cover

CONTENTS

COVER

ABOUT THE BOOK

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

TITLE PAGE

Image KICK-OFF: THE MAGIC OF THE WEMBLEY CUP

Image ‘COULD HAVE BEEN GREAT AT SNOOKER’

Image TOP 10 VIDEO GAMES

Image STAND-UP GUY

Image TOP 10 FOOTBALL PLAYERS

Image KOMPANY MAN

Image TOP 10 FOOTBALL VIDEO-GAME PLAYERS

Image BEHIND THE MASK: FIFA PLAYA

Image TOP 10 STADIUMS

Image BEING MYSELF: SPENCER FC

Image SPENCER’S FAMILY TREE

Image THE ROAD TO WEMBLEY

Image HALF-TIME: THIS IS WHERE THE MAGIC HAPPENS

Image HASHTAG IT!

Image HASHTAG UNITED ESPORTS PLAYERS

Image RETURN TO WEMBLEY

Image TOP 10 FOOTBALLERS I’VE PLAYED WITH OR AGAINST

Image #GRUDGEMATCH

Image MY YOUTUBE XI

Image GOING INTERNATIONAL

Image HASHTAG SQUAD LIST

Image LOVE AND HATE

Image FULL TIME: DROP A LIKE

Image ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

COPYRIGHT

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I stormed down the tunnel with the roar of the crowd still ringing in my ears. It was all square at 3–3 against Weller Wanderers in the 2016 Wembley Cup final. This was supposed to be our big day at Wembley, our Champions League final – the biggest match of our lives – but we’d played like we were strangers so far and I wasn’t happy with the way things had been going at all.

I was fuming as I got to the dressing room, but our manager, Arsenal legend Martin Keown, pulled me to one side and said, ‘Spence, don’t go in there angry. We’re riding a wave after fighting back from 3–1 down so you’ve got to keep it super-positive in there with the team.’

He was right. And with 20,000 people watching in the stands and millions more on YouTube, we knew we had to up our game for the fans. We came out full of intent in the second half … only to go 4–3 down to a goal from Wanderers forward Theo Baker.

I looked across at my teammates, at legends like Jamie Carragher, Patrick Kluivert and Robert Pirès, at freestyler forward Daniel Cutting who was desperate to score, and at my own brother Seb, such a strong competitor, and I knew we had it in our locker to turn this around. ‘Come on, boys!’ I shouted.

In the 63rd minute Robert Pirès went tearing into the box, as he had on so many occasions for Arsenal in the Premier League, and squared the ball for ChuBoi to put an easy finish past the keeper. We were back in it, and when that man ChuBoi won a penalty for us only six minutes later we had an opportunity to take the lead.

There was only one man for the job in my eyes: Seb.

It’s difficult to describe just how loud it is playing in front of a crowd of thousands of people at the home of football. You have to shout at the top of your voice just to even attempt to be heard, and my voice was already hoarse. But at that moment, in the hush that descended as Seb stepped up to take his penalty, you could have heard a pin drop. The tension was unbearable, but Seb remained cool to the last. He wrong-footed the keeper and slotted it effortlessly into the back of the net. Get in! I ran straight to the corner for Seb’s trademark golf celebration: he mimed putting a ball into the hole where I was playing caddie with the flag.

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As children, we’d kicked a ball about in the back garden with each other, pretending we were playing at Wembley for England or West Ham. For both of us to be playing in the same team, celebrating his goal, at the real Wembley Stadium was beyond our wildest dreams.

But we still had a job to do. With our defence expertly marshalled by Jamie Carragher, our forwards had the freedom to attack, and we kept the pressure on Wanderers. Manny made it six for us and then Daniel Cutting finally got his Wembley goal to put us 7–4 ahead after a superb run from Séan Garnier. Surely the game was ours now, but I didn’t dare contemplate it. We needed to keep cool heads until …

The final whistle blew. I couldn’t believe it. We’d done it – we’d won the Wembley Cup for the second year running! We’d fought back from 3–1 down to an unbelievable victory! The crowd roared its approval, and every moment felt like I was walking through the dream I’d spent most of my life practising for.

