Allan Cockram is a former Tottenham Hotspur and Brentford footballer, but that doesn’t mean he’s rich. “If only!” says the 58-year-old from west London. “We got thrown up in the air on muddy pitches out of pure love.” When he was playing, footballers weren’t getting multi-million pound salaries.
Cockram always wanted to be a professional footballer and made his debut for Tottenham in the former First Division (the Premier League‘s predecessor) against Watford in 1984. “It was almost gladiators,” says the former midfielder. “That excited nervous feeling when you’re in the tunnel, waiting to get out.” After leaving Spurs, he played for St Albans City and Brentford, then became player-manager at Chertsey Town before hanging up his boots and retraining as a firefighter.
A chance encounter with a friend’s son in the early 1990s changed her life. The boy had Down syndrome. “I was his friend,” Cockram says. “We played football together. We have built a bond. The boy died of complications related to Down syndrome in the mid-1990s, aged just 14. “I swore that one day I would start a football club for people with Down syndrome,” says Cockram. “Fast forward 20 years, and I had the opportunity to do that.”
He will never forget their first session in 2017. He had contacted DSActive, an organization supporting sports initiatives for the Down syndrome community, and they put a notice in their newsletter. Cockram rented a community center in west London and paid six months’ rent in advance, at £80 a week, out of his own pocket.
About eight people attended this first session. Today, Brentford Penguins FC has 20 youngsters with Down syndrome, aged between 4 and 18. verbally,” Cockram says. “We don’t turn anyone away. We are a family.”
The club meets on Sunday mornings at Gunnersbury Park. The kids organize drills and practice drills, before having a blast, with their parents from the opposing team. “We all practice together for the first half hour,” says Cockram, “then we split into groups. And then come back together to kick the parents out of the lumps, in a game.” For Cockram, leading the Brentford Penguins doesn’t feel like work. “Sunday mornings I’m like a little kid,” he said.
Watching players progress in confidence and ability is a joy. “We had a kid who, in our very first game, couldn’t stand the noise,” says Cockram. “Now he sings and dances.”
After practice, the players interview each other to find out how it went, like a post-match analysis simulation. “They’re hilarious,” he said. “I will invite them on certain questions. Say, ‘What did you think of the parents today?’ They’ll say, ‘Bullshit!’ »
More than anything, they are a community. “We all need to belong to something bigger than ourselves,” he says. “The smiles on their faces. This family environment. You see them flourish. The friendship they have for each other is crazy.
Brentford Penguins is as much for parents as it is for kids. “It gave my son self-esteem, a social life and outside interests,” says Samantha Schmidt, whose 12-year-old Lucas joined the Penguins in 2017. ‘he doesn’t join properly,’ she said. “He would sit in the corner and not engage. Now he screams for Coach Al all the time. The team go on a trip to watch Brentford, who are in the Premier League for the first time this season and often give away tickets.
Cockram often wonders what his friend’s son would think of the Penguins if he were still around. “I think about him all the time,” he said. “But I know he’s looking at us saying, ‘Brilliant. To like’.”
When I ask Cockram what he would like for a treat, he is in his living room. He launches and lands on a model Spitfire airplane. “I would love to fly one of those!” He has been fascinated by World War II since the age of 14, when a football injury left him bedridden for a year. His grandmother would come and sit on the end of his bed and tell him war stories.
And so, one morning in February, the company Fly a Spitfire at Biggin Hill arranged for Cockram to realize his dream. Afterwards, I hear the euphoria in his voice. “It’s hard to explain,” he says. “The best thing to say is that it’s the closest thing to flying like a bird.” In the air, he thought of his uncles who had died in the war: “You think about what those boys did. They were so young. He was so moved by the flight that he wrote a poem about it.
The pilot makes a victory roll and lets Cockram take control. He was able to take Penguins coach Big D and their team captain Charlie with him – and they got on a support plane. “You should have seen them – it was amazing!” said Cockram with a smile. “I am very happy.”
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