LONDON’S RIOT SQUAD
Having seen the violence and destruction caused amid the London riots in 2011, 16-year-old Prince Choudary wanted change – so he set up a football club. Now, aged 21, he has become the FA Cup’s youngest ever manager
It’s 1pm on a Saturday afternoon and Fourfourtwo is wandering around a car park somewhere near Gatwick airport, waiting for a football manager to arrive. And we’re not alone: a nearby BBC cameraman assembles his kit and a reporter rehearses her line of questioning. Interest is high, although the setting is low-key. A community centre hides a modest stadium with just two small stands and a burger van. There are no supporters milling around with half-and-half scarves or middle-aged men flogging fanzines.
Twenty minutes pass before a Volkswagen Golf parks up with four passengers in tow. A young man emerges wearing shades, a black shirt, trousers and shoes, complete with a red tie. His hair and beard have been precision-trimmed for the big occasion. Prince Choudary is set to make FA Cup history. At 21 he’ll become the competition’s youngest ever manager when his AC London side take to the field against Crawley Down Gatwick in less than two hours’ time for an extra preliminary round tie.
However, a spanner has been thrown in the works. The club share a stadium with Isthmian League outfit Whyteleafe FC, but two days ago they discovered their 2,000-capacity Church Road ground had been double-booked, meaning their game was moved to the home of today’s opponents.
As well as being the club’s manager, Choudary is the founder, chairman and club secretary. He balances his football responsibilities alongside a day job as a trainee solicitor with an immigration office. “The great thing is that nobody can sack me,” he jokes after greeting FFT and leading us inside the cramped AC London dressing room.
This is no ordinary 21-year-old and this is no ordinary football club either. The semi-professional team currently play in the Combined Counties League Division One – English football’s 10th tier – and are made up of 16 different nationalities from many walks of life.
AC London were born six years ago in the mind of a frightened 16-year-old. In August 2011, the London riots saw hundreds of disenchanted youths set fire to buildings, loot shops and smash anything in their path in a spontaneous outbreak of violence across the capital.
“I was scared so I ran home and hid,” remembers Choudary, while scribbling down his starting XI on the team-sheet. “There must have been 200 people marching down our street in Croydon. We were very lucky – they kept going and our house was left untouched.” His uncle wasn’t so fortunate. His clothes shop was looted, forcing him to sell up his livelihood. The incident prompted Choudary to try to salvage something positive from all of the wreckage. “There isn’t much for young people to do around Croydon,” he says. “So I thought I could maybe change that through football.”
He had a single pound in his pocket and used it to borrow a football from another boy down the local park. Then he led a training session with a group of stray youths who assembled there most days to while away the hours and escape the boredom of being at home. “It was just a community initiative at first, there was no team as such. I put on one session a week for free, but it became so popular that I began charging people 50p to play and used that cash to buy equipment and enter a team into an under-21 league.”
The side was largely made up of 16- and 17-year-olds. Many had been involved in the riots and several had even served time in prison. But rather than question their chequered past, Choudary sensed an opportunity to give the club a purpose beyond winning matches.
“The whole idea of AC London is to give young people a focus and help them to turn their lives around,” he says. “Our hope is that they get jobs and build friendships with team-mates. Then when they do move on, hopefully they will go on to something bigger and better.”
In just three years, the club made the transition from amateur to semi-pro status. As a not-for-profit football club, they rely heavily on volunteers to help with training sessions and matchday logistics. His right-hand man, Muhammad Ali, does everything from filling water bottles to hanging up kit while the assistant manager, JP, is on hand to deliver sessions and touchline rollickings, too.
“HIS AGENT TOOK ALL HIS MONEY AND THEN LEFT HIM STRANDED, SO I LET HIM STAY IN OUR LIVING ROOM AND GAVE HIM SOME MONEY TO GET BY”
With an hour to go before kick-off, Choudary’s players begin filtering through to the dressing room and change into their kit. Some speak English but others prefer to converse in their mother tongues. There are players from Spain, Portugal and Italy, and as far away as Sierra Leone, Ghana and Colombia. FFT sidles over to someone who is now a poster boy for the AC London story. Kieron Dowding is 5ft 6in, with a boyish frame, but looks older than his years. At 21, he’s already experienced more heartbreak and tribulations than most men twice his age. Four years ago he was an average 17-year-old college student, but his world changed forever when his best friend was murdered by his girlfriend’s brother in an unprovoked attack near Croydon.
