From community foundations to cup final magic. The story of Grand Sports Club: an inclusive and inspirational football club.
By Mike Backler
Running a grassroots football team is hard. It’s not just the time or the admin, the recruitment or the finances; it’s managing a squad full of different expectations. The sixteen different opinions on tactics. Or the sixteen different reasons for turning up. Some will think you take it too seriously. Some, not enough. You can make or break so many different weekends. You can win handsomely, but upset an individual. You can lose heavily, but change someone’s outlook in a tough week. In order to begin to enjoy it, you have to have two things. You have to understand and accept that you are never going to please everyone. And you have to love it.
Ravinder Marwaha completely loves it. And it shines through in everything he does for Grand Sports Club (previously known as FC Grand).
It’s in the detail of every recollection of the make-up of the team over the years, and their glorious, triumphant cup run. “It’s the best thing I’ve ever done,” says Rav, about the Gravesend club, as we finish chatting about their journey from community program, to league whipping boys, to cup winners, all in the space of six years. It’s a story that is an advert for grassroots football, featuring all the big players: fantastic intentions, community, adversity, defeat, determination, diversity, camaraderie and triumph. And it’s just beginning.
The club’s roots are in Rav’s place of work, the Grand in Gravesend, a healthy living centre he has worked at for the past fourteen years. “Back in 2014, we were given some money by Kent County Council to get men active again. I work with adults mainly: trying to get adults to become fitter, more active and eat healthier. The Grand had always successfully ran aerobic and exercise classes, but weren’t getting through to men. Using the World Cup in 2014 as the driver, we set up ‘Back To Football’ sessions. They were for anyone; anyone that played football, anyone that had never played. It didn’t matter. We had our first session as Ebbsfleet Utd and twenty-three people came along. Then it just grew and grew.”
It wasn’t long until talk of taking a team into the big leagues came to the surface. “Everyone returned after Christmas buzzing to be back and Stef came up to me and said, ‘let’s start a team… I can’t do Sundays’.”
And so, FC Grand joined the Rochester and District Saturday League.
We’re joined by club legends (I’m sure they won’t mind me calling them that) Kane, Josh and Yinka. There’s a great vibe between them – just what you’d expect from lads who have played together for a long time and become close. They can switch pretty seamlessly between giving each other a bit of stick and talking seriously about the club. Yinka is late to our chat and Rav laments that he’s spent years of his life waiting outside to pick him up for matches.
If you’re involved in grassroots football, it’s a familiar relationship. It’s that self-deprecating humour that’s needed to reflect on the first two seasons. Rav recalls that they were hard going: “80-85% of the squad in our first season had never played eleven-a-side football. And the results showed that. But no-one ever complained. People understood that we were gonna lose games.”
So, what was the hardest part? “Making sure people didn’t get on people’s backs. The three or so players that did have ability didn’t get on the backs of the ones that didn’t. It was ensuring that we finished that season, kept our heads high and carried it on.”
Kane used to attend Back to Football sessions, has captained the side, and has been a huge part of the club from the very, very beginning. “Before FC Grand, I’d always played, but mostly in cages and parks. I joined when I was nineteen and I’m still here.” I asked him if he was able to enjoy the first season. “It was enjoyable. Stef and a few others that played are like family. Some games we lost double digits but I don’t ever remember anyone after the game saying, ‘oh this is crap’. Everyone was really positive with it to be honest. We’d just go to the pub and laugh about it. We’d take the wins from the losses. We may have been 6-0 down at half-time but we scored two in the second half. Or, we kept the ball for five, six passes. As Rav said, the technical quality wasn’t great! There was no negativity. People always came to training, numbers were always great. There was no sulking. We get a lot more of it now than we did then.”
It’s this attitude and team ethic from those first couple of seasons that underpins what the club has gone on to achieve. It’s the very essence of grassroots football. Turn up, play well for your mates, be positive, improve and see where it takes you. And it’s taken them a pretty long way. Josh has been a massive part of that. He joined in the third season after uni. “Kane sent me a text saying, ‘We need a right back’, and I’ve stayed ever since.”
“It’s massively the environment. For the amount of stress we all go through, the only reason to do it is because we’re all still pals at the end of the day. Sometimes we can play sublime football. Unbelievable football. But more often than not, we’re our own downfall. Dealing with that stress as well. The only reason we do it is because we’re friends.”
One of the most disappointing aspects of this lockdown has been that we weren’t able to visit the team in person. Since the fourth season, the team has been sponsored by a local restaurant, V’s Punjabi Grill, which we’ve had our eye on. It plays a big part in the social side of the club. “They were happy to cover the costs of the pitch, have their logo on the front, gave us 20% off food and we’ve been going there ever since. Christmas. End of season. Boxing nights. The worst thing after a defeat is to go home and stress about it. We go there, debrief, and think, ‘okay, it’s done now, move on’. Football is supposed to be a de-stressor during the weekend, after all!” Josh pipes up, “Food’s absolutely banging as well.”
