Images c/o Sebastian Barros Instagram @sebbarros
The Middlesex County Football League is one of the fifty leagues operating at Step 11 in the pyramid of English football with almost 1,000 clubs represented. Every Sunday morning, hundreds of matches dotted around the country are contested but there is one club, that stands out from the crowd. Based at the windswept expanse of Chiswick Playing Fields, where the usual collection of Sunday league footballers assemble, often reluctantly dragged out of their beds, this club’s players relish every match even in the most inhospitable conditions. There may be only a smattering of spectators who rarely outnumber the players on the pitch but Grenfell Athletic are making waves in many ways.
Following the disastrous fire that engulfed Grenfell Tower in June 2017 Rupert Taylor, manager of a local youth centre, set up the football club to provide support to the shattered residents. Football was seen as a way of providing a positive focus for many of those affected by the tragedy. “Initially I enlisted the help of a friend, Alex Rivers,” Taylor says. “He was the chairman and then we appointed a manager who came from the area and within a few months we were ready to embark on our first season.”
Having finished mid-table in that first season, the club comfortably won their league the following year, losing only one match and also added the League Cup, thereby completing a notable double. Promotion to the Middlesex County League Premier Division was quite an achievement for such a young club but their joy was soon curtailed by the Covid pandemic, which decimated the fixtures over the following two seasons.
During the early days of lockdown in 2020 when all games were off and the players had to stay in their homes, keeping the squad together was a particular challenge. Taylor was fully aware of the importance for the mental health and well-being of all those involved. So the players kept connected through training sessions on Zoom, which were led by professional tennis player Ellie Rose Griffiths. The club bounced back and are now on course for a strong end to the current season at the higher level.
Taylor did not allow the enforced hiatus to interrupt his ambitions as he focused on developing partnerships with other organisations from the football world. Through a friend of Taylor’s who used to work there Nike were the first company he approached, and this led to them making the original kit. As a supplier to Kitlocker.com, Nike got the online retailer involved in selling Grenfell kits. To raise the profile of the team Kitlocker launched their Fabric of the Community campaign which was endorsed by those within football such as Rio Ferdinand and Reece James and also from football fans within the music industry, with Damon Albarn and Noel Gallagher amongst the stars to be involved. With over 1,000 shirts sold in the space of a fortnight they generated £30,000 in revenue.
Grenfell Athletic also forged strong links with Chelsea through Chris Jones, their first team fitness coach at the time, who has recently joined Frank Lampard at Everton. Jones personally delivered a series of training sessions for the Grenfell players and Taylor is keen to make inroads with other professional clubs. “We have a had series of very encouraging discussions with QPR (who are the 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.”
In one of the more enterprising and surprising moves Cadburys produced a custom-made Grenfell Athletic Dairy Milk chocolate bar that raised funds for the club. The global confectionery brand were first made aware of Grenfell Athletic when Harry Kane tweeted a picture of himself in a Grenfell top. On the back of that exposure Taylor was asked to give a management talk to 400 of Cadbury’s managers and following the success of that collaboration came the idea of the custom-made bar. “It is a source of great pride that Grenfell sit alongside twenty professional British clubs that have partnered with Cadburys.” Those clubs include all the Premier League’s Big Six as well as Celtic and Rangers plus the world’s oldest professional club, Notts County.
As the founder of Grenfell Athletic FC Taylor, stresses the ethos of the club. “At the heart of what we do, helping the community is our absolute priority, with all the partnerships we set up, we have to have the right community projects attached to them.” This season marks their first true crack at the top division and despite having a backlog of matches they are poised to finish in the top three and maybe even win the title. Winning the league will not lead to promotion as the next level in the pyramid requires a radical transformation in the way the club is organised.
“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 would hope to reach that level for the 2023/24 season.” There are no plans to run another men’s team just yet but they have been laying the foundations for a women’s team that will hopefully be joining a league at the beginning of next season. “The women have started training on Tuesday evenings at the Westway,” Taylor says. “We have nineteen players on the books and about a dozen turning up each week.” Those pitches 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 over the last five years provides hope to those still coping with the devastating effects of that disastrous fire and something to look forward to on Sunday mornings for all those involved with the club.