In the beginning I remember Saturday training sessions on the rec, sprawling green fields and the rolling hill we climbed like a mountain. I remember Golas moulded around size-four feet and metal studs screwed into Umbro soles. Mesh bibs and Mitre footballs. Part-time coaches and passing drills.
More than two decades have passed. But I still remember how things were back then. How we gathered on crisp Saturday mornings, seven-year-olds cut loose on Lewisham playing greens. We were young kids pulled into a sport handed down through the local family network, a Lewisham tradition slowly becoming our own, the crossfade of football and Saturday mornings shifting into ritual. Every generation just following the last. I still remember those weekends, still see the grass, the pitches where we were baptised. I still remember Hilly Fields. I still remember south London.
Hillyfielders FC was my childhood football club. Hilly Fields was where I played my first game. Thirty acres of open grass, thick tree lining and tennis courts, a sprawling grass junction in the blue borough, with Brockley and Ladywell and Lewisham Central quietly lapping at its sea-green shores. It is wide parkland carved into residential sprawl, besieged by rows of Victorian and terraced housing. It is the jewel of a concrete town, raised 175 feet above sea level. From our Everest you can stare down towards the skyscrapers of the city skyline and see steel mountains rising from the earth, glistening along a glass-panelled shorefront.
Sometime in the late 1990s, Ron Bell, a local coach and the uncle of a boy from our estate, began running training sessions, gathering flocks of south London infants in the park. Young boys dragged into the ritual by fathers who dreamed of one day seeing the family name printed on Premier League jerseys. We found our feet on that turf, swung skinny legs at size 3 footballs, scampered across the short grass, broke in our new arena.
But we were not the first. There were other Black boys in other decades who came before us, kids who stumbled to their feet on the same turf. A Hilly Fields FC played these grounds through the 60s and 70s, with a few solitary Black faces speckled among the traditional team photos on club archive websites. A boy named Don Fields and another named Delroy Richards, a Vic Banton and an Albert St Clair: Black kids with tight afros, south London footballers frozen in time. Ian Wright played these fields in the late 60s too, before Palace, before Arsenal and England, before he became Arsenal’s top goal scorer, pulling his shirt over his face at Highbury and revealing “179 Just Done It” underneath. “I never lost a game playing in Hilly Fields,” he once said. “Never lost a game.”
Footballers are symbols, an illustration of changing social and economic dynamics, of immigration and new communities that have taken root. I was born in 1992, during a time when Lewisham and south London had been imposing their will on British football. The early 90s, a time when Arsenal’s David Rocastle had come out of the Honor Oak estate in Brockley, and Wright had come with him. The Wallace brothers: Danny, Rod and Ray out of Deptford in the north of the borough, who went on to play for Southampton together, Rod winning the old first division with Leeds in the year before it became the Premier League. Chris Powell, Kevin Campbell, Michael Thomas, Paul Davis. Their collective presence was an indicator of how things were in south London, how things are, how they will be.
How a community comes to congregate in a road, a borough, a city often remains unwritten. These stories lie in family folklore, in oral histories that never reach official records. And so, while there is no definitive reason as to why Black communities wandered south into Lewisham, in the Characterisation Study published by Lewisham council in 2019, the suggestion is that Black immigrants arrived in the borough from the Caribbean throughout the 60s, searching for work in hospitals and on the railways.
James Leighton’s book Rocky: The Tears and Triumphs of David Rocastle alludes to the same, adding factory work and jobs at the docks to the motivations that pulled Black immigrants south. Rocastle’s mother, Linda, worked in Greenwich hospital; his father, Leslie, worked in local factories. Both were among a steady wave of Black settlers carving their presence into south London. In Leighton’s book, the Honor Oak estate of the 70s is portrayed as a Caribbean enclave, reminiscent of lost home countries in sight, sound and smell. Players like Rocastle, with Grenada and Trinidad in his heritage, are a sign of that early migration.
African immigrants began to settle en masse in south London from the 80s. My parents drifted in from Nigeria and Cameroon, as did my godparents. When I arrived at Lewisham hospital in the summer of ’92, and when I became aware of football a few years later, Ian Wright was centre stage. Fathers like mine, strangers in a new country who were fluent in football’s universal tongue but wary of a hostile time on British terraces, were drawn to Wright and Arsenal and the club’s rolling Black contingent out of south London.