“We decided to go on a double date and arranged to meet at my girlfriend’s house,” he recalls slowly, replaying that fateful evening in his mind. “On the way there I noticed that a police helicopter was hovering above the neighbourhood. When I arrived, the officers informed me my friend was dead. He’d been stabbed through the heart.”
Kieron’s response was to start carrying a weapon to avoid becoming another victim of a violent attack. “I didn’t feel safe in Croydon any more,” he admits. “The problem’s getting worse in the area, 13- to 18-year-old kids get caught up in gangs so easily. A lot of them listen to rap music and copy that lifestyle.”
But the police wouldn’t buy his story when officers stopped Dowding in the street and frisked him during a routine neighbourhood patrol. The courts handed him a three-month prison sentence in May 2016, which nearly saw him miss the birth of his daughter. Since his release, AC London have turned his life around.
“Prison gave me a chance to reassess my life,” he says. “I had too much time on my hands before, because I was only in college two days a week. Now I have got a job as a pizza delivery man to support my two-year-old daughter and I train a couple of times a week with the club, which has given me more focus in life.”
While Kieron is the same age as his manager, a number of players in the squad are several years older – the eldest is 31. Despite the age gap, Choudary leads with a calm authority inside the dressing room as he orders his players to head outside for the warm-up. “It helps that he’s the same age as me,” Dowding reveals. “He’s a role model – he could be out there with a knife doing bad things but he’s made a choice not to. We can talk to him. It’s better than having someone older just telling you what to do all the time. It makes us want to try harder for him because we know him a lot better.”
And he isn’t the only player indebted to his manager. Portuguese midfielder Joal Ramos – who missed out on a place in today’s squad because of a lack of fitness – was persuaded to leave his homeland for London by an agent, who sold him the dream of a professional career in England in return for a large sum of money. Months later, the agent had vanished, leaving Ramos penniless and homeless.
“I RAN HOME AND HID – THERE MUST HAVE BEEN 200 PEOPLE MARCHING DOWN OUR STREET”
“He left his whole family behind to pursue his football dream,” says Choudary. “His agent had promised that he would find him a League One club but took all of his money and then left him stranded. I live with my family, but I let him stay in our living room for a few weeks and also gave him some money to get by. He is now living in a flat and has got a family of his own.”
Not all of the AC London cast have hard-luck stories, though. The club’s rapid rise has seen them attract players with decent pedigree. Brazilian-born goalkeeper Jefferson, 26, is a former Italy Under-17 international who had spells at Chievo, Lecce and Treviso. He works for Ford in Wembley but hopes to gradually climb the football ladder.
Calvin Yeboah, meanwhile, is the youngest member of the squad. The 17-year-old spent nearly a decade in the academy of Serie B side Novara. He now lives with his brother and uncle and has set himself a target of earning a professional contract within the next three years. He has no job, but trains every day in a local park in an attempt to replicate the life of a pro footballer.
AC London’s progress has also cemented Choudary’s reputation as one of the hottest coaching prospects in the non-league game. Last season the club lost just four of their 36 matches – all of which came when he was absent because of work commitments. He already has FA Level 1, FA Level 2 and UEFA B coaching badges and has turned down offers to manage two pro sides – Indonesian side FC Jakarta and FC Qatar – over the past year.
“[Ex-fulham and QPR defender] Zesh Rehman is a club ambassador and he told FC Jakarta about my work, which is how that offer came about,” he explains. “I was flattered and the money on offer was really good, but I am not finished here yet – there is still so much more that we can all achieve.”
His efforts are even more impressive considering he’s done it without family support. His mother and father haven’t attended a single match in the club’s six-year history. “Asian families do not see sport as a realistic career path,” he says. “They want their kids to become doctors, dentists and surgeons. I don’t care, though – there is less pressure on me without them being here.”
“THE DREAM IS FOR THE CLUB TO PLAY IN THE 2038 CHAMPIONS LEAGUE FINAL. THE SHORT-TERM AIM IS PROMOTION, THEN THE SKY’S THE LIMIT”
There are a few minutes to go before the big kick-off as Choudary’s players gather in the dressing room for the pre-match team talk. It is so cramped that several members of the 16-man squad have to sit down on the floor like children at a school assembly. The gaffer’s speech reminds them to grasp the opportunity with both hands and enjoy their time in the spotlight.
There is one man missing, however. Prince Semple, a 26-year-old Ghanaian central midfielder, is running late having been caught in traffic, which forces his manager into a tactical switch. AC London line up in a 4-1-4-1 formation with Dowding deployed on the left and encouraged to use his pace.
