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Planting Seeds Through Sport

by Leslie Simmons

Peter Hutton at Brandywell, the home of Derry City FC.
Everybody in Derry knows Peter Hutton. Whether he’s walking down the street in the city center, driving his car or visiting his hometown’s football pitch, someone’s got a wave, a smile or a shout out for the former footballer.

His story is the quintessential “local boy makes good.” Growing up in the Creggan, Hutton, 39, picked up soccer early and by 15 was sought-after by local clubs. Eventually, he signed with the local team, Derry City FC, and became a star player for the “Candystripes.” Hutton, who currently manages the Donegal team Finn Harps, has remained loyal to his hometown and committed to contributing to his community.

Working with The Junction, Hutton runs the youth football program Teenage Kickz, aimed at bringing Derry-Londonderry teens together through the sport.

Once a month, he loads up a mobile football field and sets it up in a “neutral” area. Youths from various areas are invited to participate and play together.

“We’re working with blighted communities where anti-social behavior occurs,” Hutton said. “It’s a way to get the kids away from the drinking and other [bad] activities.”

The Creggan, where Hutton grew up, and the Bogside, where he was born, are areas that produced footballers through similar community youth programs, though the Derry native admits he didn’t witness or experience a lot of the violence others in his neighborhood did.

Hutton is featured in artwork along a wall in the Creggan.
Hutton was born in 1973, a year after Bloody Sunday, and the Troubles was a topic his parents, Peter Sr. and Linda, rarely discussed with their six children. Football was what encompassed his life from an early age, and his natural talents exposed him to many sides and cultures and allowed him to travel away from the city.

 “My parents told you what you needed to know [about The Troubles],” Hutton recalled. “They did a good job at shielding us growing up. We were protected. In some respect, we were naïve.

“You came home and you did your homework,” he said. “When you were done you watched a kids program and then that was it when the news came on. And we didn’t read the papers.”

That doesn’t mean he didn’t experience any of the violence. Hutton recalls playing out in the streets one night with friends and witnessing three men get “kneecapped” by the IRA – meaning, they were shot in the knees. Punishment, he said, for “anti-social behavior.”

Hutton also recalled having a run-in with the British army. He was walking into town early on a Saturday morning to pick something up for his mother when a Jeep-like armored vehicle often used by the British soldiers came driving down the road. The vehicle swerved to try to - or appear to - hit Hutton. The soldiers drove off laughing. It’s an incident that stands out to him.

“It was scary in a sense that you had a feeling of being very vulnerable,” he said. “And I couldn’t say anything. Who would believe me over them?”

Football – like the teens he interacts with today – was his outlet. It allowed the star defender to build a career that saw him play for hometown Derry City FC, as well as Portadown, Shelbourne and Cliftonville.

“Football kept a lot of young people off the streets; kept them narrow,” he said. “That’s why a lot of these clubs were formed – to keep the kids away from the paramilitary.”

The late Jon Clifford coached area youths.
He credits men like John “Ugg” Clifford, who recently died and will soon have a park dedicated in his name. Though Hutton didn’t play under Clifford, he said the late coach and many others in the area helped thousands of young people. Clifford was a “modern day social worker,” Hutton said. 
In a sense, Hutton had a calling in social work himself. His mother went back to university studies after the last child went off to school. After years playing football, Hutton followed a similar path, returning to Magee College in his early 30s when he was nearly blinded in a soccer match playing for Derry City and had some down time. He also earned a social work degree.

In 2009, he was approached by The Junction’s Eamonn Deane and Jim Roddy about developing a football program for the community. This program – Teenage Kickz – would be different from those run by Clifford and others. It would focus not only on football but also on bringing teens from different communities – including Loyalist and Nationalists – together for a night of football. 
The game, however, is only the cherry on the top. First, the youths participating have to go through workshops run by Deane – Red Card to Sectarianism – that combine peace and reconciliation with sport.

Teenage Kickz participants include boys and girls from 14-16 years. Some come from Donegal and the surrounding areas, as well as Derry-Londonderry. The workshops include what Hutton calls “community insight tours,” that allow the teens to share with their fellow participants who they are, what their traditions are, and some of their history, such as a tour of the murals on the Bogside.

The mobile pitch for Teenage Kickz is stored at Brandywell.
“These kids realize, ‘They’re just like us.’ It’s a way to build common ground,” Hutton said. “The sport is almost like the carrot. They don’t get the game unless they do the workshop.”

There are ground rules for those participating. They can wear whatever they want, except for certain team colors and logos, including Celtic and Rangers. Other than that, Hutton encourages the teens to “be proud of who you are and wear what you want to wear. Don’t sweep it under the carpet.”

So far, Hutton said he’s had a very good response to the program. Although there are still some Loyalist communities he’s working on building trust with through The Junction and local community leaders. Building peace, he realizes, doesn’t happen overnight.

“Young kids are open to change,” he said. “But then they go home and are exposed to prejudice. So the more you work with the families as a whole, the better. It won’t go away just because you’re working with the kids.”

The ultimate goal of Teenage Kickz is to break down all barriers and help create a more peaceful society and a better environment for the future.

“It takes a lot of time and perseverance and diplomacy,” Hutton said. “We’re planting the seeds.”

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