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Working with the Afghanistan Development Team

The regular Thursday morning of a football coach in close season is not the most exciting, dreams of the season ahead fill the mind but the concept of ‘taking a rest’ gets more stale every day. What one does not expect is a phone call asking you to cover an international friendly in 72 hours time, but that is exactly what I got.

My time with the Chagos Islands International Squad had introduced me to a whole underworld of football, a world perhaps hidden from the mass markets of football consumerism, but nevertheless, a world full of personal stories, triumphs and survival against the odds. Being part of the Chagos team was being part of the Chagos community. A group of 3rd generation islanders knee deep in oppression within our own shores, banned from a stolen motherland deep in the beauty of the Indian Ocean, all with 1 common goal – to get back home.

The Chagos adventure had hardened me to the real world, issues that were a far cry from the East Midlands Women’s Regional League of where I had been plying my trade for the last few years. It was different, it was completely different, I was balancing the future potential of the women’s game in one hand whilst winning international tournaments to enhance a political cause with the other.

‘Jon, you are the perfect person, they really need your help’ was the voice that met me on the phone.

‘Yeah of course I can help’ was my reply, always ready to give a helping hand to those in need, but what I did not expect was that over the next four days my life would be changed, I would emerge a different person with a different outlook.

During 2021 I had made a personal decision to limit my news intake, the damage of Covid still lingering and the thoughts of my own near miss with the bad end of the virus still more than clear in my mind, going into hospital fully expecting never to come back out still haunted me every night and every day, still in the recovery stages of the complications I was consumed by my illness with football being my guiding light. Focus on the football, take every step with every step and focus. So I may be forgiven for not for not knowing the full story of the situation I would soon be embroiled within.

I kind of recall catching glimpses on the TV ‘US to withdraw from Afghanistan’ and snippets on the radio about the chaos that engulfed the country, stories of bombings and fighting, yet more terrible news in an era of seemingly non-stop terrible news.

When I stop and think back, I realise a story of two different lives that later would be intertwined. On one hand in late 2021, a 14 year old girl was searching the house for her boots , more than likely shouting me. ‘Dad, what boots do I need tonight?’, ‘Bring both’, I would have replied, ‘We are on Astro tonight, but I want to do a bit of work on the grass while we still have a little bit of light’. With that, my daughter and I would have gotten into the car and zipped down the M1 ready for a night of training.

Meanwhile, halfway across the world in a foreign land, a young girl would be looking for her boots, she is the same age as my daughter, but her haste is not caused by the stress of the ever growing rush hour traffic, her mind is fixed on the unthinkable. ‘Football is all I have, it is all I live for’ she thought as the clock ticked. ‘Do not take your football kit, if they recognise you they may harm you’, they would have told her, but somehow football was more important. ‘Football defines me, it is everything I am’ she recalls thinking at the time before stuffing her old reliable dusty boots into a bag and making a run for it, saying her last goodbye to all she had ever known.

Having 24 hours to leave a country for fear of your life is unthinkable, a girl the same age as my own daughter making a run for her own life with her only belongings being the very thing that can diminish her chance of a successful escape.

‘…Football is all I have, its all I live for’ …….

Back to the present and the realisation dawned on me, in just 72 hours I would be leading a team onto a football pitch 200 miles away with a squad I had never met who spoke a language I was not familiar with and with an assistant who I would not meet until 2 hours before kick off. But never one to shy away from a challenge, I set about my task with one goal in mind – to provide the very best international experience that I could possibly deliver given the restraints and resources I had.

My first 24 hours was research, only then did the importance of the game dawn fully upon me. I sat at my laptop and read report after report, watched video after video with only one headline, that of a group of young players escaping with their families whom after a terrifying escape from their home land, had landed safely in the UK with the very starts of a scary new life in a world away from their own. I realised just how big this game was, the very first game for the Afghanistan Women’s Development team since their escape.

