LON­DON’S RIOT SQUAD

FourFourTwo - - CONTENTS - Words Alec Fenn Pho­tog­ra­phy Will Dou­glas

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

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