I collected my winners’ medal from our manager Martin Keown, and then, as team captain, I took my place at the centre of the winners’ podium, with friends, family and football legends – my teammates – either side of me. I grinned at the camera and to all the people watching at home, with my hands hovering above the trophy, before I lifted it triumphantly above my head, just as I’d seen so many FA Cup, World Cup and Champions League winners do on TV. The fireworks went off with a bang, the flamethrowers lit up, the glitter cannons rained the shiny stuff down on us and we all started jumping up and down as the celebrations began. It was every bit as crazy and awesome as I’d ever hoped for.

It was quite simply the best moment of my life.

So, how on earth did this happen? How did a kid who at one point couldn’t even get in his school team end up playing at Wembley Stadium in front of 20,000 people? How did someone who spent his life playing computer games and making YouTube videos get to play football in the same side as World Cup- and Champions League-winning players?

How did the creator of a YouTube channel write an introduction to his book that reads like the start of a professional footballer’s memoir?

I’m part of a growing movement of people who, despite fervently supporting a Premier League team and loving the sport at the top level, want more from the game than what the Football Association and FIFA serve up. With my YouTube channel Spencer FC and my Hashtag United team I’m a football club owner outside the traditional football structure. I’m putting out football matches that are drawing audiences bigger than many professional clubs, and I’ve been lucky enough to do that alongside the great friends and family I’ve played football with for decades.

I’m doing it because I love it. I love video games, I love making YouTube content and I live and breathe this beautiful game of ours. In our community – the world that millions of YouTube creators and viewers inhabit – we connect the dots between all of this and engage with the game and the audience in ways unlike anyone has before.

As my Twitter bio reads, life’s a game called football and I intend to play it. Over the last few years I’ve changed the game so I can play by my own rules and map out my own road to Wembley. This is how I did it …

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Alright, mate, how you doing? Welcome to my story, and like any good story, it makes sense to start at the beginning.

Believe it or not, I wasn’t always football mad. In fact, it really amazes some people considering how much my life revolves around it now that I didn’t really get into football properly until I was 12 or 13 years old. If you compare that with my older brother Seb, who was obsessed by the time he was 5, playing at a very high level and smashing it by the time he was 12, you can see I had a lot of catching up to do.

My dad, a lifelong West Ham supporter, did his best to get me into it, of course. He took me, Seb and my younger brother Saunders to West Ham games, and I loved going to Upton Park – it was a great day out with the family, with the roar of the crowd and the kind of cheeky language on the terraces you definitely didn’t hear at home – but I had no urge to watch the game on TV, let alone play it. I just wasn’t that bothered about it.

But that all changed for me massively during 1998, which was a big year for football: firstly, it was the World Cup in France, and secondly, it was the year I properly got into the video game FIFA: Road to World Cup 98.

I watched the England games during the World Cup with my family, and we’d all gather round the TV and cheer the lads on – legends like Tony Adams, Alan Shearer, David Beckham and Michael Owen. When England played Argentina in the last 16 of the tournament, we were all perched on the edge of my mum and dad’s bed going mad at the game. Michael Owen gave us all hope with an unbelievable goal – that was his special moment and I idolised him for it (I also kind of loved that his surname was the same as my middle name) – and then came Beckham’s kick on Diego Simeone … oh no! Becks was sent off but England were brilliant, fighting for everything and drawing the game 2–2. But when they went out on the dreaded penalties, I was in tears. So much for not being bothered.

Moments like this started to add up (not always with tears, of course), and then there was FIFA 98. I’d played video games before, things like Mario Kart and GoldenEye, but playing FIFA with Seb was the next level.

We’d play the game against each other in two-player mode on the PC, long before you could compete online, and Seb would use the keyboard and I’d have the mouse. It was basically a stitch-up, as it was close to impossible to win on the mouse. You had to physically move the mouse to move the player, so I’d move the mouse one way to move my player … and whack into the keyboard. I’d go the other, and the mouse would go off the desk. Seb was better than me by a million miles anyway, so I didn’t stand a chance. But it didn’t put me off. I loved it, and I kept chipping away, playing and losing all the time but slowly getting better. What’s the old phrase, ‘You either win or you learn’? Well, I guess in this case you could say Seb well and truly took me to school.

