Grenfell: How football helped a community heal – through the most fascinating of friendlies
When Grenfell Athletic faced the London Fire Brigade in an emotionally-charged clash, FFT was there to see the action unfold. Friendly? No chance
This story on Grenfell was originally published in the November 2021 issue of FourFourTwo – subscribe now to save 10% on the magazine.
This really should be the friendliest of friendlies. Two teams with a powerful off-field bond and masses of mutual respect, locking horns between a guard of honour and plethora of post-match presentations. You’d understand if the fixture itself had a testosterone-free testimonial feel. Even with loads of firemen playing.
But thankfully, real football kicks in pretty quickly. “They don’t want it, they don’t want it – HE DOESN’T WANT THAT BALL!” thunders Grenfell Athletic’s manager, Rupert Taylor, as his players hunt down a startled full-back. “HE. DOES. NOT. WANT. THAT.”
He’s not wrong, and it’s a compelling spectacle, like a pride of young lions picking off an antelope. That’s the key word, in fact: pride. Has any team wanted to win for their shirt more than this one?
The animated Taylor sets the tone, maintaining a great motivational bellow for the full 90 minutes, apart from occasional hugs for visiting well-wishers. His is a unique role, but the club he founded also benefits from a diverse array of enthusiasts: the celebrated gardener, the bashful former Premier League striker, the BRIT-nominated hip-hopper. And, most importantly of all, the people of – and affected by – Grenfell.
This team represents them. So Taylor takes it very seriously indeed.
“When we first started out, we wanted to create a legacy,” he says. “We will do that by any means necessary. I expect this team to be alive long after I’m dead.”
"Playing for Grenfell is a privilege"
FourFourTwo is in south-west London to see a match that means a great deal, featuring two of the most interesting amateur teams in the country. It’s the London Fire Brigade vs Grenfell Athletic, the finale of the latter’s recent UK tour of fire service outfits; a sort of footballing thank you if you will, with London an emotional farewell location given what they’ve experienced together.
Not that the hosts will roll over. Far from it. The famously competitive LFB team boasts a solid core of semi-professional experience, and lots of winners. You can’t really imagine firefighters pulling out of tackles.
“The only thing pulling out is the referee’s cards,” chuckles the firm but friendly John Chinnery, one of LFB’s three rotating gaffers. That side – formed in the mid-1970s – have a proud reputation to uphold. “We always win or reach the finals of competitions, so always have a target on our backs.”
Grenfell are a much newer proposition, but they’ve come very far, from unprecedented beginnings. The club was launched just a few weeks after the horrific June 2017 fire which engulfed Grenfell Tower in North Kensington, killing 72 people. Taylor was then managing a local youth side, and within that grieving, displaced community the idea of a football team emerged.
“The first year, it was just about survival,” he explains. They kept the club off the radar at first, “to allow the boys healing time”. But that soon went pleasingly awry, as Taylor led GAFC to a league and cup double – even he “didn’t expect to win two big fat trophies”. It’s tantalising to wonder how far the team could go, as their status has grown rapidly. The club shirts have gone global – Harry Kane is one famous model – they’ve got Nando’s catering the tour, and the ultimate British status symbol: Cadbury’s have even created a Grenfell Dairy Milk.
Still, the manager’s tactics probably aren’t for everyone. “Rupert, he’s easy to love and he’s easy to hate,” smiles Ryan Moloney, the Virgil van Dijk of the Middlesex County League according to Taylor. “Sometimes you’ll think he’s being a bit hard, but as you get to know him, everything he does is out of his heart.”
Is he pushy? “He’s no pushover, I’ll say that. He likes things done his way – his way or no way. It takes a bit of time for everyone to get used to that.”
Playing for Grenfell Athletic is “a privilege” insists Moloney, who lives locally and joined a few years in. “Some Sunday League teams just turn up on a Sunday. When we turn up, we want to win. And if we don’t, we’ll have conversations for days about why. It will ruin the week, because for me personally, I look forward to it: Thursday training, then Sunday, putting on the Grenfell shirt.”
Having announced themselves to the world, this game against the London Fire Brigade is a major moment. It’s being streamed, with an ITN camera crew and newspaper reporters among the crowd. Grenfell really don’t want to drop the ball here. And they’ve not won on this tour yet.
