The weird world of host families Providing a home from home for starlets in need of a place to stay
Hundreds of households nationwide take in academy players – but what motivates them to open their doors to the game’s budding stars? FFT pops round to find out …
Three teenagers are staying in a house fit for a Premier League star, but this is not their property and the framed jerseys hanging from the walls are not theirs, either. This is the Midlands abode of Julie and Grant Wood – parents of Burnley frontman Chris. They had so much fun rearing one player that they chose to do it all over again. “We believe in karma,” says Julie. “Football has been good to us, so we wanted to give something back by looking after players.”
Their goalscoring son lived with a host family for two weeks while he was on trial at West Bromwich Albion as a youngster, but wasn’t given a warm welcome. “He didn’t feel comfortable because he was living in an environment which was so different to back home,” says his mother. After the Baggies offered him a professional deal, the Woods departed their native New Zealand for England and Chris moved back in with his mum and dad.
“Chris thought we were mad,” admits Julie. “He said, ‘You’ve just got rid of me, why’d do you want more kids?’ But he understands why we’re doing it – he knows the problems other players had.”
They had made a vow that if Chris’ career took off, they would ensure that other academy players didn’t have the same unsettling experience as their son. “Some of them are still children,” says Julie. “They need to live in a caring environment.”
West Brom academy prospects Jamie Soule (16), Dara O’shea (18) and Bradley House (19) now live under their roof, but the Woods are no soft touch. “We run strict digs,” insists Grant. “Julie makes their food, but the boys always have to clear the table and wash up afterwards.”
They also enforce curfews set out by the club. “They’ve got to be in by 10pm on weekdays and 11pm on Saturday nights,“adds Julie. “Jamie is allowed to visit his girlfriend two evenings each week. He wanted to see her on Friday nights but we said no. We know what it takes to become a footballer – rest is just as important as training.”
It’s a structured existence, but the players enjoy the freedom of their luxury suburban home. They all have sizeable bedrooms, access to Sky TV and a games console in their own social space. But are none of them jealous of the carefree lives of their friends back home?
“We have to sacrifice our social lives but this is what we all want,” says House. They’re also confident that Julie and Grant’s wisdom will allow them to advance their careers. “We see the success that Chris has had and they’ve played a big part in that,” says Republic of Ireland Under-19 defender O’shea. “Julie and Grant are like second parents to us and we are really lucky to be living in such a nice house.”
The former’s made a start on turning her boys into men by dishing out cooking lessons to get their culinary skills up to scratch. She recently gave them all a recipe to follow, which they then cooked up for the rest of the house. “It’s all about trying to get them used to being independent and self-sufficient,” she says. “I’ll cook them meals, but they’re not going to have their mum making them their favourite meals once they have their own place. They also need to learn about the right foods for their body, which will fuel them properly on the pitch.”
Julie’s maternal instinct remains strong – even baking a cake for FFT – but she’s well aware that her and Grant’s role is not to replace the boys’ parents. “You do grow to love them but it’s not unconditional love,” she says. “A few parents think we’re there to take over their role. I had one mother call me up a few years ago, expecting me to check on him every two hours during the night because he was unwell. I said, ‘If he’s that ill, I suggest you pick him up.’ Another player wanted me to give him lifts everywhere, but they’ve got to learn to do things for themselves.”
WE HAVE NEVER HAD A PROBLEM WITH ANY OF THEM. THEY DON’T FINISH TRAINING UNTIL 4.30 AND DON’T HAVE THE ENERGY TO START PLAYING UP
Michelle Seager and Nigel Pugh never intended to become football foster parents – it just sort of happened. “We knew someone who worked for Crystal Palace and they asked us if we’d mind letting a triallist stay for the night,” says Michelle. “We agreed to do it as a favour and have been looking after players ever since.” The couple have two kids of their own – son Jamie (17) and daughter Hayley (20) – but in the five years that have passed, a host of academy prospects have stayed at their four-bedroom home in West Wickham – a 15-minute drive from the club’s Beckenham training ground.
