Let’s be perfectly frank straight from the off – I am nobody in particular.  It’s important that we start with that, because at no point do I want this account to look as if I believe myself to be extraordinary.  Having since been offered it on local radio and in school rooms, I desire and deserve neither praise nor martyrdom.  I have no true area of expertise and no real talents.  Nothing I can say I’m truly brilliant at, at least, and if you can’t be anywhere near the best in any particular field then I don’t think that you can consider yourself to be appropriately talented within that field.  This isn’t an exercise in self-pity, however, and I should probably point out that I have no glaringly obvious flaws or weaknesses either – I’m just wholly average.

What I do have, though, is an experience that most people never will have: in a year I went from the US to Ghana via home.  I went from having nothing to having everything I could want, but my gains were only the by-products of working for something else.  Now that it’s over, I can say that it has probably taken a few years off my life, but given me a few back in wisdom.  I’ve never attempted to write a book before, so I’ll have to stick to what I know.  Aside from the names being changed, everything I write here is the truth as well as I remember it.  As I never envisaged a book, I didn’t take any notes, so this is all from recent memory – the parts that sound like boasts, the blunt statements and the embarrassing revelations.  I am a novice, with no techniques or agenda – focus on what I’m saying, not what I might be trying to say.  If I can’t be honest, there’s no point in writing it.  In fact, I am only writing this it’s unusual to start your own charity, and as such, nearly everyone I meet asks for an explanation. Here it is: we might as well start from the very beginning.

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At the end of the September of 2010 I returned to England after chasing the American Dream culminated in me choosing The Clash’s “I’m So Bored Of The USA” on a karaoke machine in a bar in Atlantic City and singing along with gusto before quitting in a blaze of glory: throwing away the chance of a 5-year P-Visa by going AWOL and hurling my exhausted ‘cell phone’ with 16 missed calls deep into Lake Musconetcong, New Jersey. I can fully appreciate how this behaviour might seem out of order at this stage, but there’ll be more on that later.

I was back in the UK with nothing. No car, living with my parents, no job, no money, no girlfriend. In fact, I had less than nothing, as I owed Scholesy $400 for the flight home.  I owed my Mum and Dad £300 for money I’d borrowed for the cost of living abroad under an incompetent and shifty boss.  I also owed the bank around £500 as I was deep into my overdraft.  I was the modern-day prodigal son.  In the eyes of a lot of people – and to some extent in my own eyes – I was a failure.  

As a result, I did spend a brief period of time sitting around despondently.  I’d gone from being able to drive into New York City in 20 minutes to not being able to afford the bus fare to go to sign on at Leyland Jobcentre and having to walk for an hour each way.  This period was brief, however, and my first weekend back had everything Preston had to offer – I had a fight on a Friday night out, I pulled on the Saturday night out, and I made a hung-over debut for a new Sunday League team the morning after, picking up the man-of-the-match award in the process.  I was definitely home.  

On a tip from someone from university, I found out that with a degree and experience with kids – which I had in abundance from coaching – you could work as a ‘cover supervisor’.  As I know that the role sounds like so many of these modern bullshit roles where the title explains nothing about the job, a cover supervisor is basically an unqualified supply teacher.  The head of the department leaves the work for the pupils to get on with, you just have to ensure that they behave and get on with it.  Towards the end of the school year, I’d managed to get several schools that asked for me personally, but the going was very slow at first, and with a lack of early morning phone calls, I spent a lot of time doing what most men do whenever they get the chance – nothing.  I was bored and in need of direction, of inspiration.

Direction and inspiration came out of the blue.  On one of these days where I hadn’t been called upon by the agency, I was flicking through the Sky Planner for something decent to watch.  On one of the more obscure channels, the name of which I can’t remember, a programme called “Football’s Lost Boys” was on.  The title caught my attention, so I watched it.  It was a documentary on the human trafficking that goes on in Africa.  There are countless illegal academies with corrupt agents, who send promising young footballers to Europe under the false promise of a trial with a European club.  The players pay a fee, usually costing their families what little money they do have, and end up stranded in Europe with no trial, no home and no way home.  They can’t afford it and are too embarrassed to return to their families even if they could.  They have no way of earning money in Europe without a visa, and are forced into illegal ways of making money.  If you’ve ever seen an African selling fake sunglasses or handbags on your holidays, there’s a good chance they were once a talented footballer.  Some even end up as male prostitutes.  It really is an abhorrent state of affairs, and I was stunned by what I saw.  As football is the only real way out of poverty for most West Africans, these illegal academies continue to flourish due to the desperation of young players.  Like I say, I was shocked by this documentary and it struck a chord with me.

