Lovers of calcio are all well aware that football is a great deal more than a game. Sometimes it can be difficult to put that notion into the right words or to expound persuasively on its likeable intricacies to someone who doesn’t quite get it.
Ever tried explaining the offside rule to your significant other, attempted to describe how seminal Diego Maradona’s Hand of God goal is to the context of the entire sport or rambled on fervently about where you were, and the emotions you felt, when your favourite player scored that goal against a ferocious rival?
We can probably all relate to one of these vignettes in one way or another.
For some, it’s a state of mind like no other. For others, it’s a manifestation of unrivalled escapism; a place to go when you’re feeling down to have a kick-about with some mates. Whatever it means to us individually it’s clear that it’s always a source of intense debate and a world we can delve deep into for satisfying topics of intrigue and excitement.
It might always be a case of 22 players doing battle on a pitch, but it’s never simply that.
Often mirroring society, it springs up stories, chapters and plot twists at every turn of the page, so when the ground-breaking AC London came to the attention of These Football Times it was clear that this was a story worth pursuing.
We’ve unearthed some real gems who have attempted to put their own spin on how clubs should be operated, what their function ought to be and why they need to exist, and AC London are the latest incarnation making some phenomenal strides.
If ever there was a club attempting to instigate real change and challenge the status quo of modern-day football, then this is surely it because they are really pushing against the grain with some style – and they’re achieving impressive milestones in a way many can’t help but doff their caps to.
So, what are they all about, I hear you asking?
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Well, for starters, they’re a non-league outfit who were brought into the football world for only £1 a few years ago and are run, managed and chaired by a solitary omnipotent figure – the record-breaking Prince Choudary. He’s also their founder and one of their key squad members who became the youngest manager and chairman in youth football at just 16.
Their goal is simple: to become a top team. However, they’ve also set their sights on doing so via a rocky road of philanthropic activism and flickering revolution.
It’s quite a full-on role that gives the task-swamped 21-year-old plenty to do on a daily basis but, as he tells me himself, it constantly replenishes him with the added sustenance to keep pushing forward, and his hectic life does have its luxury pluses.
“Personally, for me, breaking all these records isn’t important. Nonetheless, it’s a massive honour being the youngest chairman, founder and manager of a senior football club. This is an achievement that is a bit surreal and one that I will look back on when I retire. There are hundreds and thousands of football clubs out there but this shows that AC London is a little different. Chairman is the most stressful role at any football club, the only perk is that I can’t sack myself as manager,” Choudary jokes.
They might be a humble, lower-tier side but they are towering above many of the so-called bigger clubs on the British football ladder with their ingenuity, drive and tinkering invention. After all, they have impressively managed to transform themselves from amateur to semi-pro within just three years when, as Choudary tells me, they were laughed at for attempting to do so in five. Already they’re ahead of themselves and pushing to keep going on an upward curve, which is a testament to their desire to continually improve, a recipe that should see them continue to deliver on their objectives.
The juggling football aficionado Choudary himself hasn’t lost sight of his own playing career through all his various duties, however, and feels he still has a bright future ahead of him as a footballer but is unselfishly eager to put his self-created project first.
“For myself to start right at the bottom of amateur youth football to rise to senior football in such quick time has been unbelievable and I have had several offers from higher leagues including many professional clubs, some offers that I would never have dreamed about but at the moment I feel I need to gain more experience and lead AC London to success before moving on. Nonetheless, I do appreciate the efforts made by several clubs to obtain my signature.”
Getting back to basics, I want to find out the full story behind how the club came to life and uncover exactly how such a forward-thinking project kicked on so vigorously from being jumpstarted for a single pound by a teenager to becoming a side who regularly played in the Crystal Palace National Sports Stadium up until recently (and plan to return there soon), have current Celtic manager Brendan Rodgers as an ambassador and who’ve set their sights on becoming the first club at their level to appoint a female assistant manager for the forthcoming season.
“It all started when I was going to play football and no-one had a ball with them so a friend who was leaving the ground had a football and looked absolutely shattered. I gave him my drink and gave him a quid on top to borrow his ball. He was delighted and we had a football. There were about 20 of us so I said whoever wants to play has to pay 50p. I invested whatever I made back, made it a regular thing and it just grew rapidly since then and I’ve never looked back.”
The willingness to look for new and outside-the-box ways of thinking has clearly been there from the start and it’s continuing to burn brightly a few years on from that day when a group of football lovers got together to, perhaps unwittingly, start a club which is on the cusp of becoming a real beacon of inspiration to the wider football community.
Right now, though, they are concentrating on navigating their way out of the lower-tier mire with some brave on-pitch methods and approaches. After all, as good as they have been off the pitch, they have not lost sight of how important it is to maintain an intelligent strategy when it comes to match day preparation and so much more.