And so, in those early years, I remember a borough and a home bristling with pride for its golden son. Nobody told you that he was from around here. You knew by instinct. I watched him play in my highchair. His name was painted on the walls, his essence infused into the water. This was his ground zero, and every young kid from that time has an Ian Wright story they are ready to repeat, encounters told and retold by parents like mine until the details have become concrete.
There was the school competition I won in year 1, a few weeks after Wright broke Arsenal’s goalscoring record. The reward was to take part in a presentation at a school assembly that we were told he would attend. The assembly never happened, but he sent a fax through, and I was invited into the staff room to take a phone call with his agent.
Another time he turned up at a community day event in Catford, him standing and making smalltalk with my parents, my brother and I tangled at their knees, watching the boy from the neighbourhood speak with the west African immigrants who had made the place their new home.
The bond between south London’s kids and its professional football clubs begins early. Saturday morning training sessions on Hilly Fields became rumours of a football team. We cast ballots to pick the name. I wrote “Hilly Rangers” on some paper. My brother wrote something similar. Neither of our suggestions were picked. The club was officially registered, and in 1999 Hillyfielders FC was born. We played our home games in deep green kits.
Some weekends Crystal Palace would gift the club tickets, and so I attended my first football match proper in that period, a league game at Selhurst Park. A band of Hillyfielders FC families convoyed out of Lewisham and down through Sydenham and Forest Hill in a borough-to-borough road trip. We sat in the family stand, waved claret-and-blue scarfs and felt ancient Palace chants swell in our thin throats, then went home and tried to spot ourselves on the telly.
For as long as I can recollect, south London’s three major footballing institutions – Crystal Palace, Charlton and Millwall – have retained strong relations with the communities that sustain them, have spread long arms into local areas and pulled new talent from the earth, mining the ground for Black gold. The Crystal Palace youth system has become a staple in south London, an academy famed for turning out a staggering line of “touchline” Black footballers – wingers and full-backs who have come to excel in the tight spaces of football league flanks. Wilfried Zaha, Nathaniel Clyne, Wayne Routledge, Victor Moses.
At my second primary school in Bromley, where we moved in 2001, a community coach from Crystal Palace held after-school sessions for kids interested in football. My brother was invited to trial at the club, and so one evening a week we would travel with my father to the Palace training ground in Beckenham, see the chairman walking through the car park, professional footballers disappearing into the darkness, a sharp enthusiasm rising among us, the belief that maybe this here was the real deal.
Nothing ever came of those trials, but my brother and I still speak about the sessions, tease about how we were young kids who could’ve gone pro if not but. We reshape our memories to include encounters with the players who eventually made the grade, those who would gain professional contracts and those we still see something of ourselves in.
At the turn of every generation, south London presents an icon, a player who comes to mean more, whose brilliance on the pitch and whose identity away from it shapes his relationship with those who stand and support from the sidelines. Ian Wright gave way to Rio Ferdinand, with his deep ties to Peckham and his crowning as one of the finest central defenders in British history. When Ferdinand left the game in 2015, the mantle was thrust on to Wilfried Zaha and his generation.
Among the first of this new generation to surface was the midfield prodigy John Bostock. His name floated through secondary schools, whispers on the wind from friends who still played at Palace on weekday evenings, arriving at school the next day with tales about the grace they had seen. He was an anomaly, a marvel of his time of whom greatness was expected, signed by Palace at five years old and playing for the first team at 15.
After Bostock’s premature emergence, the remainder of our generation’s finest players followed. In 2010, when Crystal Palace had been bought by a group of fans known as CPFC 2010, the club tabled a new strategy to place itself at the core of the local community. It erected billboards with the slogan “South London and Proud”, the mantra flying alongside images of the club’s local stars of tomorrow. Zaha was among the academy squad members selected to appear in the campaign.