Their current lodger is goalkeeper Oliver Webber (17). He arrived from Northern Ireland a little over a year ago and has quickly become part of the family. “It’s just like having another little brother around the house,” says Hayley. Webber’s enjoying life in his new home, after a tough start. “I was very upset and scared at first because I didn’t want to leave home, but I’m really happy here now,” he says. “I’m very close to Michelle and Nigel – I can talk to them about anything.”
Michelle admits she relishes the opportunity to impart female wisdom to the boys who walk through her door. “We had a boy called Colm living here and I’d give him plenty of girlfriend advice!”
The pair were well prepared for the challenges of hosting, after a brief and turbulent period as foster parents. “We looked after some difficult kids,” says Michelle. “Some of them were verbally and almost physically aggressive – it was horrible for our own children to see and in hindsight they were too young to cope with it.“
After that experience, dealing with players has been a walk in the park. “We’ve never had a problem with any of them,” she says. “They have got their own routines and don’t finish training until 4.30pm, so don’t have the energy to start playing up.” Webber’s daily regime is also a perfect fit for the couple’s fairly flexible jobs: Michelle is a nanny and Nigel works as a postman.
However, being a host family is not without its challenges. A few years ago the couple were asked to look after a player at short notice, but the club failed to inform them that he was lactose intolerant. “He arrived at 8pm at night and we realised he could only eat gluten-free food, but we had nothing in,” explains Michelle. “I told the club they needed to start giving us nutrition guidelines, which they’ve done.”
Palace’s host families also had to appeal to the club to raise the fee for hosting. “It was £15 a night for two players, but that just wasn’t enough. A number of us complained so they raised it to £20. Other inner-london clubs pay more, but it’s enough to cover everything.”
Michelle and Nigel are now among the club’s most experienced hosts and have dabbled with the idea of taking on other aspiring pros. “At one point we toyed with the idea of buying a bigger house to cater for more players, but I think we’ll probably end up stopping in a few years,” says Michelle. “We love doing it and I can’t imagine myself and Nigel rattling round a big empty house. But once our kids have left home I expect we’ll downsize and then move abroad.”
Until then, they’re hoping that one of their lodgers goes on to play for Palace’s first team. “We looked after Keshi Anderson, who is on loan at Swindon, but we haven’t had a boy who has played for Palace yet,” says Michelle. “I go to most home games with my son so it would be amazing to see one of them make it.”
When the last of Karen and David Merrick’s children had flown the nest, the Southampton couple realised the quiet life just wasn’t for them. “We had this big empty house and suddenly felt very alone,” Karen tells FFT. They decided there was no better way to restore some madness to their lives than by opening their doors to teenage footballers.
Four years ago they applied to become a host family for Southampton academy players, who had left home to pursue a professional career on the coast. They now look after two youngsters, around the corner from the club’s training ground. “We knew friends who were doing the same thing and Dave is a big Southampton supporter, so we decided to take the plunge,” says Karen.
The Merricks are just one of 52 families on the Saints’ books, making theirs the biggest housing operation in the Premier League. All hosts are
SIMON’S ROOM WAS A MESS THE OTHER DAY SO I WROTE A NOTE In SLOVAKIAN On HIS DOOR WHICH SAID, ‘YOUR ROOM’S A TIP!’
required to live within a 20-minute radius of Southampton’s Staplewood Campus base so they are within easy reach of a fleet of club minibuses, which ferry the players to and from training.
Every family has to go through a series of interviews before a panel of Saints staff votes on their suitability. Welfare officer Emma Walker – who is on call 24 hours a day, five days a week – is in charge of the operation. “All of the hosts are different: some are couples, some have children and others are alone,” she says. “We want a relaxed environment where the players can be supported away from the pitch.”