The names involved with this project stretched far and wide, Khalida Popal, the mother of Afghanistan women’s football had performed miracles by guiding hundreds of young footballers to safety against the odds enlisting the help of people from all over the world from people such as the reality TV star Kim Kardashian. She has personally overseen the movement of players to Australia, Denmark, Portugal and Italy. The UK group managed to escape with families in tow, 133 in total.

It ran through my mind that this was more than a game of football, this was the end goal of the mission for many of them, the snatched football boots from all the way back in Afghanistan would adorn the feet of their user and fulfil their purpose. ‘We made it’ would be the thoughts of the wearer, ‘we made it’. I had to get this right.

The drive to Dorking was long, a Saturday morning with nothing but traffic, the vast majority making their way to the capital from all over the place as the majority encroached the capital for major sporting events from play off finals at Wembley to rugby finals at Tottenham. Driving down in the blazing sun watching the scarves, flags and banners in the passing cars gave me a sense of excitement and fear, I too was going to be a part of something special, a moment in history. The match may not go down in history like the other events that surrounded me, but the game would mean so much to its competitors than anything else in the world.

The competition was unknown to me, the amazing work of a young chap called Danny Sherms had seen him create an international side within the country, Surrey International would bring the very best of the county up against the young side it would face, it would be a formidable task for the young Afghans, but somehow it didn’t seem to matter, this was not about score lines or performances, this was about the beautiful game doing what only football can do, lower boundaries and give us hope.

I was joined in the town by some one of my players, Katie, who travelled down from Derbyshire with her parents Heather and Richard, these kind hearted folk wanted to play their part to support me and the team, their help would be invaluable, especially as it turned out when it came to road safety and crowd control. I would be forever grateful for their help.

When the coach arrived in the squashed Travelodge car park, I don’t know what I was expecting, you forget in such moments the ten second fear and million questions that suddenly overwhelm you ‘What do I say?’, ‘How do I greet them?’, ‘How will they react when they see me?’, after all these were players who were being primed to represent their country one day and here was little old me, fresh from leading his Under 16s to a third place finish and a cup final back in Sheffield. I was a background man, a real Jonny Gray who sat behind the big personalities offering support and ideas whilst shedding away from the limelight.

As the girls embarked from the coach, they did not hit me as a group of players who had just endured the same awful journey I had done, they were happy, there was no other way to describe them at that moment in time, a group of happy women walked off the coach one by one greeting me with a smile and whatever words they knew to say hello to this stranger. I think it was the thing that struck me the most, the nature of the group was one of absolute respect, an innocent politeness and not a sorry face to show. I knew they were a special group from that moment, I am not sure I could have endured what they had endured and present myself in the same way, I was already inspired.

Spending a warm English summer evening with the Afghanistan Women’s team was an experience to behold, we explored the bustling (yet at the same time sleepy) little town of Dorking and the wonderful green space it provided. I do not recall a time in my life when a group of people had displayed such awe and wonder at the beauty around us. Perhaps we take for granted the everyday wonders that life has to offer, the flowers lovingly grown in the street facing gardens, the street art we see every day of our lives and barely give a second glance, but not this group of players. Every tree that takes a funny twist, every passageway that leads a twisty path and every bizarre natural wonder was examined shortly before becoming the subject of a selfie and promptly getting posted on the social media site of choice.

During a walk through some busy woodlands, the players darted about playfully, surrounded by families, I was taken about the carefree nature of the group and I could not help think to myself that our children in the UK grow up too fast, it was an odd thought that highlighted that the group had something we had lost in our modern western society, an almost innocent and adventurous view of the world. Jumping around rivers and climbing trees was joyous to watch. Perhaps the most striking element was the love that these guys had for each other, the togetherness, the joy of just being together, free and wanting to explore the world together. The whole trip was a constant example of this togetherness, it was in everything they did and everything they said. It was overwhelming.

