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 …

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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.’”

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