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FIFA inevitably led to Football Manager (which was called Championship Manager back then), and that’s where I started getting properly hooked. It’s difficult to play Football Manager without an obsessive streak, and it takes over lives – I’d come home from school and go straight upstairs to play it for hours on end. But the thing about Football Manager is that it’s a singular obsession. You get so invested in it, and it means so much to you, but you could turn to the person sitting next to you at school, who is just as much a Football Manager nut as you, and say, ‘Mate, you don’t understand. Batistuta scored thirty goals for me in my first season, but then I got in this other guy and he scored forty – it was amazing!’

And this person will just say, ‘Sweet, mate.’

He doesn’t care at all. He’s not invested in your game like you. He’ll tell you about his own game and you’ll be rolling your eyes and saying, ‘Sweet, mate,’ too. The internet has changed all this now, obviously, but back then the life of a Football Manager obsessive could be a lonely one.

When I started secondary school, it was at a different school to the one most of my mates were going to. They went to the private school nearby, while I did my 11-plus exams and applied to a couple of really good grammar schools in the Essex area, one called KEGS (King Edward VI Grammar School) – up there with the best in the country and closest to home – and another called Westcliff, which was bloody miles away. I ended up at Westcliff.

For the first few years of secondary school I was up at six o’clock in the morning to catch a bus that basically took the scenic route around the whole of Essex so I could get to Westcliff. Added to the fact that I was a bit gutted to be going to this school without any of my mates there, I didn’t take to things very quickly. At the end of my first week, my mum asked, ‘How’s school going? Have you made any friends?’

I said, ‘Yeah, I have. There’s this one guy, he’s a really good lad. I always have a good chat with him and we spend a lot of time together.’

‘Oh, yes. What’s his name?’ said Mum.
‘His name’s Bob,’ I replied. ‘He’s the bus driver.’

We laugh about this now, but back then, while it might be a bit hard to believe, I wasn’t always the chatty, confident guy you see on YouTube. I’ve always been a bit of an attention-seeker – call it middle-child syndrome if you like – and I loved doing school plays and things like that. I was a bit of a geek too, into things like Warhammer and joining the school quiz team, but I struggled at first with being the new boy. Football would change all that.

Playing Football Manager had given me an education into the game, all the teams, the players, the stats – the amount of information you can absorb in football is crazy – but now I wanted to play the game in real life too.

One thing I’ve had throughout my whole life is a good attitude. When I get into something, I always give it my best. Now, that’s great, but at some point you have to get some ability, right? Coming to football so late meant I really didn’t have any, so I thought to myself, I’m going to catch up – I’m going to get as good as the other guys.

If you’ve ever read a footballer’s autobiography by someone like Wayne Rooney, who talks about obsessively kicking a ball against the wall of his grandmother’s house when he was a kid, imagine an unbelievably bad version of that and you’re still not close to where I started in my back garden.

Gradually, I found a group of mates to play football with at lunchtime. In English lessons, I’d scribble down England XIs or Premier League XIs in my rough book with the lad sitting next to me. All we talked about was football. Things changed at home, too. Seb and I hadn’t got on all that well as kids, but football started to bring us closer together, even if there was still a huge gap in our skill levels, and we started to bond and become really close friends.

By this stage, I was hooked on football – but I wasn’t satisfied. Playing at lunchtime or in the garden was fun, but I wanted a more competitive opportunity. I needed to join a Sunday team. After an unsuccessful trial with Seb’s team, Brentwood Boys, I eventually started playing for a club called Hartswood Stars. By ‘playing’, I mean mostly training and watching from the sidelines. I think in two seasons with Hartswood Stars I might have started just three games. It was slow progress.

When I was 14 we moved house. We relocated from Brentwood to a small village near Chelmsford called Little Baddow, so I needed a new club (probably for the best – if this had been Football Manager then the virtual me would have handed in a transfer request a long time ago on account of not getting enough game time!). There was a local team called Heybridge Swifts. The men’s side were a good team, semi-pro, but the kids’, well, they were a bit more average – which meant I had a chance.