Zaha was born in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire, and raised in Thornton Heath, in a house so close to Selhurst Park that he remembers seeing the floodlights shimmering from the stands as a young boy. He played his first football for a local Croydon team, Whitehorse Wanderers, and his story has been intertwined with Crystal Palace since he was scouted at the age of eight. His presence in the Premier League, and his relationship with England, have begun to throw light on the nuances of identity and home for Black British people, for the generations of African and Caribbean families raised in the old traditions of a new country. In that passing of time, they have slowly been carving out an identity of their own.
Zaha was an England international until the age of 20. He played for the under-19s and the under-21s and for the full team at Wembley. Many of the friends he met through football’s youth systems still turn out for the national team today. But in 2016, three years after his last performance, Zaha pledged international allegiance to his birth country, Côte d’Ivoire. In response, England manager Gareth Southgate said: “If you don’t feel that internal 100% passion for England, then I’m not sure it’s for me to sell that to you. It should be your desire to do it. Although I’m always willing to sit down with players, it should be them coming to us … the inherent desire of wanting to play for your country is the most important thing.”
Southgate’s comments hinted at a subtle misunderstanding of kids with dual heritage, an inability to recognise the shifting sense of home that can exist for those like Zaha, for those like me. For many first- and second-generation immigrants whose parents or grandparents found new homes in Britain, whose recent family lines are staggered across the continents, “the inherent desire of wanting to play for your country” can manifest uneasily amid these tensions. Our passions are divided, our identities frayed. Our upbringings were British. Our families come from countries far from here. We carry their stories in our surnames. The matter of nationality is a complex one.
In that uneasy straddling of home countries and birthplaces, for some south London has become an identity in itself, a holding space to balance the fragments of themselves that never quite fit. “I just came here from the age of four and south London is all I know really,” Zaha once told an interviewer, years deep in the Premier League but still deeply local in his presence, still turning out at five-a-side pitches with friends in the summer, still driving his car over the same streets he rode his bike on to the stadium. In 2013, when still playing for England, Zaha was asked about his Ivorian roots and his subsequent life in Britain. “I think of myself as a Londoner than anything else,” he said.
Among Zaha’s generation of players who emerged from the Crystal Palace youth system, there is a scattering of Black boys bred in south London who wear varying international crests on their jerseys. Victor Moses played in the England youth system, like Zaha, and then turned out for Nigeria. Sean Scannell, of Jamaican heritage, who also featured on the billboard, pledged for Ireland, Nathaniel Clyne for England. John Bostock declared for Trinidad and Tobago. Dual heritage is encoded in south London’s DNA. These footballers are emblems of settled communities, the rising total of African countries they represent are an indication of how the Black presence in south London has broadened between the first generation and mine.
The starry-eyed gaze we set upon footballers in our infancy begins to fade as we get older. We never realised back then that, among many things, the kind of success you dream of in football is not a consequence of skill alone, but of mentality and divine timing, of proper guidance and luck randomly allotted. After offers from Barcelona and a move to Tottenham at 16, Bostock drifted quietly through the leagues across Europe – a season in Turkey, three more in Belgium – his story a footnote in south London folklore, another boy who, for a brief moment, flew close to the sun. Today Bostock is 30 and plays his football for Doncaster Rovers in League One. The lower leagues are fuelled by these players: Black footballers who never quite made the grade at the elite level and now play their football in the national and regional leagues, boys I schooled with or had heard of who now turn out for Bromley and Cray Wanderers and Welling United.
Footballers are no longer our superheroes, just men and women feeling their way through life the best way they know how. But that sense of boyish wonder is inherited by the next generation, young cousins and family friends of mine being dragged gradually into the ritual. As I moved through my 20s, I began to hear stories of chance encounters and rumours bonding them to local heroes: Rio Ferdinand saw a family friend of ours running late for school on a cold morning, stopped his car and drove him to the school gates; Ferdinand, again, spotted in a pie and mash shop on a local high street; the Wright-Phillips brothers, Shaun and Bradley, driving past my godbrother’s old house in Crofton Park. Tradition reaffirming itself for the young.
