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David Dein’s prison project: the positive story of football putting something back.

By Tony Attwood

David Dein was the Arsenal director who introduced Arsène Wenger to Arsenal, and ultimately recruited him as Arsenal’s manager.   When Dein resigned as a director it was a huge shock to Mr Wenger, and to most Arsenal watchers.  And indeed a few of us were very fearful at the time as to what might happen next to Arsenal.

What I don’t think too many of us thought about was what would happen next to David Dein.  What he has done is remarkable in itself, and doubly so for a man who through his wealth has been able to do anything he wants.

Bits and pieces of the story that has led to Arsenal and other clubs starting to have an involvement in the rehabilitation of prisoners have been told in separate places, but I thought it might be worthwhile to pull it all together, since I am not sure anyone else has done this.

So, back in 1989, Arsène Wenger was the Monaco manager and he was travelling back to France from watching a player he was thinking of signing.  Having never been to Arsenal he called the club and asked if he might break his journey by coming to see a game.  It is a common courtesy that most clubs extend to managers and so he came and after the game he is talking in one of the executive rooms at the ground and he meets David Dein, who reported in an interview much later that the two got on very well from the off.

So much so that Mr Dein invited Mr Wenger to dinner and the friendship was secured.

Mr Wenger was in the midst of changing Monaco by using the methods he later used at Arsenal: changing everything from the training to the players’ diets.   To everyone’s amazement Monaco won Ligue 1 by six points that season (1987/8) having come only fifth the season before and ninth the season before that.   Most of all the team is remembered for its combination of a tough defence with free flowing attacking football with Glen Hoddle in the middle.

This was a period in which bribery and corruption was considered by many to be rife in French football (Marseille were finally found guilty of match fixing in 1994) and so when Bayern Munich approached Mr Wenger he was certainly very interested in taking over as their manager in order to get away from the situation in France.  Monaco however refused to release Mr Wenger but then in September 1994 they sacked him and he went to Japan.

During this period David Dein had stayed in touch and every week sending Arsène Wenger VHS tapes of Arsenal games – which is how he came to know so much about Arsenal and Arsenal knew so much about him when Mr Wenger became manager.

From then on Dein remained Mr Wenger’s man in the board room, until 2007 when Stan Kroenke made his first offer to take over the club.  Chairman Peter Hill-Wood said at the time of Dein’s departure, “We sincerely regret that irreconcilable differences between Mr Dein and the rest of the board have necessitated a parting of the ways.

“In light of recent speculation with regards to the ownership of the club, the remaining board members, who together own 45.45% of the issued share capital of the company, would like to reassure the supporters, shareholders and employees of Arsenal Football Club that they remain long-term holders of their interests in the club. To this effect, they have entered into an agreement not to dispose of their shares for at least one year and have confirmed that they intend to retain their interests on the expiration of this period.”  After that they sold out to Kroenke.

At the time of Dein’s departure Mr Wenger said, “It is a huge disappointment because we worked very closely together, David has contributed highly to the success of the club in the last 10 years and even before that as well. Red and white are the colours of his heart…. David Dein is needed in football because this guy has revolutionised this club and also English football. He is top quality.”

Ian Wright said of Dein’s departure, “I know the players aren’t happy. I know Thierry Henry’s not happy. We’re talking about a man who goes into the dressing room after every single game, shakes every player by the hand and who knows all the youth team players.   I know this for a fact that the manager and the players are 100 per cent behind David Dein and I can see real repercussions coming off the back of this.”  Later Thierry Henry claimed that David Dein’s departure as vice-chairman had dismayed him and left him in no doubt that it was time to move on.

As for David Dein we knew he was part of the founding of Kick it Out in 1993 and was regularly noted as a speaker both at prisons and schools on motivation and inspiration based on his experience in football.  And that gave a clue as to what he might do next.

So we skip forward to March 2018 with the closure of Holloway Prison, which was of course just along the road from Arsenal.  It was part of a £1.3bn overhaul of the UK’s prison service – desperately needed because in the UK we lock up a far higher proportion of the population than any other western democracy.  But it was botched; the replacement prison Downview Prison, which originally opened in 1989 as a male prison was not ready to receive prisoners.

And so David Dein became involved by unveiling The Twinning Project; a partnership between club and prisons.  This project now has the backing of almost all of England’s major football organisations for a scheme to deliver coaching and refereeing courses in prisons, while offering other sports courses that will provide routes to paid employment for prisoners.

This project starts from the understanding that around 64% of adults reoffend within a year of release from prison.  Only 17% of adults find jobs after leaving prison.  One might say that in terms of being a deterrent and/or a way of rehabilitating prisoners, the system does not work.  It is also costly, costing around £35,000 a year to keep a person in prison, which is around  £10,000 above the national average wage.

David Dein has visited every one of the nation’s prisons to promote the Twinning Project and as part of this Arsenal is now linked with Downview, delivering a six-week programme which focuses on helping prisoners develop leadership skills, form positive relationships and build their technical football skills.

Speaking about the programme at Downview David Dein is reported as saying that a prisoner “who had a lengthy history of self-harm, which is an acute problem in women’s prisons, said the course had kept her from self-harming.!  Amid other testimonials he reported one woman who referred to the Arsenal lead coach Tom Hartley as ‘actually the first male I feel I can trust’ because he built such a positive relationship with those on the course.”   Tom Hartley who ran the opening course at Downview were the most rewarding he had experienced in 18 years of coaching.

Jason Swettenham, who is in charge of physical education within prisons, said, “When David goes in to give his talk, he deals in hope.  And that is what is in short supply across the prison system. That’s what this project delivers. Hope.”

Dein is a very wealthy man who didn’t need to do any of this.  Setting up courses in prisons is hardly a headline catching project, but he did it and for that I think he deserves a lot of credit.

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