Tony Carroll is rattling off names like items on a shopping list. “John Terry, Jermain Defoe, Ledley King, Bobby Zamora, Paul Konchesky, Jlloyd Samuel…” But the 54-year-old isn’t giving me his Fantasy Football team sheet, he’s going through the catalogue of famous stars to have passed through the ranks at Senrab Youth FC since he became involved with the Tower Hamlets club in 1992.
Away from the bright lights of Premier League football are the floodlights of Langdon Park School, which are currently overlooking a group of pre-teenage boys as they take part in their weekly training session on the Astroturf pitch. In Arctic temperatures and pick n’ mix kit the A-team of Senrab under-12s are practising kick-ups, shooting, and goal celebrations. Shouts from the coach of “one-two, one-two” beat like a drum into the otherwise silent night.
Tucked behind a crew of tower blocks and a throw-in away from the DLR stop, Langdon Park is an unassuming little sports centre but it has felt the tread of some pretty famous football boots in its time.
“How many is it now Tone?” A dad later asks, referring to the total number of players who have made the progression from what Carroll would describe as “young’uns” to pro football. “150 easy,” comes the gun-shot reply, fired with East End impact.
From manager, to vice-chairman, to chairman and now secretary – a role he has called his own for the last decade – Tony Carroll has been engaged in Senrab (Barnes – the street where the club first trained – spelt backwards) at all levels and is now regarded simply and reverentially as the ‘Top Man’. “What he says goes,” explains Paul Shea, the club welfare officer who’s meeting with Carroll I interrupt.
Neither seems to mind – it transpires they were just going over old ground – and I sit down on the brick wall next to them.
Carroll, a lifetime Londoner, has been involved with the game since he was 10 when, as a player, he lined up for Senrab’s arch rivals Bethnal Green Tigers. As he progressed through the age groups, Carroll regularly played matches against a young Ray Wilkins, the former England player and current Chelsea assistant manager, who at that time actually turned out for Senrab.
It was back in the 60s and Carroll was living in Old Ford in Bow having moved from Brick Lane in Bethnal Green at the age of five. “Senrab were always trying to nick me but I stayed loyal to the Tigers, they treated my family well,” Carroll says. “My dad was a pro boxer but he was also a bank robber and spent a lot of time inside. So my mum had seven kids to bring up on her own and the club looked after us a lot. I couldn’t leave them.”
He stayed with the team until he was 25 despite trials at Arsenal and two offers from Chelsea. He turned down the West London club because he had ultimate ambitions of signing for West Ham, the team he supports despite his dad trying to enrol him at Stamford Bridge. “I started following West Ham after the 64 cup final and the first game of theirs I ever went to was a 2-1 win over Chelsea. In them days you queued up and paid your money, we did car cleaning to earn the cash.”
While the club from the King’s Road had lost Carroll forever Senrab did manage to coax him over to their side some 25 years later when he joined as a manager for the under-7s side. The move came at a time of great prosperity for the club. “That was a golden era for Senrab,” he says after completing the star-studded line-up of the under-15s side from the mid 90s. “All those players were at the club.”
Did you know then that they would make it? “Of course – they never lost a game! I think they went three and a half years without getting beat. They won everything.”
“John Terry used to play in midfield then, Ledley King was at the back, and Bobby Zamora was up front,” Carroll says. “They were all nice kids.”
But his opinion of Terry has cooled – and not just because of his better known exploits. Carroll says the behaviour of the career-long Chelsea defender has changed “since he became England captain – he won’t answer any of our club enquiries and just won’t get involved.”
Carroll suddenly jumps alive at the memory of an under-9s cup victory celebration evening from three years ago involving Oscar, a Senrab player who’s now 12 and currently doing squat thrusts a few metres away.