LFB have a very different setup, but similar goals: to help with stressful lives, fundraising, and to send a positive message. They’ve got a squad of 50 to pick from across the London fire services, but 24/7 shifts mean the players never train. And some of this particular side could be a bit rusty.
“This will be such an emotional match for everybody involved,” says coach Chinnery. “We’ve picked as many of the firefighters that were on duty that evening as possible.” That means several will be “putting on their boots for the first time in a long time”.
For at least one GAFC stalwart, football has been crucial. Joseph John is a breakout star of the tour so far, but his story could be very different. A Grenfell resident, he survived the fire by carrying his son through a window to safety. John still doesn’t have anywhere to call his permanent home, but this team feels like a solid foundation.
“The first time I went to a training session, it was good for me,” he reveals. “I was made welcome, I felt loved and I felt calmer. I was grieving. I was angry. I was so confused and didn’t know what to do, just stuck in a hotel with my family. Football gave me strength – in my body and my mind.”
The first three matches of this pre-season tour were almost a step too far. “Right before the tour I was having little breakdowns – my mental health wasn’t so good,” John admits of his mental state 10 days out. However, he persevered, as did the team. Grenfell lost to Tyne and Wear Fire and Rescue (“we only had 11 players,” says Taylor, “with a goalkeeper at right-back”), then earned a creditable 0-0 draw on Merseyside. But Greater Manchester was epic... if surreal, at first.
“Andy Burnham, the mayor, played the first 20 minutes,” recalls a bemused Taylor. Was he on the left? “What he did was steer clear from politics on this one. He knew that’s not what we’re about.” Indeed, as the inquests and headlines have continued, the team have been building bridges.
In Manchester, Grenfell were 2-0 down. Cue assessment – “a bollocking,” laughs Moloney – and tinkering from the boss. John came on, they changed to three at the back and sprang to life. “The best moment of the tour,” smiles Taylor, “was Joseph John making it 3-2.”
John concurs. “He told me exactly what he wanted me to do, and I did it. I scored a goal and then jumped on him. I was happy, man. Emotional.” But then Manchester equalised to draw 3-3. Now, with one tour game left – the last before their league season kicks off – Grenfell are absolutely busting for the win. No messing.
"For 90 minutes, I'm Gareth Southgate"
Corinthian-Casuals’ ground in Tolworth, King George’s Field, is an apt setting for this crunch clash. The original Corinthian FC was founded as a bastion of sportsmanship: they famously refused to recognise penalties, because no gentleman would purposefully foul another.
Opposite the dressing room doors are posters expounding that Corinthian Spirit.
The Brigade boys arrive first, all business in smart red polo shirts. Chinnery – also involved with Casuals – was here early setting up, so lets fellow manager Dave Bryant do much of the matchday duties. A sharp-witted Essex native, his team talks are worth a listen too.
Bryant is a different person when discussing Grenfell, though. He was on duty that night, and speaks movingly about the after-effects. Firefighters can often compartmentalise, set things aside and get on with the job. “The problem is, the magnitude of this... you can’t close the lid,” he says. “It’s constantly there.”
What does offer some respite, for a while, is running a football team.
“Once that whistle blows, for 90 minutes I think I’m Gareth Southgate,” grins Bryant. “I do! For 90 minutes, I’m David Moyes. I just want to manage and win. It takes me away. For 90 minutes, I concentrate solely on this. That’s my escapism.”
The fire service dressing room is quiet and focused when FFT sneaks in, Bryant having already done his team talk on the pitch (“the first 10 minutes you might have to suck it up, ’cause they’re gonna be up for this”).
Grenfell’s dressing room is much noisier, until Taylor arrives. We’re not privy to his big speech, which apparently is legendary, but he’s still going as the players troop towards the tunnel: “I don’t care who goes out first. First, second, third: if you’re not focused, then you’ll be off.”
As they assemble, we talk friendlies with today’s match officials, who are prepared for anything. “It won’t be friendly, it’s football,” warns the referee. “One tackle and that’s it. I’ve had friendlies abandoned, someone got headbutted, fractured cheek. As soon as you get on that pitch, everything goes.”
Grenfell are finally ready, and the firemen line up to applaud them onto the pitch. “We should be giving a guard of honour to them,” muses Grenfell frontman Jacob Lord-Garnett. “These boys are the heroes.” They clap the firefighters right back.
