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Lionsraw: Harnessing the power of football as a force for positive change

Every so often in football, something comes along to remind us what potential for good the game possesses. Lionsraw, the charity for proactive supporters who wish to make a difference, epitomises the communal benefits football has to offer more than anything that has come before.

Founder and Chief-Executive Officer Jon Burns (pictured right) explained to Total Football how the organization has grown from its base in the North East of England into a global movement.

He said: “Lionsraw is simply an opportunity for fans to do some good - you must remember we are not just spectators in this game we love, we are participants and we have the opportunity to make a difference.”

The organization aims to mobilise as many fans as possible by encouraging volunteering on a local level through community projects, as well as global Legacy Tours such as South Africa 2010 when 150 men and women travelled to Durban.

During an incredibly productive two-week stay, the team ran seven soccer schools attended by over 1000 Zulu children, and built four urgently-required buildings for those affected by the AIDS epidemic that devastated the region.

UK project

Not only did the work in South Africa enable Lionsraw to do some good abroad, it also led to a brand new project here in the UK. A friend, Dave Wilkie, who joined the 2010 Legacy Tour realised the company that employed him, RWE, had reserved funding for a local initiative.

As a direct consequence of this, Lionsraw, Dave and another friend from South Africa 2010, Peter Butler, have announced plans to secure the future of infamous Middlesborough-based Cleveland Juniors. A £150,000 project will create a new home and changing facilities for the invaluable grass roots football club that has produced, most recently, Manchester City and England winger Adam Johnson.

Johnson, Ambassador for the project, said: “As an ex-Cleveland Juniors player, I am delighted that Lionsraw and its partners will preserve the on-going legacy of this great club and its future players.”

The chance nature of Cleveland Juniors’ gain reflects the power of establishing bases and developing good relations. With current bases in the North East of England, London, Dubai, USA, Brazil, Poland, Russia and France, Lionsraw’s influence is rapidly growing.

Lionsraw’s UK Director, Kev Clark, said: "This is an amazing venture for Lionsraw to take on as its first UK Legacy Project. It shows that Lionsraw is not just about the trips abroad but about creating chances for change at home on our own turf."

Devotion

Lionsraw combines the positive emotions of the football fan and the volunteer: supporting your team and supporting each other. The common denominator is devotion. If it sounds simple, that’s because it is. From the moment of its inception during England’s Euro 2004 defeat to France at Benfica’s Estadio da Luz, Lionsraw has stuck to this principle.

Burns said: “I don’t know if you remember the match – Rooney was brilliant and then Zidane did us with two late goals – but there were something like 45,000 England fans in the crowd, and I just thought ‘what a secret army that could be if they were pointed in the right direction’.

“I’d been working in the charity sector and with young offenders for about 18 months so I knew the area well. Once I had the idea and talked it through with mates who I knew would get it, we began meeting before England games and from 2006, it became official.”

Next up in terms of Legacy Tours is Poland and Ukraine for the 2012 European Championships, and the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. The team will work with schools and community groups to make a lasting contribution to the lives of locals in each of those regions.

Burns said: “Asia is another area where Lionsraw could really explode so we will be looking at that over the next year.”

Uncharted territories

As football heads further afield into uncharted territories such as Russia and Qatar, it is reassuring to learn of plans to actively improve the host nations. Football so frequently attracts attention for all the wrong reasons - it is only when you hear of stories like Lionsraw’s that you realise how far the game has strayed from its original intentions.

“I try and steer clear of a critique of football because I hate lots of it, but then I love absolutely loads of it too, so you can’t throw the baby out with the bath water”, Burns said. “At its roots, football is about fans and that’s what we want to get back”.

He added: “Poland and Ukraine is our immediate focus for now and we are in contact with schools over there- but beyond that, we have already started in Brazil, France and Russia in preparation for the competitions over there.”

Key to Lionsraw’s efforts is uniting rival supporters across the world. This will be evidenced by co-operation with both Polonia and Legia Warsaw fans this summer. The motivation again is simple: bringing together as many people as possible to create the greatest opportunity for positive action.

“I believe a bigger enemy unites. For instance, we are heading to Curitiba in Brazil for the 2014 World Cup and there are three sets of rival supporters there”, explained Burns. “If you consider the feuds between rival supporters in the context of poverty which affects everyone, then surely there is no argument - it was the same with Aids in Africa”, he added.

No agendas

Lionsraw has no formal partnerships and this is deliberate. Burns is aware of the amount of agendas often involved in this sort of thing, agendas which can often distort good intentions and derail valuable hard work.

Burns said: “We just want to keep our heads down, and keep under the radar really - we just want to concentrate on the work rather than worrying about having this name on that t-shirt or this logo on that banner.”

Lionsraw’s ’20:20 Vision’ is to inspire one million fans to action by the turn of the next decade.

Burns said: “There’s a term we have in the business world - 'bhags' (big hairy audacious goals) – and these are obviously beyond our natural means.

“But the way I see it, if we aim for a million and we reach half of that, we’ve still made a fantastic contribution”, he added.

For information on how to donate, get involved or simply keep abreast of all of Lionsraw’s events and initiatives, visit www.lionsraw.org.

By Chris Smith


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