Grenfell Athletic: the football club uniting a community hit by tragedy | Soccer

Hundreds of Sunday League clubs are in action up and down the country every week, but one of them stands out. Grenfell Athletic play in the premier division of the Middlesex County Sunday League and are only watched by a smattering of spectators on windswept pitches in Chiswick, where the usual collection of Sunday League players assemble, often reluctantly dragged out of their beds. The club is not yet five years old, but it has a remarkable backstory and is making waves.

Following the disastrous fire that engulfed Grenfell Tower in June 2017, Rupert Taylor, a manager of a local youth centre, set up the football club to support the shattered residents. Taylor saw football as a way of providing a positive focus for many of those affected by the tragedy. A handful of players in the team lived in the tower and the club’s manager comes from the area.

Premier League player Dave Kitson controls the ball during a Grenfell Athletic training session in London.
Premier League player Dave Kitson controls the ball during a Grenfell Athletic training session in London. Photograph: Niklas Halle’n/AFP/Getty Images

Grenfell Athletic started life in the third division of their Sunday League in the 2017-18 season. They held a 72-second silence in honour of the 72 victims of the fire before their first game, which they won 6-3, and they have been going from strength to strength since. After finishing mid-table in their first season, Grenfell won their league comfortably the following year, losing just one match in the whole campaign. They also added the League Cup to complete a memorable double.

Earning promotion was quite an achievement for such a young club, but their joy was soon curtailed by the Covid pandemic, which decimated the fixture list for the next two seasons. During the early days of lockdown in 2020, when all games were off and the players had to stay in their homes, it was a challenge to keep the squad together. Taylor knew how important it was for the players to stay connected so they held training sessions on Zoom, which were led by the tennis player Ellie Rose Griffiths. Their dedication paid off. The team has bounced back this season and they are finishing the campaign strongly.

Rupert Taylor set up the football club in 2017.
Rupert Taylor set up the football club in 2017. Photo by Sebastian Barros

Taylor did not let the enforced hiatus interrupt his ambitions. While the team was not able to play, he focused on developing partnerships for the club. Nike were the first company he approached and they agreed to make the club’s kit, which is sold online by Kitlocker. To raise the profile of the team, Kitlocker launched the Fabric of the Community campaign, which was endorsed by footballers such as Rio Ferdinand and Reece James as well as musicians including Damon Albarn and Noel Gallagher.

The club sold more than 1,000 shirts in a fortnight, generating £30,000 in revenue. “When you buy this shirt, you are doing more than buy a shirt, you are helping lift up a community,” said Kitlocker. “Profits from the products go into funding the development of the football club, as a source of hope, solidarity and mental and physical health for the community.”

Grenfell Athletic have also forged strong links with Chelsea through Chris Jones, who was Chelsea’s first-team fitness coach before he followed Frank Lampard to Everton. Jones delivered a series of training sessions for the Grenfell players. Taylor is keen to make connections with other clubs in the local area. “We have had a series of very encouraging discussions with QPR [who are their closest professional club],” Taylor says. “We hope to announce some exciting developments in the next few months that will take us to the next level.”

Grenfell Athletic in action. Photo by Sebastian Barros
Grenfell Athletic in action. Photo by Sebastian Barros

Taylor stresses that the partnerships are set up to help the club grow. “At the heart of what we do, helping the community is our absolute priority,” he says. “With all the partnerships, we have to have the right community projects attached to them.” In one of the club’s more surprising partnerships, Cadbury produced a limited edition Grenfell Athletic chocolate bar to help raise funds for the club.

Cadbury heard about the club when Harry Kane posted a picture of himself in a Grenfell top. On the back of that exposure, they asked Taylor to give a talk to 400 of their staff and then made a special Grenfell chocolate bar – something they have only done for 20 clubs in the UK, including the Premier League’s big six as well as Celtic, Rangers and Notts County.

The club has attracted various famous friends – including Hugh Jackman – but their main ambition this season is to win the league. They are currently second in the table, trailing leaders Larkspur Rovers on goal difference. Even if they do clinch the title, the club will not be promoted. They need to develop their infrastructure first. “We are planning to go semi-pro within the next few years,” Taylor says. “But that relies on us having a ground with the requisite facilities, which is something we have already been exploring. We hope to reach that level for the 2023-24 season.”

Grenfell Athletic players behind the scenes. Photo by Sebastian Barros
Grenfell Athletic players behind the scenes. Photo by Sebastian Barros

The club has also laid the foundations for a women’s team. The players are training together and will hopefully join a league at the start of next season. “The women have started training on Tuesday evenings at the Westway,” Taylor says. “We have 19 players on the books and about a dozen turning up each week.”

The pitches the women play on are in sight of Grenfell Tower, which remains shrouded in tarpaulin awaiting its fate, as a perpetual reminder of the awful tragedy that unfolded almost five years ago. Grenfell Athletic’s progress provides hope to the people affected by that tragic fire and gives everyone involved with the club something to look forward to on Sunday mornings.

This article appeared first on The Football Mine
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