Meet the Grenfell football team raising spirits one match at a time

·7-min read
 (Sebastian Barros)
(Sebastian Barros)

And so it has come to this. A Sunday afternoon on a playing field in west London and the finals of the Men’s Intermediate County Cup. Grenfell Athletic vs The Vine from the Middlesex County Football League Sunday Division 2. A chance for silverware at the end of a campaign cruelly curtailed by the Covid crisis. A football, a white painted spot and 12 yards away, a goalkeeper. Penalties. Sudden death. The Grenfell player strides towards the ball. Leather on leather. And then…

No one in W11 struggles to remember where they were on the morning of 14 June 2017. Rupert Taylor was on holiday in Gibraltar. Taylor, who ran the community centre closest to Grenfell Tower, took a phone call from a friend in the early hours as fire raged through the 24-storey residential tower block in North Kensington. Taylor had played football in the shadow of Grenfell as a child. He had relatives who lived in the tower. By the time the fire had burnt out, 72 residents had lost their lives, hundreds had lost everything they owned and a chasm was torn through the community’s heart.

Taylor booked the first flight home. ‘I drove in as soon as I got back — I’ll never forget the smell of burning. The sadness…’ At every turn, residents walked the streets, pleading for information about their missing loved ones. Nine of the children who attended the youth club Taylor ran had died. He, like many others, got to work helping however and wherever they could. The centre became a hub for donations and care packages.

Grenfell Athletic FC vs The Vine at the Sunday Intermediate Cup Final. (Sebastian Barros)
Grenfell Athletic FC vs The Vine at the Sunday Intermediate Cup Final. (Sebastian Barros)

‘A man was walking around outside the centre,’ recalls Taylor, now 34. ‘He looked very lost so I invited him inside and we got talking. He told me he’d lived in the tower. He’d lost everything. Then he told me that a few years prior he’d lost both of his parents. He said it felt like history repeating.’

Taylor asked the man, who didn’t want to be named for this article, what had helped him process the grief of losing his parents. ‘The first thing that came out of his mouth was, “football”…’

At that moment, barely a month after the tragedy, Grenfell Athletic Football Club was formed. Taylor got to work letting the community know that if they, too, felt lost, there was a new brotherhood congregating on the pitches of a park nearby. Today Taylor works with children with disabilities across Kensington, Chelsea and Westminster City Council. He’s good at organising. Good at galvanising.

‘We held open trials on Wormwood Scrubs and Linford Christie Stadium,’ he says. ‘We’d have passers-by trying out. If they were connected to the community, they could play.’ The man who Taylor befriended outside the centre that day no longer plays for the side. ‘He manages his own side now. He’s come a long, long way…’

Grenfell Athletic threw its arms around a broken community. ‘We were all grieving,’ says Taylor. ‘We’d do a minute’s silence before every game. We were doing this to heal, but to remember the lost, too. Some would say it was too soon, but the need from the community was evident.’

Green peace: a memorial to Grenfell victims on Lancaster Road last year (Sebastian Barros)
Green peace: a memorial to Grenfell victims on Lancaster Road last year (Sebastian Barros)

Grenfell winger Joseph John was a resident of the tower. He’d got out just in time, carrying his baby and disabled partner to safety. Shockingly, four years later he remains in temporary accommodation. Before the tragedy he worked as a chef and in construction. ‘If I’m honest, I’m struggling to get back on my feet,’ he says.

John, now 30, credits the football team with giving him ‘focus, family and security’. He grew up in his native Trinidad and Tobago within a footballing family, even representing the nation himself at under-17 level. ‘When I was in a hotel after surviving Grenfell, I was told about the team that was being set up,’ says John. ‘I’ve been playing with them since the start and they’ve been there for me throughout all my darkest moments. They make me feel safe.’

Grenfell finished fifth out of 12 in their first season in the Middlesex County Football League. That summer they headed to Italy, at the invitation of semi-pro side Lanciano, which wanted to help out. For all of its modern ills, football has a proud tradition of looking out for its own. For most of the players, it was the first time they’d spent any time away from the area since the night of the fire. ‘That’s when the camaraderie was truly formed,’ says Taylor. The following season they lost just one game. They won promotion, as well as the Middlesex League Cup.

At 39, central midfielder Kwasi Frempong is the senior member of the side. A childhood friend of Taylor and also a youth worker, Frempong played semi-pro football for years, turning out for solid local sides like Harrow Borough, Northwood and Beaconsfield.

Ryan (kneeling), Imran and Joseph (Sebastian Barros)
Ryan (kneeling), Imran and Joseph (Sebastian Barros)

‘I’ve seen what the club has given to the players — they’ve grown in front of me,’ Fremprong says. ‘They’re more vocal, they have more of a sense of freedom to express themselves. I’ve played for a lot of clubs, but football has never mattered to me like it does pulling on the Grenfell shirt.’

The team made the decision to play in green. Grenfell is an adaptation of the words ‘green field’ — the tower block was built on a green before the sprawl of the city took over — and the colour has become synonymous with remembrance of those lives lost.

With so many displaced by the tragedy, the club doubled as a magnet drawing the now fractured community together. If you weren’t local, chances are you wouldn’t have heard of Grenfell Athletic until last December. ‘That was out of choice,’ says Taylor. ‘We were concerned about protecting the players and not putting them inside a goldfish bowl for people to gawp at.’ That changed after a kit launch saw England captain Harry Kane modelling the shirt, plus Chelsea FC players, boxer David Adeleye and the MC Big Zuu — both of whom Taylor had known as children attending the youth club — as well as Noel Gallagher and Sam Smith. Proceeds were funnelled back into the community.

‘I support Liverpool. Noel Gallagher supports Manchester City,’ says Taylor. ‘But everyone supports Grenfell.’

Taylor is thinking about legacy and juggling plans for a youth side, a women’s side as well as a ground of their own (they currently reside in Chiswick). Sport, Taylor is keenly aware, is for everyone. He has had plenty of time to think this past year. ‘We were flying in the league. Then Covid happened. The other clubs didn’t want to continue the season but we kept the trophy going. We needed something to work to.’

And so Grenfell Athletic find themselves in the cup final. ‘This club isn’t about me,’ says Taylor. ‘It’s not even about the players. It’s about legacy for Grenfell. Some people laugh when I say we can go to the Premier League, but I mean it. Grenfell Athletic will never, ever die.’

But today, on a football pitch in Northolt, as a Grenfell player’s shot cruelly hits the crossbar and ricochets into the goalkeepers’ hands, and players from The Vine rush to celebrate, Taylor allows himself a rare moment of disappointment. It’s fleeting. He knows Grenfell’s success can’t be encapsulated by trophy wins, that the club can’t be judged by where they sit in the league table. He knows every soul who walks away from training lighter and more at peace than when they started is the measure of everything Grenfell Athletic was ever meant to be.

‘Still hurts though,’ he says, of today’s loss. ‘But we go again. This football club will always keep going.’

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