Community, passion and freshly painted loos: Ryan Matthews shares with us the story of Peckham Town FC.
By Ryan Matthews. Images by Rob Avis.
South East London, credited as the ‘Concrete Catalonia’ in the footballing press due to its uncanny production line of high-quality talent, is enjoying a real moment in the sun. Current alumni lighting up the elite level include Jadon Sancho, Joe Gomez and Emile-Smith Rowe, the ‘Croydon De Bruyne’, as Martin Tyler likes to consistently remind us. Then there are the originals: the ‘Peckham Beckenbauer’ (Rio Ferdinand, for the uninitiated) and Ian Wright. This is an area steeped in football pedigree. But what about the lower tiers of football? Something is stirring in Peckham, spearheaded by former England captain Mary Phillip. The Grassroots Post went to investigate.
What do you think of when you think of Peckham? [i]Only Fools and Horses[i]? Rooftop mojitos at the Bussey Building? Well, whatever you [i[think[i] you know, think again. This is a community. A strong, multifaceted and vibrant part of South East London with a community club now at its beating heart. Peckham Town FC, known fondly by the fans as ‘The Menace’, was founded in 1982 by Bryan Hall (aged thirteen at the time). A progression through youth, Sunday League and Saturday football followed over the next thirty years, including multiple league and cup wins. The first team now plies its trade in the Kent County League Premier Division, and most recently celebrated a club first: winning the London Senior Trophy in the 2019/20 season. Not only was this a landmark for the club, it was also a historic moment for the manager of the first team, Mary Phillip, making her the first female manager of a men’s team to secure silverware.
“Winning the cup last season, both from a football and social regeneration point of view, has helped to positively establish the club, the town and the young people as part of a hotbed for talented football players,” said Mary. “For me, personally, it was a grand achievement. I know we have challenged for the title over many years and to win it in my first season despite not being able to complete the season has definitely put it in my top ten. We trained hard as we didn’t manage to play any friendlies in the run-up to the final, which was testament to our collectiveness and achievement.”
This interrupted season is the elephant in the room for all at the grassroots level of football – something that Mary is well aware of. “With the constant stop-start, it’s hard to juggle as manager. I’ve won the London Senior Trophy, which was amazing, but I’ve still not completed a league. We as a club have to look out for our players’ wellbeing alongside our supporters and ourselves. We encourage the players to keep themselves ticking over, but training by yourself does not get you ready for the team challenges. The guys stay in touch, post their training and challenge each others’ times. On a lighter note, they run quizzes and radio raves.”
This togetherness is relevant, even more so at the moment. We were lucky enough to get down to a match before the curtailment of the season and witness it first-hand. The community spirit is evident, from the players through to the coaching staff and the volunteers at the Menace Arena. This is a proud and principled club. Club Captain Nicky Meta put it plainly: “Peckham Town FC is my local club. A family club. A community club. We have the biggest fan base and we have a vision, and I’m honoured to be the Captain of a club going in the right direction. Since winning the London Cup, we have broken crowd records and the club has had so much exposure in the news and on social media.’’
This pride is shown at the ground. There is a real buzz in the air as the fans file in (in a socially-distanced fashion) to the booming sounds of both of the [i]Only Fools and Horses[i] theme tunes over the PA. The match is also an important event for the club and the community at large. On the anniversary of the murder of Damilola Taylor, the club had invited his father Richard Taylor OBE and Football Manager legend Cherno Samba to speak at the unveiling of the club’s banner supporting the Black Lives Matter movement. This was a joint partnership with the Damilola Taylor Foundation and their Hope 2020 Campaign, alongside the Rio Ferdinand Foundation.
Hope 2020 is a campaign shining light on the positive contributions of young people, inspired by the philosophy of the public health approach to reducing violence affecting young people.
There is a marked difference in feeling with this campaign compared to more ‘one size fits all’ efforts at showing solidarity. It feels, and is, personal and local in the way only a truly community-minded club can be. Mary agrees: “Peckham Town has always taken a holistic approach to its community initiatives and as the manager of the football club I have been instrumental in the planning and welcoming of our community partners. One of the football club’s founding priorities was what we call social regeneration. The club was set up to help create both youth and intergenerational participation in sporting opportunities, giving hope and lasting benefits to its members and community.”
As for the game? A veritable feast of goals for the paying punters at the Menace Arena. Peckham played Stansfeld (O&B) FC off the park in a 5-0 demolition job. Goals were spread between Bryan Villalba (2), Joe Thomas, Herve Mbongue and Marcus Black. The team, set out by Phillip in a fluid 4-3-3, put on an exhibition of passing and creative football which, in truth, could have resulted in more goals. The record crowd of 203 were suitably impressed, as were the guests present, with Cherno Samba remarking that he must’ve been the lucky charm for the team. We aren’t going to disagree with that!
Peckham Town FC has battled adversity, not just related to the pandemic. Over the past couple of years there have been numerous cases of vandalism, both on the training ground and at the Menace Arena itself. These sorts of events happen all too often at the grassroots level and, particularly during the pandemic, this was hard to take for those running the club. The club and those surrounding it stood firm, however. In the weeks leading up to the game we attended, the club hosted a number of volunteer days where community members were asked to chip in, from cleaning up the vandalised parts of the ground to repainting the clubhouse toilets.
Club Development Manager Duncan Hart spoke to us about this. “The vandalism has been happening for over a year now. It’s just so frustrating. We have to waste time and money to constantly clear up and fix things. I just don’t understand why these people are targeting a volunteer-run football club. As we always say, ‘Menace Life Ain’t Easy!’”
Duncan also shared his thoughts on how the club is coping currently and how they are preparing for any resumption of footballing activity. “We are looking forward to getting cracking again. We’ve not played a match since October. Football means so much to everyone at the club – players, volunteers, coaches, parents and supporters. It has been a tough time mentally, and we hope that football can bring back some joy to everyone in the community.”
And at its heart, this is what grassroots football is truly all about. Community. Togetherness. A shared purpose. The pride in Peckham shines through in everything that is done at this club. Mary Phillip agrees:
“I would encourage everyone to get involved in grassroots football because it’s a fantastic way to get involved in your community. For me, grassroots is the heartbeat of football…it’s where your love of the game starts. It’s hard work, but being able to give back and help a next generation through is so rewarding. At Peckham Town we are a voluntary-run club, so you know that everyone involved at the club’s heart is 110% behind the club’s ethos, from our youth section all the way through to the senior men’s. With it being Peckham Town and me being a homegrown girl, it makes it that little bit more personal and rewarding.”
Mangetout, indeed. It appears that the only way is up for Peckham Town – a team with a strong community ethos, managerial pedigree and an engaging and exciting style of play. Only time (and COVID restrictions) will tell how far this team will go in the near future. We in particular have our fingers crossed that at this relaunch, the club will recapture their form, continue to find record crowds and hopefully finish a season under the leadership of Mary Phillip. Who knows where this club could go. This time next year, Rodney…