It is mid-afternoon on a Saturday and it is already dark at Mile End stadium. Scattered fans in the stands sip from polystyrene cups as their breath fogs in the air in front of them.
At half-time, Tower Hamlets FC, believed to be the team with the youngest average age in the Essex Senior League, are a man down. The score is 2-0 to the opposition: Walthamstow FC who beat THFC 7-0 at the start of the season.
Mile End stadium is nestled in Tower Hamlets, London’s most deprived area, a borough devastated by knife crime, which increased by 34 per cent in the past eight years; from 794 offences in 2010-2011 to 1065 in 2017-2018. This is an area where young teenagers die on the streets with awful regularity.
The orange of the boys’ kits stands stark against the grey concrete backdrop of the surround high rise flats and estates, where much of the knife crime takes place and from where THFC draws its players. The green of the pitch is akin to a small island of solace for these young men, the football club offers them a way out of their environment through sport, teamwork and a shared love for the beautiful game.
Jamil Nadmi director and co-chairman of Tower Hamlets FC came on board only a year and a half ago after a 16-year-long affinity with the game and an understanding of the backdrop to the team from his own time in the prison system.
“No-one cares about these young people,” says Nadmi, who has worked in youth clubs throughout his life and has been coaching since he was 17. “I’ve been to jail… I’ve been in the system, I broke out of it because I had good people around me, and that’s what I aim to offer as a club; give these boys a community.”
A sense of family and community is definitely felt when visiting the ground; Nadmi and Nurul Hoque, his business partner fund the team themselves, with support of small local businesses. His partner’s teenage son helps out at the ground and Jamil’s sister works in the cafe.
Jamil took on a challenge with Tower Hamlets. The average age of players on the pitch is just 18 and the team has been facing relegation. “It’s unheard of to be playing that many young players at this level,” he told Eastlondonlines. “For us the plan is always to play young players. I don’t think there is a team at this level or higher that is willing or has the confidence to play so many young guys.”
His main aim is to offer a platform for younger footballers to showcase their skills and gain valuable minutes on the pitch. Nadmi said: “These young players, there just aren’t the opportunities out there for them… We’re a bunch of genuine, hard-working boys just trying to get a result.”
The team runs alongside the college programme, called Dynamic Academy, based at Hackney Marshes- known as the spiritual home of Sunday league football.The programme teaches core subjects and offers BTEC qualifications alongside football training. It affords these boys an opportunity they wouldn’t have had otherwise.
He clearly understands the often chaotic and dysfunctional backgrounds that many young people face: “I didn’t have a dad, you know, I was from a single parent household, I didn’t have a lot. I genuinely didn’t even realise what school was – I didn’t realise I was supposed to learn… I thought it was just somewhere you go. You just go with the motion, then you get into trouble – then you are never in class, then drugs are involved, then knives and guns are involved and it’s just a slippery slope”
In the end, the Hamlets boys lost their chance to redeem themselves against Walthamstow with the match concluding 4-0. But Nadmi was not downcast.
“Winning the league for me is one of these guys going to the next level, one of our guys going on to university, that for me is success.”
“We were 2 down at half-time, a man down with 70 minutes left to play, and they came out still going for it… this isn’t a loss… I’m telling you now it is going to happen for us.”
Tower Hamlets may have lost this time, but it is clear that Nadmi doesn’t measure success by ranks on the league table. “We don’t want to win the league. If we win the league of course that’s great, but winning the league for me is one of these guys going to the next level, one of our guys going on to university, that for me is success.”
“These kids were meant to fail… somewhere someone along the line have let these down, the system has let them down, the pro-clubs that dropped them, sometimes their parents.”
One of the team, Ali Omar, was a promising young player left frustrated after getting released from Queens Park Rangers, but Tower Hamlets gave him the opportunity to do what he loves again.
Omar, 20, is from neighbouring borough Newham: “A lot of young people in this area are carrying knives and getting stabbed… when I’m training I just think about nothing else, just the game.”
“Being released as a young player was hard… but Tower Hamlets has been the opportunity of a life time – I’d say one of the best things that has happened to me in my football career. It’s so important to get those 90 minutes at any level… Uncle Jamil saw my potential.”
Jamil added, “We might not look the most presentable, the boys have got odd socks, but the heart is there.”