After a meal in the town and a look around our impressive venue, we settled down for the night at the hotel and minds turned to football. I finished the evening with a first for me, an inspiring team talk in a Travelodge car park, speaking of pride and my own thoughts of how honoured I was to be there. With that we all retired to our rooms for an early night. There was not much sleep for me that night, my head was full of the day and even more of the day to come. Tactics, warm ups, kit, water all flying around my busy head, my room set out like a coaches kit room with GPS pods being charge, Veo flashing and my kit all neatly set out for the day.

Sunday morning was the day of the game, now I have never really considered what an international team has for breakfast, but I can only imagine that when the England team wake up on the day of a major match that their first thought is not about trying to get to the local Waitrose, grab a trolley and fill it to the brim with the sweetest and most chocolatey pastry items possible, but that is what we did. The walk on the breakfast run gave me a chance for the first time on the trip to catch up with Sabrija, the team captain, we talked not of the trauma they obviously had endured, but spoke football. We exchanged stories about games and about where our football journeys had began and where we wanted them to go.

Sabrija was a gentle soul, confident and assertive yet with a wonderfully subtle way about her that commanded respect whilst at the same time inspiring a confidence in all around her. You could tell why she was a team captain, she was a born leader, assured in her ways and even for such a young player in her early twenties, you could tell she was destined for great things, she struck me as having the qualities of Khalida whose actions had brought her here. Therein dawned a realisation that this group of players were being prepped for so much more than kicking a ball into a net, they were being given skills to ensure they grew up as strong individual women that thrived on independence and resilience. It was obvious to me that every individual thrived from their place in the group, yet could venture into the world confident and individual.

Game time soon came upon us, we arrived at the Dorking Wanderers ground in plenty of time, squeezing suitcases and kit into the changing room we prepped for the game, we were joined at this point by Benson Miyoba, the Woking FC Women Manager who had dedicated his afternoon to helping with the game. The players took to him almost straight away as he came in and introduced himself before going about his role in a truly professional way, I connected with him straight away as we both knew exactly what this game was about and what it meant to all the players.

The game itself was a wonderful occasion, Surrey were dominant almost from the starting whistle and it was clear that it was not going to be easy for the Afghan girls, but never have I seen such resilience, every tackle, every movement and every pass was done with the upmost dedication and commitment, never have I had the opportunity to notice that with players before, but every player was fighting with every ounce of strength and energy they could muster, every venture forward was greeted by a chorus of wonderful support and excitement from the bench behind me, every chance applauded most enthusiastically.

My nomination as ‘bag man’ was perhaps my only regret of the whole weekend, later on I would watch the commentary stream of the game and listen to the commentator accurately describe me as ‘being the busiest person in the ground’ as the heavy 3G pitch took its toll on the young players who had not been able to get much in the way of training. Cramp, knocks, twists and bruises took their toll. The team went down 4-0, but this game was never about getting a result.

As the full time whistle approached I was hit with the realisation that we had nearly ended our mission, we had come together and done what we wanted to do. As the end of the match was signalled I found tears running down my face knowing that ever single player had just achieved the impossible, travelling thousands of miles to maintain a way of life that meant everything to them,, a simple game of football that had inspired hope in every single player. There was nothing left to do but the cool downs and pack up, albeit a little delayed as the enthusiastic crowd clambered to pose for selfies and shake the hands of this inspirational team.

Two hours later after some tired yet emotional exchanges, the girls said their final goodbyes and clambered tired and half injured onto the coach, they still had time for a smile and thank you, in reality the thanks was all mine. I climbed back into my into my packed car and started the journey home, exhausted yet full of emotions that I was yet to decipher. In the coming days I would figure out that the experience had changed me, if these girls could endure and persist with all that they had then I could achieve anything, I became embarrassed that my own fight with illness had led me to feel sorry for myself for so long, I had to take the best from this whole adventure and use it to guide me.

The story of this amazing team has the power to inspire a whole generation of people, it is possible to not only endure and survive, but thrive against adversity and the story does not have to stop there for this amazing group of players.

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