ANDY WILKINSON has highlighted the importance of young footballers in local leagues getting support from the professional game . . . and believes it played a key role in his rise through the ranks to a point where he is now in the Premier League.
The 28-year-old defender presented kit and equipment to those hoping to be the stars of the future at Stoke City's Clayton Wood Training Ground this week, and one of the recipients was the club where it all began for him, Stone Dominoes.
Wilkinson joined some familiar faces from the Stoke City Old Boys Association (SCOBA) for the handover of 50 packs to the Potteries Mini Soccer League.
City legends Terry Conroy, Denis Smith and George Berry were among those who attended the presentation which came about after fund-raising activities by SCOBA and then the selection of the Potteries Mini Soccer League as the worthy recipients.
Wilkinson believes he was lucky to get similar support when he was growing up and is delighted so many kids are supporting their local club and participating in sport.
"I was quite fortunate - at Stone Dominoes we had quite a good set-up. I was lucky to get the opportunity that I got," he commented at the event.
"There's been a massive rise in people who want to play sport because of the Olympics and other things, and hopefully some of these lads can come through at our Club.
"Ryan Shotton and I are definitely blessed to be doing what we're doing, so I enjoy doing things like this. It's only right that we give something back and help get the young lads coming through."
"We had an approach from the Mini League and decided that they were the best group from the options that were presented to us," explained Conroy.
"We have regular meetings with different organisations, and we decided this was the most worthwhile one to give the sets of gear to in this instance."
SCOBA partake in various other projects with charities and similar groups throughout the year, and Conroy says the success of the Club on the pitch opens up many opportunities for them.
"There used to be lots of shirts of the so-called big clubs around the city, but now it's unbelievable the amount of kids who wear the Club's colours," he added.
"They can wear it with pride because we're doing ourselves justice in the Premier League."
The organisation also keeps Conroy in touch with old team-mates - something he's very grateful for.
"It's vital that we maintain our links, because you like to know what's happening to your members. If you don't see them from one year to the next, you lose contact.
"We are pushing the community side a lot more because it's important that we do that. Obviously it helps that Stoke are in the Premier League because focus is on the club more than ever. We're representing them when we go round to these venues."
He also thinks meeting the young stars of the future gives them a 'history lesson', adding: "They know the Wilkinsons and the Crouchs, but they wouldn't be familiar the Conroys and the Smiths!
"When we do meet them, it gives them a little history lesson about the things their dads and grand-dads would have told them about - they can attach a face to a name after it."