I was the new boy once again. I was nervous at first, worrying about whether the other kids would like me, though mainly I was worrying about whether I’d get in the team. I needn’t have worried about the latter, as I got in the team quite quickly because the manager loved me for my good attitude (I was super-keen) and the fact that I was never late to training.

I was right to worry about the former, though, as I don’t think the other kids in the team particularly liked me. Not because I was a bad kid or anything, but it was more that they all went to the same school and knew each other from there. I was quiet and shy at the time, certainly in the football world. They would have been shocked if they’d known I loved performing in school plays.

There was another reason, aside from my attitude, that helped me get into the starting line-up. At that age, the one thing no one was really doing was heading the ball properly. A huge, up-and-under goal kick? Forget it – few 14-year-olds fancied planting their head on the end of one of them. So I saw an opportunity. I was playing left-back at the time – a position people aren’t exactly queuing up to play – and I’d make sure I got up into the centre circle and headed the ball back each time. I was tall for my age, which meant few people had a chance of beating me in the air, and this made me invaluable to my team. I’d practise at home, too, and I’d even score a few headers as I improved. But my feet, well, my feet were terrible.

Being stuck out at left-back meant I was in the position where I could do the least amount of damage possible, which was just as well because I was right-footed. Playing there slowly but surely improved my left foot, however, which meant that eventually I could claim to be two-footed, just as long as you understand that meant I was equally bad with both feet.

Now, when I talk about this team being ‘local’, what I actually mean is they were an eight-mile bicycle ride away. My mum and dad worked long hours while my brothers and I were kids, so they weren’t usually around to give me a lift to training, but I didn’t care. Football was my entire world by this stage, and I would cycle eight miles there after school and I’d get the bus home with my bike when it was too dark later on.

One evening after school, I was cycling to training on the pavement when my wheels locked and I suddenly skidded and went flying off onto the road, straight in front of a car. The car only clipped my wheel, but it sent me into the path of another vehicle. My heart was in my mouth for a split second, time seemed to stop … before I went over the bonnet and crashed to the ground.

I was unbelievably lucky, not that you’d have thought it if you’d seen the state of me. I gingerly got to my feet, trembling and with blood streaming down the side of my head and pouring from my knee, gravel-marks peppering my legs. My bike was in a sorry state too, in a crumpled heap by the kerb with the front wheel bent and buckled.

The driver got out of his car and came running up to me. ‘Are you OK?’ he asked, his eyes wild with panic. ‘Do you want me to ring an ambulance?’

I only had one thought in my head, though.

‘I’m going to be late for training,’ I said to the guy, who looked dumbstruck. I was only about a mile away, so I grabbed my bike, which was totally unrideable, and just threw it over my shoulder and ran the rest of the way to training.

I staggered into training ten minutes late – I’d never been late before – and all I could think was, I’m not going to play at the weekend now because I’m late. As soon as I saw Sean, the manager, I said, ‘Sean, I’m really sorry …’

Sean looked only a little less unsettled than the driver that hit me as he surveyed my battle damage. ‘What the hell happened to you?’

‘I got hit by a car,’ I said, gasping to catch my breath, ‘but it’s OK, I’m here now. I can still play.’

After giving me a once-over, Sean realised that somehow I’d managed to avoid any long-term injury, and rather than worrying about the state of mind of a blood-soaked left-back declaring himself fit for training, Sean was impressed by my attitude. So impressed, in fact, that the following week he decided to make me captain of the team.

Now, being captain of a football team at any level demands certain qualities. A talkative captain can inspire his teammates with bold words, and if you’re not the most vocal player you can lead by example, though then you probably need to be the best player. I wasn’t the most vocal, as I was still the new kid in this group and we weren’t friends outside the team, and I definitely wasn’t the best player. I just had the best attitude, and that’s not enough, in my opinion. You need a bit more than that, and so it proved as I found out the hard way.

The other kids hated the fact that I was captain, so about halfway through the season the captaincy was quietly moved on to another player. I wasn’t sorry to lose it, and nor were the other players. It was a nice gesture from the manager making me captain, and he would go on to name me Manager’s Player of the Year a couple of times for the team. I never won the Players’ Player, of course. That goes to the best player. Being popular never hurts either.

