20 Feb 2023

Former Chelsea FC icon and local sports stars come together to promote inclusivity in sport through the Rio Ferdinand Foundation and Choice Housing Partnership

Young people from South and East Belfast came together to train for a Sports Leaders Award, and to hear from former Chelsea FC player and matchday Ambassador Paul Canoville and local sports stars on their journeys through sport and the importance of prioritising your mental health and wellbeing.

The Community Sports Leaders Award (CSLA Level 1) Accreditation is a key part of the new initiative between Choice Housing and the Rio Ferdinand Foundation which aims to use sport, media, and arts to build positive relationships, leadership, skills, and opportunities for young people whilst tackling issues such as racism and inequality at a community level.

Youth groups took part in a weeklong programme of workshops and other activities aimed at improving skills and opportunities for young people. The initiative is supported by partners including Warner Music UK / Ireland, UEFA Foundation, Community Foundation NI and Catalyst Belfast who offer mentoring, training and opportunities for young people to learn about careers.

Former Irish League players Harry McCue, Paul Millar and Paul Leeman joined Paul Canoville, the first black player for Chelsea FC and anti-racism campaigner in an open discussion about their own journeys and the challenges that young people today face.

Paul Canoville was the first black player to play for Chelsea and suffered racism in his career both in the game and from the terraces. Following his retirement he suffered with mental ill-health, and now not only acts as a club ambassador, but also as a high-profile campaigner against racism and as an advocate for mental health issues.

Choice Group Chief Executive, Michael McDonnell attended the event and said,

“The partnership with the Rio Ferdinand Foundation focuses on bettering the lives of young people in our communities, seeing so many of them here today engaging and sharing their experiences shows how vital these programmes are.

“They will come away not only having developed new friendships with young people from other communities and backgrounds but will have learned a great deal from the experience of those speaking today. Hearing from sports professionals on the challenges they have faced and the importance of having a support system will hopefully stay with them throughout their lives, whatever they choose to do next.”

The Rio Ferdinand Foundation, set up by former Manchester United and England defender Rio Ferdinand has worked in Northern Ireland since 2016 and provides mentoring and employment pathways to help young people in economically deprived communities.

Belfast Project Co-Ordinator – Rio Ferdinand Foundation, Karla McDermott said,

‘This week has been a fantastic experience for the young people involved, and for us as a staff team as we have watched them grow and take a lead in the project.  The participants have achieved accredited qualifications in Sports Leadership and Equality and Diversity and have led on putting together a community tournament.

“As they start their journey is sports and leadership, we have had some wonderful guests here to share their own journeys and young people from across Belfast and NI to play and get inspired. It’s a project that shows what we can achieve when communities come together, and we give young people a voice.”

Rio Ferdinand said:

“It’s important that we support young people to build the confidence, skills and networks that will help them to find their career path and achieve their potential in life. This training course is a great first step for these young people in Belfast and I congratulate them on achieving their qualification and look forward to hearing how their journeys progress.

“A huge thanks also to Paul Canoville and the other guests who attended the final tournament today to share their stories and journeys with the group to help them understand the pathways, challenges and experiences that journey can take.”

Paul Canoville, who shared his experience, including how it impacted his life having to retire form football at the age of 24 and subsequently struggling with addiction issues,

“This has been a great experience for me coming back to Belfast and getting involved with young people who are learning to take a lead in their communities. I know from my own experience that football and sport is a great way to bring people together, but perhaps more importantly it’s a pathway to learn skills and overcome challenges that you will face in life. These young people have a great opportunity now to progress in sports and be an inspiration to others, and I am pleased to be able to add my voice to the work of the Rio Ferdinand Foundation and Choice Housing to help make a difference here in Belfast, and I hope to come back again as the programme progresses.”

To find out more about the partnership contact