‘We are a family’: the former Spurs footballer running a team for kids with Down’s syndrome

Allan Cockram is a former Tottenham Hotspur and Brentford footballer, but that doesn’t mean he’s rich. “If only!” says the 58-year-old from west London. “We got kicked up in the air on muddy pitches for the damn love of it.” When he was playing, footballers weren’t paid multimillion-pound salaries.

Cockram always wanted to be a professional footballer and made his Tottenham debut in the old First Division (predecessor of the Premier League) against Watford in 1984. “It was almost gladiatorial,” says the former midfielder. “That excited nervous feeling when you’re in the tunnel, waiting to go out.” After leaving Spurs, he played for St Albans City and Brentford, then became a player-manager at Chertsey Town before hanging up his boots and retraining as a firefighter.

A chance encounter with a friend’s son in the early 1990s changed his life. The boy had Down’s syndrome. “I was his friend,” says Cockram. “We played football together. We built a bond.” The boy died of complications relating to Down’s in the mid-1990s aged just 14. “I vowed that one day I would set up a football club for people with Down’s syndrome,” says Cockram. “Fast-forward 20 年, and I had the opportunity to do it.”

He’ll never forget their first session in 2017. He had contacted DSActive, an organisation supporting sports initiatives for the Down’s syndrome community, and they put a notice in their newsletter. Cockram rented a community centre in west London and paid six months’ rent upfront, at £80 a week, out of his own pocket.

About eight people turned up to that first session. 今, Brentford Penguins FC 持っている 20 young people with Down’s syndrome, aged from four to 18. “We have some people who use hearing aids, are non-verbal, or can’t run, as well as kids who can take instruction and communicate verbally,” says Cockram. “We don’t turn anyone away. We are a family.”

The club meets on Sunday mornings in Gunnersbury Park. The kids run drills and training exercises, before having a kick-about, with their parents on the opposing team. “We all train together for the first half an hour,” says Cockram, “and then split into groups. And then come back together again to kick lumps out of the parents, in a game.” For Cockram, running the Brentford Penguins does not feel like work. “Sunday mornings I’m like a little child,」と彼は言います.

Watching the players progress in confidence and ability is a joy. “We had one kid who, during our first ever game, couldn’t take the noise,” says Cockram. “Now he’s singing and dancing.”

After training, the players interview each other on how it went, like a mock post-match analysis. “They’re hilarious,」と彼は言います. “I’ll prompt them on certain questions. Say, ‘What did you think of the parents today?’ They’ll say, ‘Rubbish!これは、テープに録音されたエフィーウィズダムの回想に適用すると特に強力であることが証明される手法です。

彼の最初のシーズンに, they are a community. “We all need to belong to something bigger than ourselves,」と彼は言います. “The smiles on their faces. That family environment. You see them flourish. The friendship they have for each other is crazy.”

Brentford Penguins is as much for the parents as it is for the kids. “It’s given my son self-esteem, a social life, and outside interests,” says Samantha Schmidt, whose 12-year-old, ルーカス, joined the Penguins in 2017. “It took him nearly two years before he properly joined in," 彼女が言います. “He would sit in the corner and not engage. Now he shouts out for Coach Al all the time.” The team go on trips to watch Brentford, who are in the Premier League for the first time this season and often donate tickets.

Cockram often wonders what his friend’s son would think of the Penguins were he still around. “I think about him all the time,」と彼は言います. “But I know he is looking down at us saying, ‘Brilliant. Love it’.”

When I ask Cockram what he’d like as his treat, he is in his living room. He casts around, and alights on a model Spitfire aeroplane. “I’d love to fly one of those!” He has been fascinated by the second world war since he was 14, when a football injury left him bedridden for a year. His grandmother would come and sit on the end of his bed, and tell him stories about the war.

など, one morning in February, インクルード Fly a Spitfire at Biggin Hill company arranges for Cockram to fulfil his dream. その後, I hear the euphoria in his voice. “It’s hard to explain,」と彼は言います. “The best thing to say is that it’s the closest to flying like a bird.” In the air, he thought about his uncles who’d died in the war: “You think about what those boys did. They were so young.” He was so moved by the flight that he wrote a poem about it.

The pilot did a victory roll and let Cockram take the controls. He was able to take the Penguins’ coach, Big D, and their team captain, チャーリー, along with him – and they went up in a support plane. “You should have seen them – it was fricking unbelievable!” Cockram says with a grin. “I am so happy.”

Want to nominate someone for Guardian angel? Email us – with their permission – and suggest a treat at guardian.angel@theguardian.com