I did get a lot better, though, and I would eventually fully justify my place in the team. The key to this was very simple. I’d go out into the back garden again and again, on my own, and just practise. When I wanted to get better at slide tackling, I’d go out there and kick the ball in front of me and then slide tackle the ball against one of the most accommodating opponents there is: thin air.

Once I turned 15, the next step was trying to get into the school team, which was a much higher level of football. After seeing that I was one of the better players in the air, Mr Williams, our PE teacher who ran the team, attempted to try to turn me into a target man. For some reason our year group lacked strikers, and so they tried to fit a round peg into a square hole. I was playing left-back on Sundays and up front for my school in the week. Needless to say, I don’t think I ever scored a goal for Westcliff, and even though I may have notched up a few cheeky assists, the experiment would go down as a failure. I definitely wasn’t a striker.

As I approached the end of Year 11, Seb had gone to university and my younger brother Saunders wasn’t into football – he loves it now, but he wouldn’t get into it until he went to university himself, where he had even more catching up to do than I did. I would come home from school and say, ‘Saunders, come and play football with me in the garden,’ and he rarely wanted to. He was massively into his music and was usually playing the drums or mastering some other instrument, so I’d be off to practise rabonas or penalty kicks against thin air once again.

I was obsessed, and when I wasn’t playing football I was playing football video games. By this point Seb and I had moved on to the Pro Evolution Soccer series of games. I never really beat Seb at PES until I was 15, and even then we’d play 30-game marathon sessions and I’d maybe win two or three games. We could never end on me winning, though. If I beat him there’d always be one more to play. Older brother’s prerogative, I suppose.

Over the course of Seb heading off to uni, where he played lots of PES with his mates, and my doing the same a few years later, I eventually got better than him at the game, and when we played I’d smash him every time. And what happened then? Seb didn’t want to play any more. I couldn’t believe it. ‘What do you mean?’ I’d say. ‘I’ve stuck it out for the best part of a decade losing to you, using the mouse while you had the keyboard on FIFA, which is what’s motivated me to get so good, and now you don’t want to play any more?’

That’s right: he didn’t. He saw himself as a winner and that’s all he likes to remind me about now, his hammering me game after game when we were kids – even though I beat him every time when we play FIFA on my channel now!

Back at school, I was still going at it on Football Manager, too, not that anyone cared outside my little bubble of a bedroom. Oddly enough, I always had a little niggling thought at the back of my mind when I’d play: What am I doing? Why am I spending all of this time on something that won’t lead anywhere?

I’m a pretty efficient guy – always have been. It’s why I’ve never really got into playing golf. Seb loves it, but I’d rather play a couple of games of football or really smash it on the squash court, have some full-on exercise, burn some calories and then get on with my day. I was the same as a kid – except when it came to video games.

I wouldn’t have let myself do anything else that had no real end point to it, but still I would allow hours and hours of my day to be sucked up by football games. Football Manager is a black hole where time is concerned – a thrillingly magnetic one too, of course – but the way I like to justify it these days is to think about the game as a metaphor for life: You can work hard at it and win the Champions League ten seasons in a row, but one day your game’s going to freeze and you’ll never play it again, and you’ll ask yourself, ‘What was it all for?’

So you can either do it to the best of your ability and absolutely smash it, even though one day it will be over and no one will even care, or you can just not bother. And that’s how I feel about life.

Of course, this kind of philosophical reasoning didn’t exactly wash with my mum and dad. They never tired of telling me that I was wasting my time playing video games, and if I ever misbehaved they confiscated the games as a punishment.

What none of us realised at the time, though, was that playing these games was actually super-valuable: all those hours spent on FIFA, PES and Football Manager were just preparing me for my job. Without that time spent playing those games just for the love of it – no one dreamed of making a living from their own YouTube channel back then because it just wasn’t an option – I wouldn’t have been able to do what I do today.

While Mum and Dad might not have been too encouraging when it came to video games, they certainly instilled a strong work ethic and competitive nature in me and my brothers. Both my parents worked long hours. My dad ran his own business doing refrigeration and air-conditioning installation, while my mum worked at Ford Motor Company.