Kyle Redding is my best mate, and we’ve been through a lot together.  We first met in 2004 working as part-time lifeguards and we found that we shared a mutual love for football, women and proper music.  He got me my first job in America, where we worked together before we both moved to the next company. When we decided that enough was enough out in New Jersey we quit together, both scoring in a match up in Frankford (the arse-end of nowhere) before lobbing our phones in the lake.  Kyle had been to Botswana whilst I was still at university; the first company I went out to had sent him and a couple of other lads on a ‘Coaching for Conservation’ project.  Back in Preston, he was talking about his experiences there when I mentioned that it would be good to coach in an African country with more talented players, with the upmost respect to Botswana.  

We both came up with Ghana, mainly because Accra is one of the major cities for football in Africa, and Ghana had knocked the USA out of the 2010 World Cup, and because we were at a low ebb and frustrated with America at the time, we celebrated Asamoah Gyan’s extra-time goal as much as anybody.  I remember jumping up and down with glee in our awful, falling-to-bits house in Stanhope, New Jersey when that goal went in.  We both decided that we’d look into the opportunity of coaching in Ghana.

 We had no contacts out there and no way of knowing who to help, but we came across Gap Year Volunteering.  What we liked was that they offered the chance to work at a legal academy called Prisons Service FC, where no child was for sale in order to combat the issue of the illegal academies.  After what I had seen, I knew that I wanted to do it.  I had nothing else on the horizon, I was in a position where I could help, so I decided to go for it.

In order to get to Ghana, we had to provide references from our coaching experience and list our qualifications too prove that we knew what we were doing.  We both listed Jimmy Keane, an ex-Northern Ireland international with more caps than George Best, and an absolute hero of a bloke that we worked alongside in America.  We also had to make a donation to Gap Year Volunteering, which would then go to the club and on any administration fees.  The total we set out to raise was £4,000, which would cover each of our donations.  Our plan was to go through the organisation, find our own contacts and then work directly with them in the future.

I remember one Wednesday in January when we had been coaching up at Preston Sports Arena.  We stopped off at mine with 4 pint-sized cans of Carlsberg and wrote down an itinerary of what we were going to do.  We listed all the potential events we could do and all the different avenues we could explore.  Before long we came up with a name – African Academy Aid.  Not the most creative, but it got the job done.  We created a Facebook page and sent relentless requests for people to become fans of it.  Kyle made a poster and I contacted a friend of mine, Barney Anderson.  Barney is a graphic designer, and a good one at that, although I’m no expert.  He created an amazing logo for us, for free, and we were on our way.

Thus, from an early stage we had a concept, and a platform to build on.  I didn’t know it at the time, but I was about to start the most exhausting and demanding period of my life.  Over the Christmas period, as schools were closed and I still owed money to my parents and to Scholesy, I had taken on a job as a bartender in The Attic, a bar and nightclub in the town centre.  It was only meant to be a quick earner for Christmas and New Year, but I realised that with the flights, visas, injections and malaria tablets needed for Ghana, not to mention the cost of running events, I decided to keep it going.  So for a lot of weeks I was working Monday to Friday in schools, having a quick nap on Friday evening before working until 6 a.m. on the Friday and Saturday night shifts.  Sleep was a rare treat; I lived off caffeine and naps, but refused to moan about things, as nobody was forcing me to go to Ghana.  I was burning the candle at both ends, but it was burning brightly.  

As I have already said, I returned to this country with nothing. No job, no girlfriend and in debt.  I didn’t know it at the time, but the fundraising journey for AAA inadvertently changed all of that.  I intend to outline the highs and lows experienced during those fundraising months, before explaining my emotions of living and working in Ghana.  At times I was miles away from my comfort zone in both periods, but I met so many different people and came across so many varied scenarios that I feel that I have something to say.  Ultimately, I learned that contentment comes from within, and that it is more important to be happy on the path you are taking than impatiently wanting to be at your destination.  That if you can find something to smile about on your second job when you’re truly exhausted, then you’ll always be fine.  And with so many people asking me how everything came about, I thought I might as well try my hand at writing.  Maybe I have something worth saying, maybe I don’t. You’ll have to make up your own mind.  At the very least, if you’ve purchased this book then you’ve raised money for charity, so even if you hate it, you can feel good about yourself.

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