Positing a philosophy that models itself very closely on Dutch Total Football, they’re willing to aim high in a way that keeps the players and their fans happy, too, because it has served up some attractive football along the way to date.
“I believe that the most difficult thing about a football match is to make an opponent play bad football,” Choudary argues.
“To play well, you need good players but a good player almost always has the problem of a lack of efficiency. He always wants to do things prettier than strictly necessary. Playing football is very simple but playing simple football is the hardest thing there is. In England, 99 percent of the clubs at higher level would reject a player simply because he’s not big enough. At AC London I want to achieve greatness with the players that were told they are not good enough, hidden talent. We will develop the technical players into brilliant all-rounders.
“I look at AFC Wimbledon who started out in our league and are now playing in League 1. They climbed the pyramid using a different style of football [to ours] but we will be using a total opposite style and with the current staff and players I have, the sky’s the limit. It’s better to fail with your own vision than with someone else’s – that way I can be satisfied and say I tried.”
Indeed, it’s an admirable end goal to have in sight and it’s clear that Choudary has the self-belief, as well as the confidence in those around him, that the club will continue their meteoric rise into the next tier – and soon. If the Football League system is a chaotic ladder, AC London are looking to climb it one rung at a time by way of some smart organisation.
As briefly alluded to earlier, football can prove quite an accurate barometer of how certain sections of society are feeling about particular topics – and so it is proving with AC London.
Today’s Britain is undeniably one of political and social upheaval with plenty of uncertainty and mystery surrounding the many issues facing it right now. There are no quick fixes, no rescue remedies at hand to smoothly resolve and heal the open wounds on show to the world and there are sure to be powerful shockwaves echoing down the ages due to the seismic events – Brexit in particular – which have unfolded across the Land of Hope and Glory in recent times.
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That said, if one believes that football has the capacity to make real change and influence society (for better or for worse), then this club are a small sliver of light poking through at the end of the dark tunnel that has been 2016. Indeed, their multicultural make-up of over 25 nationalities is an inspiring microcosm of what a diverse group of driven, Britain-based people can do when they put their minds, and their spirit, to work together in synergetic harmony.
“We have players from all over the world from Spain to Sierra Leone, Colombia to Cameroon, Portugal to France and so on. Despite many people envying our movement, the truth is three years ago AC London were playing in a youth league and I was playing in goal in our first season as a football club. Playing on park pitches where we had to clear up dogs’ mess, sticks and stones as a warm up. Four years later we are competing in one of the best semi-pro leagues around. The rise has been remarkable and long may it continue. For me, the boys get on really well with one another.
“Despite me being younger than many [of the players], they see me as their father figure and see their team-mates as brothers. The sad reality of Brexit is we are telling people that we don’t want them in our country. Many left their families at a young age to come to the UK and work their socks off to send money back home. I see it as they are doing the society a favour, and what’s wrong with that? They pay their bills, they work hard and send money back home yet sadly we have voted out of the EU. It’s a slap in the face for some of the players because they want to bring their families over for a better life. Every human strives for better days now we can just pray days change.”
It seems they have cultivated a formidable familial bond amongst the players and it’s that togetherness which could prove to be their most valuable resource moving forward.
They’re not resting on their laurels either because they have great plans in place for the future of the club and it says a lot about their passion for the project that they have the foresight to actually implement the necessary foundations and levels to see them grow.
There’s an air of surprising maturity about a club run by such a young character. Most clubs of their level wouldn’t have all the angles covered, but AC London are certainly outdoing their peers in that regard, as Choudary tells me himself.
“This season we will develop an FA Standard Youth Academy which will consist of under-8s all the way up to under-18s. The reasons for this is to ensure the club has a pool of talent we can turn to over the years as we progress through the footballing ladder and also give opportunities for youth in and around London an outlet to learn, grow and express themselves in a constructive environment. The long-term goals and aspirations of AC London is to be a stable club in professional football as well as the primary driver of youth development in England.
“We wish to be a blueprint for other non-league and grassroots clubs that want to progress through the National League system. Success is no accident. It is hard work, perseverance, learning, studying, sacrifice and, most of all, love of what you are doing or learning to do.”
Football might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but even as far as fair-weather fans and typically disinterested parties are concerned it would be difficult to completely disregard the positivity and value of AC London who are, in their own right, a speciality brew worth acquiring a taste for.
Not everyone truly understands football but at a time of social disenchantment that accompanies a frustration with how football is run by the governing bodies and hierarchical directors, there can’t be many who won’t understand why Choudary’s ambitious brainchild is one which needs to be nurtured by everyone who loves the beautiful game for its innocent purity and simple aims of giving us a platform to come together without prejudice, injustice or blind intolerance.
By Trevor Murray. Follow @TrevorM90