“When I was a kid in East London you could go to the park and put your jumper down and play football. When I got back from 15 years away, times had changed.”
Local communities and football clubs can often feel light-years apart, but Glebe FC owner Rocky McMillan is using the beautiful game to benefit youngsters living locally to the club he founded back in 1995.
The corporate boxes at Old Trafford are a stone’s throw away from Moss Side, an area of Manchester where young lives can easily go to waste.
Roman Abramovich can probably see the World’s End estate from his box at Stamford Bridge, but the gulf between the billion dollar industry and young would-be players appears chasmic at the top of the football pyramid.
Keen to ensure his children could develop in a safe and professional environment, Rocky – who had spent 15 years in the Middle East – took matters into his own hands upon his return to the capital.
He started Glebe FC to offer children some friendly training and competition in the Chislehurst area.
As a part of our Football’s Front Lines series we headed to South London to see the change the club has made to the community and what the future holds for the mighty Glebe FC.
Rocky and his wife Grace launched a single U8 side, originally for their sons, but the club has snowballed from a park for kids to come and play in to a 15-acre site with over 20 junior sides, one veteran’s side, a ladies team and the first XI.
Little did they think any of their players would go on to reach the very top of the English game like Arsenal’s Emile Smith-Rowe or Charlton’s Lyle Taylor.
The sense of community is there for everyone to see upon arriving at Foxbury Avenue; kids of all ages either training or watching the first team, friends and family in the well presented club house where you can have a chat with the manager or the chairman.
We managed to grab a word with the man himself who explained to us why he started Glebe back in the 90s.
Rocky explains it all began with a group of dads looking for a place where their sons could properly train away from school.
“As the dads got together a few of us just said, this isn’t really good enough, can we do something?” he says. “The school that boys went to had lovely facilities so we started there, training at the school. We were in fact called ‘Glebe Trotters’ because we’d trot around south east London playing football.”
15 years down the line and Rocky has created his own brand with hundreds of players, sponsorships and incredible facilities considering their lower league status.
Football at this level can appear pedestrian to an outsider, a place where players can turn up after a night on the sauce before lumping seven shades out of the opponent.
Nothing could be further from the truth for Rocky and Grace, who spend seven days a week at the club; whether with the youngsters of the first XI.
Competing in the Southern Counties East Football League (England’s 8th tier) may not sound all that glamorous, but this Glebe side are not only looking for promotion through the South East’s regional leagues… they have Wembley in their sights too.
A place at the national stadium is on offer for reaching the final of the FA Vase, the third tier cup competition run by the FA, and Glebe have hired a manager who knows a thing or two about the home of football.
Gary Alexander, who scored the greatest goal at Wembley – as voted for by the fans – has been head coach since September having previously managed at a similar level with Chatham Town and Ashford United.
The chairman claimed the appointment of the former Milwall and Leyton Orient forward was a giant leap forward for the club.
Rocky added: “It’s a massive coup that we’ve got Gary at this level.
“Without doubt regarded as the best manager at this level, I’m using Gary in a nice way while I’ve got him because I don’t know how long he’ll be here.
“If he is taken away from you it means he’s done a good job. He throws himself in 24/7. He is hugely respected by everyone in the league from the players to fellow coaches. He deserves to and will go much higher.”
The aim for the club this season, and every season, is promotion, such is the hunger of the chairman.
Speaking to us before the game, Gary claimed it was Rocky’s ambition that attracted him to the club.
“It wouldn’t be a fit if I came to a chairman who said ‘I’ve got no interest in being promoted, I’ve got no interest in moving the club forward, I just want to run a football club,'” he said.
“This club wants to move forward. It’s a fantastic place.”
The league title or promotion is still a realistic aim despite the 2-1 defeat to Punjab United FC we saw on Saturday.
Glebe are through to the last-32 of the FA Vase and, despite being drawn against the favourites, Stowmarket Town, the chairman believes the team should be dreaming of a day out in north west London.
Speaking to us about their chances he said: “I think we are a fantastic bet at 100/1! Someone’s got to get there so why can’t you dream? We believe we are one of the best teams in the country on our day. To me the glass is always half full. Once that glass is half empty, I’ve got to give up because that’s what drives me on.”
It has been hard work for Rocky and Grace to get their club to where they are today and that ‘glass half full’ attitude is vital to the club’s progression.
Grace quipped that she’s had to swap new handbags for new turnstiles as the couple prepare the club for life in higher divisions.
Originally formed as a place for young players to keep themselves occupied at the weekend, Glebe has become not just a place for kids, but a beating heart for the community.
The U10s co-manager and Glebe fanatic, John Ebers has been with the club for five years and, despite being a West Ham season ticket holder, says it’s the difference in atmosphere that keeps pulling him back to the club.
He even states Glebe is often prioritised over his beloved Hammers.
“When West Ham are at home we go and watch them but we have given up our tickets and come down here before. We’ve been home and away with Glebe,” he said.
John’s devotion to the Foxes has been made permanent on his leg, with the club’s emblem etched in ink on his right leg.
Glebe are a shining example of how a lower league club should be run but they are not alone in the division.
We were fortunate enough to have a chat with the chairperson of the SCEFL, Denise Richmond, who has helped the league make strides to be as professional as possible.
Speaking about the funding the league has brought to clubs like Glebe, she had this to say before the game: “We’ve provided, as a league, things like the substitute vests so people are recognised in the dugout and it makes you look more professional.
“We’ve also provided the substitute board; we’ve got the electronic board so that when people are changing on the pitch, even if you don’t know their names, you know what number has gone up so you can track that afterwards.”
Those sort of changes enhance the experience for the players and fans alike in trying to reduce the gap between the top leagues and the regional divisions.
The beauty of clubs like Glebe and others in the league are not the technological advances, but the social opportunities they offer for young players.
Denise was quick to echo Rocky’s point on the role football clubs can play in young people’s development.
She said: “A lot of clubs in communities have 30 to 40 teams for different age groups so it’s actually keeping children occupied on Saturday and Sunday mornings.
“For adults it’s a football path so it’s moving up from U6, U7s to U16s, U18s and then hopefully adult football. Not everybody is going to be a professional, are they?”
Smith Rowe and Taylor are two examples of when the club has unearthed some rare gems.
While hundreds of others will never have gone pro, their progression shows the importance of leagues like the SCEFL offering chances to those who aren’t in academies at 14.
It is hard to measure the impact a club like Glebe can make in a community until you visit.
Seeing people from all ages, creeds and colours come together for the sake of something they can feel a part of is refreshing to see.
Grace and Rocky are, and should be, extremely proud of where they have taken the club so far.
With upgraded facilities, an experienced manager and some former Football League players in the roster, the only way is up… hopefully with a quick stop-off at Wembley this spring.
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