There were a couple of nights in 2018 when V’s Punjabi Grill would have been absolutely jumping. In grassroots football there’s nothing quite like a cup final. Those warm memories that mates can share for years to come. All those little aspects that are magical. The match day build-up, the changing rooms, the stadium announcer, the crowd of friends and family coming through the wooden turnstiles, the floodlights. It’s all very special. We’re desperate to hear about the night, but before that, Rav takes us through the cup run in fantastic detail. It’s a pleasure to hear about it.
The earlier rounds include a 5-4 extra-time win, a phantom goal that went through a poorly-pegged net and a professional job over an ex-military team. But it’s the semi-finals where FC Grand finally landed, bringing forty supporters to an unbeaten team top of the division above. A team with a reputation for the ‘dark arts’, shall we say. 2-0 up early and after weathering a storm of aggro, they see the game out and are on their way to the bright lights of Chatham Town FC for the final. Four years ago and after another thrashing, it would have seemed as far away as the Maracanã.
Rav remembers it all. He remembers the roar in the restaurant that evening when they found out who’d they face. He remembers how hard it was to pick a squad and is still happy to defend his team selection. “It was under the lights. Like an old Champions League final.” It’s beautiful to see his mind going back there and to see the lads’ eyes light up. “We started slow. Maybe the occasion. Once we got our foot on the ball, and started passing the ball around, we never looked back.”
“Our centre-back Chris (Cookie), who actually joined us in our second season, used to walk his dog around where we played. He could see how bad we were but he still wanted to join us. He’s played at many levels, including at Chatham Town. He bought his first pair of boots in ten years for the cup final and he sat in the same seat in the home dressing room where he used to when he was younger. He was forty-one or forty-two at the time. He played that game like he was twenty-one. He didn’t put a foot wrong. Won every header, won every tackle.”
FC Grand would go on to win the game 4-0. Yinka grabbed the third. Kane and Josh lifted the trophy together. “It’s the best feeling,” says Josh. “I’ve played football for a long time and won other trophies but that’s the highlight of my career, lifting that cup with Kane. I can not stand Foster’s for the life of me. Some boys filled up the cup with it and got me to drink it. And it tasted beautiful.”
So for these three cup heroes, what’s it like to play for Rav? Yinka goes first: “To be fair, Rav’s easy-going. He can be demanding. Sometimes he does lose his nut on the sideline.” Josh interjects, “He can be demanding, but different to what Yinka thinks is demanding. Asking Yinka to track back is not demanding.” Yinka laughs and continues: “I love playing for the club. I love playing for Rav. The club is going in the right direction. Where we were four or five years ago, you can see how much has changed.”
“Rav loves it,” says Kane. “It’s infectious. Rav’s been there from the start, I’ve been there from a minute after. We talk a lot, pretty much every day. The passion is there. I love it as much as he does – it’s his baby but I take it on as well. Even at work I’m thinking football…weekend.”
Josh backs them up: “Rav’s a good guy, he’s got everyone’s best interests at heart. The club itself is what you look forward to, seeing your pals, playing some football, hopefully winning. This will be the last team I’ll play for.”
They’ve built a brilliant, inclusive environment in which to enjoy football, there’s no doubt about it. Some people search a long time in their adult life to find a team they truly love playing for, one that becomes a huge part of their life. Some never find it. Even taking into account the cup win, it’s their best achievement.
“If you look at the make-up of our squad – I once posted something on Instagram with the flags of all of our players’ heritages – we are basically the United Nations of football teams. It’s an open space, whoever wants to turn up, can turn up. Free to play. Doesn’t mean you’re always gonna be in the team. I don’t care where you’re from, what colour skin you have, what language you speak, as long as you wanna play football. And you’re not an arsehole. That is the one thing. Everyone talks to everyone with a bit of respect.”
Did Rav ever think in the early days of the programme that it would get this far? “There were no plans. Not at all. When the project started, I thought it would be good if we had a regular five-a-side team, but once the team started it grew and grew. I’ve got the logo everywhere. A towel over there. A bag over there. There are t-shirts coming. My garage is full of equipment. But I don’t regret it and I wouldn’t give it up for anything.”
And so, after a couple of seasons’ upheaval, what’s next for the club? Last season they had a brand change from FC Grand to Grand Sports Club to become a multi-sports club. This summer they’ll hopefully have enough for a second team, using the ‘Back to Football’ element and targeting younger players who either lost their team because of Covid or didn’t have an exit route from youth to adult football.
This will also work as a feeder squad for the first team or for those recovering from injury. There are plans in place to have a youth team in the next few years and, in the long term, they’ll be covering coaching badges for players and young people so they can coach in midweek with their age groups or assist with the adults.
So, absolutely no resting on their laurels for Rav, Kane, Josh, Yinka, Stef, Cookie and all the lads from Grand Sports Club. A shining example of how a club built by good people on the foundations of supporting the community can thrive.
It’s also very inspiring for anyone who’s looking to set up a football club. If you’ve got the passion, the energy and the determination, and you don’t mind it not being completely perfect in season one, then you can really leave a legacy.
We’re looking forward to the next five years of Rav’s Grand Plan.