I tore my hamstring when I was 24. In the second half of a national cup game, I was chasing a winger when I felt the muscle shred behind the knee. I collapsed on the bobbled pitch. It was a grade-two tear, and I walked with crutches for weeks. My season was abruptly ended. I broke with my Saturday routine for the first time since I was 11.
Weekends that for so long had meant crumbling dressing rooms and faded kits at sports grounds across south London and north Kent were now open. I filled the void with a friend’s spare Charlton tickets and sat in the East Stand at The Valley for four, five, six games. Travelled away to Watford and to Millwall. Caught the team when they were quietly excited about a new generation of local players making their way into the first team: Ademola Lookman, raised in Peckham by Nigerian immigrants, and Joe Gomez from Catford, son of a Gambian father and an English mother.
Lookman is now at Everton and Gomez at Liverpool. They are part of a golden south London generation that in the years following my brief stay on the East Stand has gathered mass adulation across the British media, a generation that has drawn comparisons with the French boys from the banlieues who won the World Cup in 2018. With Jadon Sancho and Reiss Nelson, who grew up together on the Aylesbury estate, not far from where Ryan Bertrand followed Rio Ferdinand out of the Friary estate in Peckham, with Aaron Wan-Bissaka following a long line of Crystal Palace touchline players, with Callum Hudson-Odoi and Jonathan Panzo, with the Sessegnon siblings and the Chalobah brothers, the rest of the country has become wise to a footballing legacy that has been at work for five decades. And with a European Championship and World Cup on the horizon, they wait in hope.
Hillyfielders FC still stands. The club is 22 years old. They moved grounds a few years back, down Brockley Road to Honor Oak Park, and now field 17 teams across local leagues. Arsenal striker Eddie Nketiah had his start with the club, some 40 years after Ian Wright charged up and down on the old home ground. Like many boys from across south London, Nketiah idolised Wright as a child. The two are friends now. “Growing up in similar areas, we can relate to each other,” Nketiah explained in an interview a few years ago. In another he said of Wright: “Whenever I need to speak to somebody, he’s always there and available.”
That sense of subtle affiliation to them both has led me to keep track of his career, and now whenever the name “Nketiah” flashes across the screen I’m drawn to memories of the gaping greens and Saturday sessions on Hilly Fields. I dig out my laminated Hillyfielders membership card, which still hangs in my mum’s kitchen and reads “Member 008”, and wrestle with the thought that Nketiah and the club share the same birth year: 1999.
I think about how Nketiah, like so many others, is the sum of community parts: coaches and part-time staff, immigrant parents and professional footballers, pulling and turning in south London for generations, paving the road Eddie would walk from Lewisham to the Premier League.
I do not watch Nketiah in the same way I watched Bostock or Scannell or Zaha – I don’t demand or expect a Premier League legend from his playing career. I know that his time in the game will be determined by the same forces that met those who came before him, conditions of luck and divine timing and good guidance. But he has started well. He is the England under-21s all-time record goalscorer (edging out Alan Shearer and Francis Jeffers), with 14 goals to his name.
A few weeks before Nketiah claimed the record, the Ghanaian national team manager, CK Akonnor, told a local radio station that the Ghanaian football association had reached out to Eddie’s parents in an attempt to tease his national team loyalties back towards home. When asked about his Ghanaian heritage, Nketiah said: “I’m very proud, it’s in me, it’s who I am and it’s helped me to be the person I am today.” But he has reportedly turned down an invitation to play for the side. The matter of nationality remains complex.
Nketiah is still in touch with his old club, and sends back videos at the start of every season wishing the kids good luck for the games ahead. For many, it will likely be their first encounters with a professional footballer, like mine with Ian Wright. And so, for a new generation, the cycle begins anew.
I can trace the lines now, joining the dots between what happens out there on the giant stadium stages of the Premier League and the plastic posts fastened into grass playing fields in south London, and I realise that those early Saturday mornings on the rec were always about more than ourselves, more than we could see, that the greater was somehow at work. By many hands, a man is forged. The lone hero is a myth. We are all threads of something or someone else.
This is an edited essay taken from A New Formation: How Black Footballers Shaped the Modern Game, edited by Calum Jacobs and published by Merky books on 21 April. Order it from guardianbookshop.co.uk