It is a fair indication of Martin Carruthers's love of a challenge and his stubborn refusal to accept the notion of a lost cause that when he was asked to champion Notts County's Heading for Goal project he jumped at the chance.

"Without professional football I'd have probably ended up in prison...I went down the wrong path," joked the former Stoke City and Peterborough United striker.

"I was 14, lived in a deprived area of Nottingham, and I was in trouble with the Police. It cost me a career with my home-town club Nottingham Forest - they kicked me out because I didn't behave.

"I could easily have turned to a life of crime and drugs, but I chose another path. Nothing prepared me for when I had to quit football at 33 but now I've found a way of putting something back into the game."

Notts County's Heading for Goal Education programme is a highly-regarded project working with permanently excluded young people in the city, and Carruthers has used his own personal experience to give others in his home city a second chance.

In fact, in recent years, most of his energy has been devoted to his central role as the scheme's Lead Education Officer, and the Football in the Community scheme has an enviable record of delivering positive results.

Martin said: "It was very hard at first. The daily confrontations, the fighting - it could be a very scary environment.

"We've had kids pulling knives out on staff. I've had chairs and tables thrown at me, teenagers threatening to knock me out.

"In that first year, when I taught four or five of the most challenging learners, I had to learn fast.

"Some of them have issues with drugs, many have police records, including ASBOS.

"But, through Heading for Goal, we have given them that chance to re-engage in society.

"Because these teenagers are used to constant conflict and confrontation in their lives, poor behaviour is their way of getting heard."

The on-site classroom at Meadow Lane provides an opportunity for 12 hard-to-engage youngsters to make a fresh start with their learning.

"It has to be done in a different way because these kids fight against the rigid structure of you will do this," added Martin, "We have rules and a code of conduct, but it is not a school.

"One lad had not been to school for 14 months, but in his first three weeks at Heading for Goal he arrived every day on time.

"Another was kicked out of school, told he had no hope of achieving anything - but he left the scheme with five GCSE equivalents.

"He is in a good job with prospects now. He sends regular emails thanking us for giving him another chance when nobody else would."

Carruthers smiles when I ask him about his professional debut for Aston Villa at Selhurst Park against Wimbledon's Crazy Gang.

"I lined up in the tunnel and saw Vinnie Jones and John Fashanu glaring at me," he recalled.

"They knew I was the new kid, so they were snapping and snarling.

"It was very intimidating, but my career experience, including moments like that, has helped me to develop this social inclusion project.

"The biggest draw for the kids who come to Heading for Goal is the way that they can hook into football in the community, learning at a football club and feel part of it at Meadow Lane.

"Playing professionally is something many of them aspire to, and when you talk to them for the first time it is like, 'wow…were you a professional footballer?' and that has earned me a lot of respect."

Carruthers, who still looks youthfully fit at 40, enjoyed productive goalscoring spells at Peterborough, Stoke, Southend and Scunthorpe.

But, no matter how crowded his life becomes, he will find room for helping others as the scheme's figurehead.

"When you are playing football you become very selfish, and you think that privileged life is going to last forever," he added.

"It is such an amazing life. When people ask me if I could do it again, what would I change?

"I'd make it a 9-5 job, and I'd become the best I can be.

"I'd tell any young professional to cherish every second and dedicate your life to it because it is gone in a flash.

"If I've helped a person change their outlook and improve their life through Heading for Goal, then I'll have done my job."