Players aged from 13 to 16, who travel a certain distance from home, are given the chance to stay with a family for up to three nights a week. If they remain with the club beyond 16, the search then begins for ideal full-time hosts. “We’ll go into minute detail,” explains the club’s academy manager, Matt Hale. “We ask them if they would mind living with other children or pets. If a player has an allergy to a certain pet, we would ask them if they’d prefer their own room. Ultimately it’s up to the player – he will have a look around and his parents will also come and meet various families before a final decision is made.”
For Slovakian defender Simon Kozak (16) and Irish frontman Jonathan Afolabi (17), Karen and David’s plush five-bedroom house fitted the bill. “As soon as I had a look around here I knew this it the right place,” says Afolabi. “Karen and Dave were really welcoming and I liked the idea of living with a team-mate.” Each boy has his own bedroom and they share a living area, which often serves as a battleground for FIFA tournaments during their downtime.
Karen is keen for them to let their hair down away from the daily grind of training, and admits she has mellowed since her children left home. “If they want to play their music at full blast, I don’t mind too much. My kids tell me I’ve gone soft, but I’m not their parents and it’s not my place to rant and rave.”
It sounds like a relatively leisurely life, but this is no holiday camp. Both boys are living away from home for the first time and won’t return there until the end of the season. “My first year in digs was difficult – I found it a big change,” admits Afolabi. “But Karen is so warm that it’s been easy living here this year.” Kozak has had to learn a new language as well as a new way of life, and pronounces several words with an Irish lilt, such is the amount of time he spends with his Dublin-born housemate. “Living with someone I play with has helped my English a lot,” he says. “I spoke little when I first arrived, and it helps me on the pitch because we know each others’ personalities so well.”
The Merricks live in an adjoining cottage to give the boys some space, though Karen cleans the house from top to bottom – on the proviso they keep their rooms neat and tidy. “Simon’s room was a mess the other day so I wrote a note in Slovakian saying, ‘Your room’s a tip!’ and stuck it on his door,” she says. Karen also insists they all eat dinner together every evening, so she can get to know them and create a family atmosphere. “I don’t rule with an iron fist but I like us to come together as a family of sorts and talk about our days. I’ve got a reputation for being a feeder – they never go hungry!”
All the hosts are paid a monthly fee to cover the food costs, although it’s not enough to provide a second income. “It’s more of a contribution and thank you from the club,” says Southampton’s Walker. “Most of the families are Saints fans and just want to help out. We want people who are doing it for the right reasons.”
Most families have vast experience when it comes to running a home, but the Saints are always keen to add new strings to their hosting bows. “We regularly run evening sessions on nutrition with our families,” says Walker. “We want to make sure the players are eating the right food so they can train and play to the best of their ability. We offer handbooks as well to give families guidance on what we hope they’ll be supporting the youngsters with.”
And it’s not just the families who are provided with schooling. Academy players are put through a life skills programme to aid their transition to adulthood. “It covers everyday things such as cooking, running a car and booking driving lessons,” explains Walker. “We also have discussions with hosts about what we expect from the players in terms of behaviour. It’s important that they socialise with the family and learn important social skills. They’re representing Southampton Football Club so we want them to be well mannered.”
Walker visits each household every six weeks to identify any problems, but there is little to worry about in this residence. In fact, the only sign of teenage excess is Afolabi’s growing collection of trainers, which currently stands at 12 pairs. However, the club are keen to keep a close eye on the players’ emotional progress. “We talk about their maturity a lot because we want them to become responsible adults, not just footballers,” says Walker. “If they get a professional contract when they’re 18, we need to determine whether they’re ready to live alone or need some more time with a family.”
When the time does come to cut the apron strings, Karen admits she finds it hard to let go. “It’s tough,” she says, “as they become part of your routine. But you know when they first arrive that they will leave one day. You have to say to yourself, ‘They’re not yours to keep.’”