leagues, initially under Tommy Docherty, with whom Jackson never really saw eye to eye.
A year later he departed Wolves again, and, despite interest from Mansfield, he also departed the professional game.
“At the time I didn’t really have the support mechanisms in place to help me through it,” he recalls.
“Once you have that rejection it breeds a lack of self-confidence.
“John Jarman, who had been at Wolves, contacted me about going over to Mansfield but I didn’t fancy it.
“I had lost the thrill of football after Tommy Docherty took over and just wanted to enjoy it again, so I decided to go into non-league instead.
“It had all gone a bit too business-like, so straightaway I went back to Bilston and played in the same team as my mates for six months.”
From there Jackson embarked on an impressive non-league career taking in not only other local footballing outposts such as Hednesford, Gresley and Worcester but also locations further afield such as Yeovil and Dover in the Conference.
Having taken up a role as Football Development Officer at Bilston College – now the City of Wolverhampton College – links with Bilston Town later saw Jackson return to the Steelmen overseeing the youth set-up before becoming player/manager of the first team.
A successful stint followed as boss at Stourbridge Town before a spell at Bromsgrove would prove Jackson’s last in the hotseat as he ultimately decided to concentrate solely on the role as Football Co-ordinator at the College.
From there, at the back end of the Millennium, Jackson would then launch NPV, all those experiences within football providing such a wide range of knowledge, and so much to pass on.
But not all of those memories are positive, particularly as a young black player in the days when racism was sadly – even more so than now – an all-too familiar part of football, and society.
“My professional career didn’t last long and might not have turned out the way I liked but being in that environment opened my eyes to the world of football,” he says.
“Racism was rife, throughout my career it was a problem, and it still hasn’t gone away.
“How did I deal with it? I didn’t. I reacted, and I would get sent off.
“That is the nature of the person I am, I will always fight back, but I think what we are doing now with NPV is another way of fighting back.
“We are saying that there is a different way that we can operate as human beings, and we can try and show these young people that there is a place they can go in football where they interact with others and recognise that we can all be friends.
“You look here today, all the different cultures playing together, enjoying it together, and that is what it is all about.
“We can talk about breaking down barriers and working cohesively but talk is cheap – we need to get out and do it.
“I was born and bred in Whitmore Reans – and we know that is practically Wolves anyway – so the club always felt like home.
“There were lots of young kids that came to Wolves from Ireland, Scotland, Yorkshire, wherever else, and I became good friends with a lot of them.
“I loved Whitmore Reans, but going into those areas in football, and playing in non-league, took me away from the idea that home was the be-all and end-all and took me into arenas I normally wouldn’t have been able to experience.
“It gave me confidence and made me realise the world is a bigger place, and that is what we are trying to do now with our football.”
Jackson’s achievements have quite rightly been recognised and lauded, most notably as one of 150 who received long service awards from Prince William to mark the FA’s 150thanniversary back in 2013.
Wolves legend Steve Bull was guest of honour at NPV’s 20thanniversary celebrations back in 2018, while there are plans in place to work with Wolves Foundation in the near future.
For Jackson however, there is a strong sense that this isn’t about awards. This is all in a day’s work in what is a real team effort, with wife Debbie also heavily involved.
As well as the Saturday Development sessions there is an academy which offers motivation for the very best players to progress, as well as 11 teams across several different age groups.
There are professionals in the game who first started out with NPV Development, such as Zeli Ismail, who went on to play for Wolves, and Chey Dunkley, currently with Sheffield Wednesday.
Jackson is equally as proud of those players and coaches who have gone on, or are currently, working within academy systems across the Midlands.
Keep an eye too on a certain Under-12 by the name of Ricky Jackson, Joe’s grandson, one of several players who have progressed to Wolves Academy and one of the stars of Wolverhampton Schools’ Under-11s charge to the national final last season.
As we break off the interview with ‘full time’ in sight Jackson is off and away, some final words of encouragement and support coupled with rounding up all the equipment to be carefully collected and packed away. Until the next time.
His motivation, that motivation which helped him set up the initiative over two decades ago, is seemingly as steadfast and as powerful as ever, strengthened by a devout Christian faith which also drives him forward.
“I don’t know what I would do without football, I tried to work in a factory once and I lasted a week,” says Jackson, who while no longer in touch with those Molineux team-mates from ’84 has remained close to another with an enthusiasm for helping the city’s young in former Wolves forward Mel Eves.
“I am a man of God, I gave myself to the Lord back in 2005, and I see this as a calling, not work.
“For me, it is about grabbing hold of your passion and what you are gifted in, which I believe comes from the Lord.
“We need to help shape the lives of these young people, get them to grow in confidence and be able to express themselves when they are playing football.
“When we talk about problems in society, I think most young people drift off into other stuff because they don’t have a passion.
“I think it is a crying shame that we as adults sometimes blame our youngsters but I honestly believe a lot of the time they are not to blame – the problem is us.
“We just need to give them the opportunities, whatever they may be, and sometimes they just need us as individuals to give them a hand and point them in the right direction.”
And that is certainly what is happening at Heath Town Park on a Saturday morning, deep in the heart of an area of the city which has never boasted the best of reputations.
Historical statistics around crime and anti-social behaviour would underpin such thoughts, and yet much work continues to take place to help address issues of social and economic inequality.
Young people are of course born without any pre-judgements or prejudices – human instincts are more naturally disposed towards being sociable and tolerant.
And that is why the sessions run by NPV Development are so refreshing to watch, a ‘timeline cleanser’ as they say on social media, and will continue to be so pivotal.
Football as a force for good, as an antidote to division. The Beautiful Game in action. This is it, in real life.
For an hour everything else can be forgotten, any other worries or troubles cast aside. There is the chance to live the dream, just as Jackson did all those years ago, and continues to do – albeit a different dream – even now.
And for all those who head to Heath Town Park come wind, rain or shine on a Saturday morning, who knows just where those dreams one day may lead?