“We had the match ball and got all the boys to sign it. John Terry’s mum, Sue, was gonna do a raffle; whoever she picks out wins it. A little kid in the B team called Par, he won it. Lynn, Oscar’s mum, comes up to me afterwards and says to me: ‘Oscar’s got the right hump, he’s jealous of Par.’” Carroll starts to smile. “’Not about the ball, but that he’s had a kiss off John Terry’s mum.’ So I went and told Sue,” Carroll now chuckles. “Oscar was just going to the loo so she waited outside and as he’s come out she’s grabbed hold of him, and gone [mimics kissing]. Then she said: ‘Now you can tell all your friends when you go to school on Monday you’ve had a snog off John Terry’s mum!’”
Everyone in ear shot belly-laughs along with Carroll, the energy and action of his story-telling make it impossible not to.
His knack for compelling speaking came in use 12 years ago to a different effect. At the time he was the chairman (“A figurehead really”) and a run in with the league secretary over poor club management had seen the club threatened with expulsion.
“We called an extraordinary general meeting and I explained to all the managers of all the teams what had happened and what was gonna happen if they didn’t vote for the committee change: [the league] was gonna fold Senrab up. They all voted for it. Then I told the secretary, the treasurer and the vice chairman to, excuse my language: ‘Fuck off.’”
That blend of bold leadership and unadorned language would prove even more critical during a hellish night four years ago that left his son in fear of ever stepping foot on a pitch again.
An on-field bust-up spiralled into an off-field gang fight with fists then knives quickly brandished. “We had a match over in Newham when this big boy – not boy, man; he had a moustache and was six foot five and four foot wide – starts calling our player Zeba all these street names, all that urban stuff – terrible.”
“Our Zeba says: ‘I ain’t frightened of you.’ But the guy just went and punched him so my son’s stood up for him. Then there was about 50 of them all in the same uniform waiting outside the two entrances. Knives about this big [demonstrates with two fingers a nine-inch gap].”
Carroll led from the front in mobilising his young players away from trouble but the incident left his son too scared to play football properly ever again.
The boss had moved into management at 33 and the role came naturally. “I was always captain, always been leader.” It’s that characteristic that communities across the country are calling out for; public leaders who can guide young children, particularly those without a male figure to look up to, into a positive way of life.
Near the end of our conversation a young boy will run over and ask to borrow Carroll’s phone to call home, which he agrees to in an instant. It’s easy to see why he has such a gravitational pull on the kids.
When the day-to-day dilemmas take their toll on Mr Carroll he can rely on Mrs Carroll for a bit of family assistance. As well as being the club treasurer Tony’s wife Sharon is an ear for many managers who can’t – or don’t want to – get hold of her husband.
“Sharon has a big involvement with the club, she does a lot of running around and to be honest with you she does too much running around. She’s different class, she should be the secretary!”
“We met when we were just leaving school at 15. Then we went out for four years and were married at 19. We’ve just had our 35th anniversary.” Carroll built his own house in Bethnal Green and lived there with his family for eight years before moving out of London to Chigwell in 1998.
Houses are not the only thing Carroll isn’t afraid of doing himself. When the club’s bank balance requires, he will put his hand in his wallet to plug the hole. With FA affiliations, insurance, and “a million other things you have to pay for” these ‘loans’ have been more frequent and larger than you might think.
“Years ago I put my mortgage in to help. We just never had any money and we had to pay for all this stuff. Some of the teams, especially the black families and the one-parent families, they can’t pay the money. And what do you do, send the kids away? You can’t do that. So I’ve put the money in myself. There was a tour last year and I paid for four kids. £400 it cost.”
When I ask if the club can offer a way out of poverty for local families, Carroll’s answer is enigmatic. “While they’re on the football pitch they’re not poor are they?”
But money is an issue. The club can’t afford to buy any kit and unless the teams get individual sponsors they have to rely on hand-me-downs. “This is where some of the footballers could really help us out where they haven’t. A set of kit comes to £600 with all the printing – what’s that to a footballer?”
We have come full circle, back on to the topic of footballers’ lives and how they spend the money Senrab helped them get. In a weird reflection I suddenly realise that in the time we’ve been talking Carroll has moved round so far that I am facing the opposite direction I was at the beginning. It seems it’s not just the young’uns he has in his orbit.