The proposed 2pm kick-off time whizzes past. There are TV cameras and drone shots, presentations and a genuinely meaningful moment of reflection. But then we’re off and the pleasantries fade. LFB enjoy a good first 10 minutes, classily knocking the ball about. Grenfell’s more regular 11 get a grip, though, with 39-year-old midfielder Kwasi Frempong mopping up everything in midfield. Looking very lively upfront is Tayshan Hayden-Smith. “His footwork is absolutely ridiculous,” said team-mate Moloney, beforehand. “They call him the English Neymar.”
Hayden-Smith is pretty impressive off the pitch too, as we will discover post-match: in the wake of Grenfell he began an increasingly popular project called Grow2Know, helping to get city folks gardening. Different worlds, you would think, but Hayden-Smith disagrees: it’s about being creative, on grass. “Football and gardening for me are a catalyst to bring people together,” he explains. “The positive benefits include health, mental, community.”
Trying manfully to stop Tayshan & Co on the pitch is classy centre-half Jon Wharnsby, one of several players making a long-awaited comeback today. “As soon as I heard about the tour, I contacted the gaffer and said, ‘If you’re picking a team, I want in’.”
Wharnsby was also on duty at Grenfell that evening, and as a union representative he’s been actively involved since then. “I’ve got colleagues who’ve found it very difficult, and we’ve had firefighters who’ve had to retire,” he reveals. “This match will hopefully prove as cathartic off the pitch – a safe and positive setting for these connected communities to meet once again.
“Everyone deals with stuff in different ways, but the people I know – whether it’s your own Watch at the fire station or a team sport – it’s endorphin releasing, everyone together,” he continues. “Football’s a good leveller for that.”
After some nervy early minutes, Wharnsby is looking like a leader. But then this is a side full of them. It’s a gorgeous sunny afternoon, yet the tempo remains high as LFB attempt to out-manoeuvre Grenfell’s youthful energy. Also zippy is Zane Turner, who’s intriguingly numberless. Twenty-four players turned up, “but we’ve only got 21 shirts,” laughs Freddie Morris, Taylor’s assistant coach. “He bought that shirt himself, off Kitlocker.”
Out of nowhere, a big moment. Right-back Imran Wahabi endures lots of Taylor earache during the first half – well, he’s nearest – but it seems to work and his searching long pass sets up a glorious opportunity. Has forward Lord-Garnett got the class? He has, sliding it past experienced LFB keeper Nick Wilson. As the supporters noisily celebrate, Taylor keeps his boys focused – “0-0! Go again!” – by trying to pretend they haven’t scored at all.
On the opposite bench, Bryant and Chinnery go a bit Fireman Sam Allardyce (“Start using the f**king ball!”), but LFB do look dangerous from set-pieces despite the lack of training. It eventually pays dividends: there’s a huge goalmouth scramble and striker Dean Fenton – a veteran non-league scorer, also back for this game – bundles the ball in.
“Well done lino!” screams a raging Taylor, and the gloves are now definitely off; tackles flying. Moloney goes full Van Dijk by hobbling off before half-time, then there’s an almighty clash right in the firemen’s area. Full-back Jon Aldridge – no, not that one – tries valiantly to catch Grenfell wideman Fasal Kamara, who’s about twice his height. The latter cuts inside and shoots, but in slides Aldridge... and ouch. It’s brave, and painful. He’s left in a groaning heap, while Grenfell’s bench loudly appeal for a drop-ball near LFB’s goal. Our beleaguered referee appears glad to blow for the break.
"He was doing a documentary. I said no."
It’s a novel mixture in the stands during the interval, from moody firemen sporting shades – possibly some stealth promo for that new Matrix sequel – to south London kids proudly sporting Grenfell shirts.
One lone fan turns out to be a rapper, DTG, who was on a BRIT-nominated banger from S1MBA last year, Rover. Still, he’s more excited than we are. “Ohhh, FourFourTwo – you guys are in Football Manager! Oh my days...”
DTG hails from nearby Croydon and “heard about the team on Instagram, bought their first shirt, got in touch – the power of social media.” Perhaps they could collaborate on an anthem? “You know, I was just sitting here thinking about that...”
Behind him is Joseph John’s grandmother, resplendent in the latest Grenfell jersey. “It’s my first match but I saw him play before, in Trinidad,” she declares. An enjoyable day out, then? She shakes a fist. “They have to win!”
