Racking up a goal difference of +247 from an eleven-club division is no mean feat. It goes without saying the club in question won every one of their twenty matches. As they have topped the division ten times in the last fifteen seasons their dominance is on a par with Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United who won the Premier League 13 times in his 21 years at the helm. Add to this that the pool of players they can choose from is limited and beyond the control of the club then the string of success is all the more laudable.
With all these positives one has to wonder why they have never been promoted. The answer is deceptively simple; this team represents a prison in mid-Wales and promotion is not an option. HM Prison Prescoed is a men’s open prison and young offender institution situated near Pontypool in Monmouthshire. The prison is relatively small, housing just over 200 inmates, but amongst those couple of hundred men there is a rich seam of football talent.
HMP Prescoed FC are the only prison team in Wales who started playing in Division 2 of the Gwent Central League over twenty years ago but the League does not allow Prescoed to be promoted. So even after their record-breaking 2018/19 season they faced yet another season of carrying all before them in the same division. But this was all about to change.
Through a combination of demoralised opponents and an administrative cock-up, when the person working at the prison responsible for running the team left, and the application to re-enter the league fell by the wayside. There was further resistance to the side only playing home games (for obvious reasons) and their application to enlist for the following season was turned down by the Gwent FA, citing a handful of objections from within their ranks.
This was a body blow to all involved including the governor Giles Mason and Jason Swettenham, Head of Prison Industries, Catering and Physical Education for HM Prison Service in England and Wales. Undeterred, Prescoed applied to re-enter the league for the 2020/21 season but they were knocked back by the Gwent FA who refused their re-admission based on two principal objections which were namely safeguarding / welfare issues, mainly surrounding the age of players within the league and secondly sporting integrity issues in relation to the restrictions on away games for Prescoed.
This led to an appeal that was headed up by Jamie Grundy, an educator/researcher who pointed out that these objections had not been raised in the twenty years beforehand so why now? Grundy had written a book – 90 Minutes of Freedom, in which he charted the remarkable progress of the Prescoed team throughout that 2018/19 season. A central theme of the book focuses on how sport can be an effective tool for rehabilitation. It is a tale of how the prisoners benefit from their regular games of football both physically and mentally. Their self-esteem grows with each game and as they amass win after win they burst with pride.
Having such positive experiences behind them also means that the inmates have a much better chance of returning successfully to the community once they are released, heads held high rather than cowed by their time inside. Added to which their behaviour on the pitch was impeccable as a former inmate says: “I enjoyed my time playing for Prescoed FC, and never saw one incident over those two seasons, and that included a Cup Final at Goytre FC’s ground.”
As Neville Southall wrote in the book’s foreword: “Football is a sport that has always brought excitement and passion to anyone with a desire to play and get involved. Whether it is the winning or the losing, or even just the taking part, football has so much to offer beyond two goals and a ball. 90 Minutes of Freedom shows that, even when everything is taken from you, football is sometimes the only thing that remains.”
Southall’s recognition of football’s ability to provide focus and act as a catalyst in turning people’s lives around was in stark contrast to the attitude of the Gwent FA who were not for turning and refused to meet Grundy. Their secretary Mr. Watkins sent the following message – “I think it would be inappropriate for us to meet up at the moment. The reason is Prescoed FC have been refused entry into the Gwent Central League and have appealed their decision to us.”
So despite the obvious excellence of Prescoed’s team the appeal looked doomed. Furthermore, the prison boasts a pair of privately maintained pitches that are of such a high standard that they are the envy of grassroots clubs and even some professional outfits. In the last few years the pitches have been used by a couple of EFL clubs as well as Spanish Primera League outfit Valencia and the national teams of Wales and Ukraine. Facilities were clearly not an issue but attitudes within the Gwent FA were.
Grundy who led the appeal was steadfast in his defence of their right to play. “Quite clearly HMP Prescoed FC are prime examples of the way football is being used to unite, treating people as equals, as an agent of peace, delivering social cohesion, participation in the community and giving people a new direction.” There were low expectations in the Prescoed camp as Gwent FA appeared to be so intransigent.
The appeal was heard on 15th October and, to much relief and some surprise, succeeded as the Gwent FA finally relented. Thankfully, sense has prevailed and Prescoed can now resume playing this season (as and when COVID-19 restrictions allow), no doubt beating all-comers while giving a boost to the morale of the prisoners who will gain so much more than yet another Division 2 title and an impressive positive goal difference.