Dad started from nothing, really, and he began his career as a British Gas apprentice, but he was destined to be his own boss. Even while working as an apprentice he was running his own burger van in the evenings. He’s had a number of different businesses throughout his life, and he’s never been scared to try something new or back himself. His entrepreneurial spirit meant that I didn’t grow up thinking I had to follow a clear path from school to university and get a ‘solid’ job like a doctor or lawyer. Dad’s example meant that I knew I didn’t have to just accept the status quo and do what everyone, including the teachers at school, tells you to do. I knew I didn’t have to follow the crowd.

Many years later, in 2013, I went to the FIFA Interactive World Cup in Madrid, which is basically the World Cup for the FIFA video game. I wasn’t there as a competitor (I’m a good player, but I’m definitely not a pro-level player). I was there more as a type of journalist, I suppose.

While I was there, I played a one-off game against Alfonso Ramos from Spain, a guy who was, at the time, the only person to have won the tournament twice. A two-times world champion. Before we played I challenged him by saying,

‘If I beat you, you have to give me your World Cup-winning shirt and sign it saying I’m better than you.’

He agreed … and I won the game! I beat the world champion thanks to an Andy Carroll goal – the West Ham connection seeing me to the biggest FIFA victory of my life. I couldn’t believe it. Alfonso was as good as his word, and he sent me his shirt on which he had written: ‘You’re the best FIFA player in the world.’ It was an amazing moment for me, and it somehow seemed to make sense of all that time I’d spent playing the game as a kid.

I couldn’t wait to tell my dad after the game, and I texted him straight away: ‘I’ve just beaten the world champion at FIFA. So much for a wasted childhood, eh?!’

It didn’t take long for Dad to reply.

‘Well done,’ he said, ‘but with all that time you could have been great at snooker.’ I think that’s what they call a generational divide.

I got my first taste of internet fame when I was at school – and it had nothing to do with football. I started filming music videos of myself miming to pop hits in my mum and dad’s attic. Some were funny, or at least I think they were, and some were just pure cringe. When I showed my mate Pete some of them when he was round at my house, he said, ‘Can you send me them on MSN?’ (This was way before WhatsApp. Back then, MSN was the place to be to chat with your mates after school.)

I should have sensed a stitch-up a mile off, but instead I sent them to him in good faith and pure naivety. And he went and uploaded them to the internet. Cheers, Pete! One of them, my rendition of ‘Don’t Stop Me Now’ by Queen, went viral and got something like 600,000 views (this was a lot back then) on Google Video (the precursor to YouTube). Featuring me topless and my super-skinny teenage frame on display, this video was definitely not meant for public consumption.

It got played in school assembly, much to my horror, and someone even came up to me when I was playing snooker in Chelmsford and said, ‘You’re the kid from “Don’t Stop Me Now”.’

Yet another reason why greatness at snooker was always likely to elude me.

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TOP 10 VIDEO GAMES

Image Football Manager (formerly Championship Manager)

This game has taken up more time than any other game I’ve ever played – and even now I’m still addicted.

Image FIFA

Introduced me to video games in general, as well as the pitfalls of using the mouse against Seb, and was a huge catalyst for my YouTube career.

Image Pro Evolution Soccer

Not what it used to be, but in its prime this game was as good as anything else out there.

Image Mario Kart

We’ve all suffered from a bit of Mario Kart rage from time to time. What a game.

Image GoldenEye

The legendary first-person shooter. One of my first N64 games.

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Image Shenmue

This Dreamcast game didn’t get the credit it deserved, but it was without doubt one of the most in-depth and ahead-of-its-time games I’ve ever played.

Image Call of Duty

I’ve played many different iterations of this franchise, but this, along with Mario Kart, is the only game in my top 10 that I’ve played a lot with my girlfriend Alex.

Image Virtua Tennis

I love this game, and it would be higher up the chart if it wasn’t such a lonely experience for me – I rarely had anyone else to play it with.

Image Super Smash Bros

Quality game, incorporating all of your favourite Nintendo characters. Ideal for a group – my best bud Manjdog and I grew up playing this.

Image Grand Theft Auto

No Top 10 would be complete without GTA, one of the most revolutionary games of all time. It wasn’t just a game – it was another universe.