HELP GRENFELL SURVIVORS Donate to the Grenfell Foundation, who provide independent support and advocacy for the former residents of Grenfell Tower and the bereaved families and dependents. (opens in new tab)
That enthusiasm is infectious, and her flesh and blood is right in the thick of things upon the restart. John makes a vital interception, then gets rugby-tackled as Grenfell rampage upfield. Even the spectators wince as studs start flying (“Ref! I know it’s a friendly, but...”). Meanwhile, FFT gets chatting to a chap stood behind a goal who tells us he’s Taylor’s dad, Rupert senior. He decided to come late, not being a football guy: he was super serious about badminton and now coaches. They’re a motivational dynasty.
Grenfell are still making all the running, but LFB’s defence holds firm. Bryant leans against the dugout, looking a tad weary himself after a team talk and reshuffle. “So many injuries, it’s doing us,” he says. No drinks afterwards, either: he’s back on duty tonight. The subbed Aldridge then limps past, ice on leg, looking peeved. Is he OK? “Nope.” Bad tackle? “Yep!” Mind you, it was his tackle...
Taylor continues to holler, giving it his best Battle of Agincourt. There’s a touch of Jurgen Klopp about his furiously-happy demeanour. “Actually, I’d like to speak to Klopp,” says the Liverpool-supporting Grenfell gaffer, “just on a few decisions lately.” He probably will, too.
Suddenly, there’s a strident new voice from behind that dugout. Rupert senior has joined us and – first game or not – simply can’t resist chipping in. Now they’re a tag team of tactic shouting. It’s Rupert squared. “CONTROL!” “HEADS UP.” “GREEN BALL!” “MAKE IT COUNT.” “GREEN BALL!” “HEADS UP...”
Speaking of the dugout, it takes FFT a whole half to realise the familiar-looking red-headed coach/physio quietly distributing drinks is only ex-Premier League goal-getter Dave Kitson. The one-time Fabio Capello England pick is so low-key that at full-time he will lug loads of kit to the dressing room, then nip off before the presentations. The Secret Football Coach.
“It’s been about a year now,” Taylor reveals afterwards. “He came to do a documentary, and I said no. But while he was around he said, ‘This is incredible, I want to be involved’.”
You can certainly see the appeal. Both sides battle on despite the sapping conditions, and it all kicks off in the last few minutes. Young Charlie Cain turns in the box, LFB’s Kris Barry makes a risky but decent-looking tackle, the Grenfell youngster tumbles and... penalty!
Barry – feisty all match – is incandescent, batting away Cain’s attempted handshake and spoiling for a row. In any other game it may have got nasty, but these teams aren’t shy of perspective. Common sense prevails.
“It was minimal contact,” Cain later says. “None of them were too happy, but fair play, they’re older boys – they’ve been fighting for 90 minutes. The competitiveness is unreal.”
Maybe Grenfell will channel that Corinthian Spirit and miss the penalty on purpose? Nah. In fact, there’s a debate over who will take it, but not for very long. If Dominic Calvert-Lewin played for Taylor, there’d be no arguments. “He’d say, ‘You’re on pens, end of’,” says the Everton-supporting Frempong. “I looked at Rupert, he said, ‘YOU!’ So I took it.”
It’s Grenfell’s wisest head up against LFB keeper Wilson: formerly of Crewe and a keen mind-gamer. “He was like, ‘Where you gonna put it, where you gonna put it?’” laughs the midfielder. “But no nerves here.”
Never in doubt. Frempong coolly strokes it home and that big victory is agonisingly close – but LFB conjure one more chance. There’s a foul near Grenfell’s box, and Wilson is at it again. “It was inside!” yells the keeper, having raced half the field to remonstrate. “Well,” he smiles at the Grenfell bench, “sometimes you can get in their heads.”
It’s not his or LFB’s day. The set-piece sails over, and there’s a rush of relief as Grenfell win. Hugs and handshakes all round – even from the seething Barry – then presentations, photos and peri-peri rather than pints. “We should do this every year,” urges LFB scorer Fenton, as players, fans and families mingle.
As the last stragglers leave, Taylor debriefs with FFT while wrangling his kids – yep, there’s another Rupert. Then opposite number Bryant strides over, before heading back to work. They exchange a handshake for a job well done, which morphs into a hug. There’s just one thing left to say. “What a day,” smiles the LFB co-manager, “that was never a penalty.” Taylor grins back. “And your goal was offside.”
This one could run and run.
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