When you see the look in the eyes of Billy and Sam Downes as they pass the ball to each other across the hallowed Ashton Gate pitch, it’s clear to see what the twin brothers are focusing all their attention on these days – football.
For former Scotland international Tommy Hutchison, who has headed up Bristol City’s Football In The Community project for a decade, the success of the siblings marks a personal achievement every bit
as important as his 17 caps for Scotland, and his matches in the 1974 World Cup.
The twins come from a disadvantaged Bristol estate, and throughout their childhood, they appeared as if they could go off the rails.
There was a time when they paid little attention to their teachers or parents when it came to matters of discipline, but under Tommy’s wing, the lads have taken their first steps to becoming qualified football coaches. The former Coventry City, Blackpool and Swansea City midfielder first met the Downes twins when they were nine.
“Billy and Sam had plenty to say for themselves. They were cheeky and streetwise,” he says. “They are from a very deprived area of Knowle West. When I first went out there, it was to work with the police on a footballing project, to get up to 40 kids off the streets and into sport. But on my first visit to the local playing field on the estate we had to pick up 650 druggies’ needles, just to
make the pitch safe to play on.
“Some of the youngsters continued making a nuisance of themselves, but the vast majority of them were transformed when they had football to focus on.
“Billy and Sam were particularly decent footballers. The twins stopped causing trouble because they became engrossed in their football. They knew that if they messed about, they wouldn’t play.”
Hutchison lost touch with the Downes brothers in their early teens after the scheme he was running at the time had its funding scrapped by the Government.
He said: “These were two kids who were back on course to become a problem in the area.
“They went to school when they felt like it and were causing a lot of bother when they turned up. It was a real shame that the project that was doing them some good, was removed from under them because of a lack of funding.
“After that I’d only occasionally see them around, and I often wondered how they were getting on. They left Hartcliffe School as early as they could, and had been unemployed ever since.”
But then the twins approached Hutchison to ask if they could work alongside him again. The impact was immediate.
“I said to them, ‘You can come back but if you cause problems you are finished’,” Tommy recalls.
“They were two of the worst boys in Bristol at the time, but they have been as good as gold with me – maybe because they know what I’m like.
“A couple of times they have slipped back into lazy mode but the one thing that has impressed me is that they are trying.
“I was waiting for them to crack, but they haven’t. They have been very good. They know better than to be nothing other than polite.” Now Billy and Sam have joined Hutchison in spreading the word about football at schools in Bristol and the role it can play in combating crime and social deprivation. Sam said: “We both wanted to work in football, so we knew that this was our big chance to make a real go of it.”
But Billy says coaching a pitch full of youngsters that can be as naughty and cheeky as they once were is a daunting task.
“I think we were both a bit nervous about coaching the lads at first,” he said. “But you do get into it. The youngsters listen, because they know we’ve got something that we can teach them now.”
Tommy takes great pride in how the Downes twins have turned their lives around.
“When the penny drops, like it did with Sam and Billy, that’s when I get my kicks,” he says.
“Football in the Community is all about trying to get these kids off the streets. We use football to educate these youngsters, which is different to teaching them football.
“Kids can blame the area they are from, their parents or their teachers. At the end of the day they have to look at themselves.
“You can either go the right way or the wrong way. Billy and Sam have shown it can be done.”