The two teams make their way out onto the pitch, which is bathing in glorious August sunshine. A crowd of approximately 50, largely featuring family and friends of players from both teams – as well as a handful of locals thirsty for their first football fix of 2017-18 – have turned up to witness history.
AC London waste little time in seizing control of proceedings and take the lead after seven minutes. Edgar Silva, a tricky Portuguese winger, cuts in from the right before curling a delightful left-footer into the top corner, sparking wild celebrations on the touchline and a stern warning from the referee not to encroach onto the pitch.
But while most of the players have taken heed of their manager’s advice, the occasion appears to be a tad too much for centre-back Jean Pierre. He gifts the hosts possession with a string of wayward passes and unnerves his fellow defenders with a number of sliced clearances. His questionable positioning then allows Crawley Down to level midway through the opening period. On one side of the pitch, AC London’s missing man has at last arrived. Semple’s apologies fall on deaf ears as he is informed he’ll be immediately thrust into action in an unfamiliar central defensive role. Choudary consoles Pierre as he trudges off the pitch. His 6ft 3in frame appears considerably smaller as he bows his head in disappointment.
The substitution steadies the ship and the two teams trudge off for half-time level at 1-1. AC London’s pep talk is dominated by assistant manager JP, who has spent the first 45 minutes barking instructions and barely pausing for breath. The good-cop-bad-cop routine sees him pick fault with several individuals, before Choudary offers some encouragement and a far less emotional assessment of their efforts.
The approach pays dividends, though, as the visitors again begin the stronger of the two sides before taking the lead for the second time on the hour mark. The scorer is Silva once more, who bundles the ball home inside the six-yard box to finish off a mazy run. Fifteen minutes later, a counter-attack sees Choudary’s men put one foot in the next round thanks to Saidou Khan.
The performance is all the more impressive given their opponents play in the division above – but their endeavours are still not enough to satisfy JP, who continues to criticise every mislaid pass or missed chance. FFT chuckles as another tirade is interrupted by Colombian winger Toro. “I understand nothing!” he yells in broken English while running down the touchline with both of his hands raised in despair.
Victory is in sight, but with five minutes left the referee awards the home side a penalty. The spot-kick is duly dispatched past Jefferson, setting up a nervy finish. A frantic finale ensues with the AC London rearguard forced into a making a successon of desperate clearances. But after three agonising minutes of stoppage time the whistle finally blows. Final score: Crawley Down Gatwick 2-3 AC London.
FFT gets caught up in the moment at full-time and joins the team on the pitch as high-fives and man hugs are exchanged between players and staff. The win means the club are now five ties away from the FA Cup First Round. The victory also sees AC London pocket a tidy £1,500 in prize money. “It’s very emotional right now,” admits Choudary. “We weren’t expected to win but we’ve done it in style. We started pre-season late and our last competitive match was a cup final, so it’s an incredible achievement.”
The players laugh and joke among themselves as they make their way back into the dressing room, before tossing their dirty kit on the floor and hitting the showers. Spirits are high, but a pair of celebratory bottles of bubbly provided by FFT are unopened. We’re momentarily confused, before learning that several members are Muslim and have asked not to be showered in champers.
Less than an hour has passed since the game ended but Choudary’s thoughts have already turned to the future. “The dream is for the club to play in the 2038 Champions League Final,” he jokes. “Realistically the short-term aim is to get promoted. If we do, then I really believe the sky’s the limit for some of these players. A lot of them are young enough to go on and have a good career at a higher level than this.”
FFT wonders if he harbours the same sort of ambitions. “I enjoy the day job but I can’t lie, I do want a career in football,” Choudary says. “I would find it very hard to leave this club, though, because I am so attached. There is a huge bond here between everyone, which gives us a massive advantage. If I ever did leave, I’d have to put someone in charge who’s been here from the start and gets what we’re about.”
For all of the publicity and success, the future of Croydon’s troubled youths still weighs heavy on his mind. He hopes that a bold expansion of the club could help more young people to avoid falling into gangs and a life of crime. “I would like us to expand into a multi-sports club, as not everyone is interested in football. This will then enable us to help even more young kids and it would be incredible to create a star from Croydon.” They have got one already.
“I WANT TO EXPAND INTO A MULTI-SPORTS CLUB. IT’D BE INCREDIBLE TO CREATE A STAR FROM CROYDON”
Top Dowding (centre) & Co. receive the ‘good cop’ routine from their gaffer
Middle Former Italy U17 custodian Jefferson (left) and two-goal hero Silva (right) secured the victory
Bottom Trainee solicitor Choudary wants a career in football, but is focused on helping young people to avoid falling into gangs