Special mentions: TopEleven, WrestleMania and Fuzion Frenzy

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Since my obsession with the game began, I always wanted to start a football club. Now, that’s a lofty ambition in anyone’s eyes, I know, but after I sat my GCSEs in 2005 and school was out for summer, my time playing for Heybridge came to an end. A lot of youth football teams finish when the players turn 16, and Heybridge was no different. It means a lot of lads often stop playing the game for good at this time too.

Not me though. My only thought was: No way am I stopping playing football – I’ve only just got into it.

A lot of my mates from school were in the same boat, so I decided to start a team myself. I rounded all of my Westcliff mates up, but we were still short of numbers, and that’s when I decided to give Faisal ‘Manjdog’ Manji a call. Faisal was my best friend at primary school. His parents would work long hours just like mine, so we would go to the Late Stay after-school class where we’d do our homework and hang out. We had lost touch over the years, as he’d gone to the other grammar school, KEGS. Luckily, his team had just finished up too, and he was able to bring along five or six lads from KEGS with him to play. Things were starting to look promising.

However, getting a squad together was just one of the challenges that presented itself. I also had to secure our place in a league by proving that I was eligible and organised enough to run my own team at 16 years of age, which involved going to a meeting with the local FA. I put on my smartest clothes, polished my shoes and even put a comb through my hair. This was serious, after all. I was ushered into a dark room, where a load of old, grey men with notepads sat at a table staring at me very seriously. I remember thinking at the time that it was strange how a group of pensioners got to decide the fate of youth football teams, but that wasn’t something I had any control over. I had to make a case for us being able to start this football team, so I cleared my throat, put on my most severe face and told them why they should let us join the league.

I walked out with the green light to start the team. I was buzzing. We still needed money, though. Even at youth level, running an amateur team can be an expensive business with costs such as kits, balls, pitch rental and referees. I was on a roll with officialdom, so I arranged another meeting, this time with the local council who were offering grants for new initiatives in the area. I had to convince the council that their money would be put to good use by helping us extend our amateur football careers.

‘Look, we’re all sixteen, and we just want to play football. You wouldn’t want us milling about on the streets with nothing better to do now, would you?’ Whether a bunch of grammar-school kids on the streets would strike fear into the heart of anyone was a moot point. But it worked. I got a £500 grant which went a long way to securing our new team’s future.

I knew just the place to find a manager, too. My dad is a qualified sports injury therapist at pro level, and there’s not much he doesn’t know about the game. I asked him to be the gaffer, and he was delighted to do it. He kindly offered to sponsor the team which would also help to push his business. I told you he was an entrepreneur. He wanted to name the team after his company, Carmichael-Browns, but FA rules prohibited sponsoring youth teams, so we got round the rules by calling the team Carmichael-Browns Athletic. We could certainly justify giving the team our family name, even though everyone today thinks the team, which we called CBA for short, stood for something else: Can’t Be A****.

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Things felt like they really came together for me that summer. I got pretty good exam results after working harder than I ever had for my GCSEs, but football was the real catalyst. We now had a team, and I was hanging out with a great bunch of lads. I was spending a lot of time with the boys from KEGS, as they lived closer to me than most of the Westcliff lads, and on the last day of summer before we all started sixth form we were mucking about in Chelmsford, having a laugh, when one of the boys said, ‘Why don’t you just come to KEGS?’

If only! Going to KEGS would have saved me an hour-long commute each way to school, and when I’d been unhappy in my first couple of years at Westcliff, with only Bob the bus driver to chat to, I’d applied each year to get in – and always just missed out. It was a tough school to get into at the best of times, let alone on the last day of summer with school starting the next day.

‘Yeah, but what have you got to lose?’ asked my friend. So I rang up KEGS, more as a bit of banter with the guys than anything else, and when a man I would later discover to be the deputy head answered the phone I said, ‘Hello, I was wondering if I could come to your school, please.’ I even said it in a comedy voice. I turned to my mates, laughing, expecting the line to go dead at any second.

To my amazement, he asked for my GCSE grades, and upon hearing them said, ‘Yes, well, I think we can fit you in. Come to the induction day tomorrow and if you like it, you can start.’