Interviews, Journalism

Troy Townsend: ‘Football needs to look at its dark side’

It was in October last year that Andros Townsend fired a low swirling shot past the Montenegro goalkeeper which virtually guaranteed England a place at this summer’s World Cup and made the team’s fans believe that the tournament might not be such a crushing disappointment after all.

For his father Troy, sitting in the stands at Wembley stadium, it was “a wonderful moment”; a reward for having spent his life working in the game and for sacrificing his coaching career to develop his son’s talent.

Meeting him for an interview it’s easy to see how much the game has taken its toll on the 48 year-old. Average height with broad shoulders, he walks with a pronounced limp, the product of an injury sustained much earlier on in his career. And despite living out most fathers’ fantasies and seeing his son play for his boyhood club, Tottenham Hotspur, every week, his relationship with football has been complicated.

Townsend didn’t pay much attention at school, choosing to spend all his free time at training sessions with Millwall FC, playing in the same side as Teddy Sherringham.

All his friends, the PE department and even his head teacher told him he would make it a professional, which made it all the more when he was released at the age of 17.

“I felt my whole world crashing down,” he recounts. “My whole life had been geared toward becoming a footballer and that was taken away from me.”

On being released he didn’t receive any support from the club and with his parents busy working to make ends meet he felt unable to reach out to anyone.

With no qualifications he spent of his days playing football with his friends, trying to adjust to his new identity, no longer the future football star.

He eventually came back to the game, working as a semi-professional coach and manager in the lower leagues, the highlight of his career seeing him take Boreham Wood on an FA Cup run which saw them face Blackpool, then managed by Steve MacMahon. Shortly after this, he was struck by tragedy.

His son Kurtis, a promising striker at Wimbledon was on his way to a match when he was killed in a car accident 12 years ago. The incident left Troy in a spiral of depression.

“Losing Kurtis gave me my darkest moments. I was in place that I never thought I would be in, and I didn’t know how to get out of it,” he says. “Football had taken away somebody from me, and I didn’t want to part it anymore. It took me a long time to turn that into a positive, but now I’m back involved and everything I do is out of love for the son who is no longer with me.”

On top of his job as Mentoring Manager at the anti-racist organisation Kick It Out, Townsend also runs a football academy and has recently worked to raise awareness of mental health issues in the game.

Over the last few months he has participated in events with Michael Bennett, the former Charlton Athletic winger who is now head of Player Welfare at the PFA.

The suicide of Wales Manager Gary Speed and more recently the death of former Tottenham Hotspur youth player Josh Lyons, who threw himself in front of a train after being released by the club, has put the issue of mental health into the spotlight.

Troy says the game needs to acknowledge its darker side.

 “As glamorous as football is, it also has a dark side,” he begins.

“I know people in the professional game who have turned to drink and drugs because of the pressures. We need to find a way of finding a way of supporting those individuals.”

“Yes there are helplines now, but when I was in my dark days I wouldn’t have called up a helpline because I didn’t want to open up to people I didn’t know. Football needs to appreciate that what we see on Saturday at 3pm is great, but there is a darker side to the game and that needs to be looked at a lot more. Otherwise incidents like what happened with Josh will continue to happen.”

WSC magazine - Mental Health - front cover

Sections of this interview are included in ‘Mind Games’, my feature exploring the the issue of mental health in football which can be found in the current edition of When Saturday Comes which is out now.

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Features, Journalism

Syria’s best and brightest are caught up in the crossfire

The article as it appeared in Times Higher Education Magazine in January 2014.

The article as it appeared in Times Higher Education Magazine in January 2014.

Syria’s higher education system is in disarray.

This may not seem particularly shocking given the many thousands who have died or been forced to flee their homes since the war began in 2011, but it is deeply depressing.

The destruction of Syria’s education system means that research has gone unfinished, students have stopped learning and the countries brightest minds have fled. As well as ruining lives, the war is also destroying the country’s future

For this feature, published in Times Higher Education, I spoke to Syrian academics who have fled their country and come to work in the UK.

They told me that universities were regularly targeted by all sides in an increasingly manic civil war and that professors were a prime target for kidnappers.

I am very grateful to THE for publishing this piece and hope it raises awareness of the work done by organisation like the Council for Assisting Refugee Academics who are supporting Syrians caught up in the crisis.

You can read the piece in full here.

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Interviews, Journalism

Gary Younge: ‘What do I tell my son after Trayvon Martin’s murder?’

In this wide-ranging interview, I explore the politics and work of award-winning Guardian journalist Gary Younge. This piece was published by Huffington Post UK back in October 2013 and can be found here.

The American government isn’t working.

By a strange quirk of the country’s political system, the Republican Party was able to shut it down and bring the world to the brink of economic catastrophe. All as part of a bid to renegotiate a piece of legislation passed three years ago.

This act was just the latest example of the work of the most unpopular congress in history. A move made by a party, which has never had a lower approval rating, in a country which, according to the majority of its own people, is on the wrong track.

Such is the state of the nation it is easy to understand why many are pining for a bygone era. A time, whether real or imagined, of prosperity, relative consensus and, above all, hope.

It is in this atmosphere that the journalist Gary Younge, author of ‘The Speech: the story behind Martin Luther King’s dream’, chose to re-examine one the most important and optimistic moments in American history.

“I wanted to revisit the moment the speech was given and look at how that moment is interpreted now,” says Younge, who believes that Dr King’s words have been misremembered.

“The speech is open to interpretation and in a sense that was the point. The country wasn’t at a stage where everyone could hear the same things and get the same message. There is something in that speech for everyone to cling to, for everyone to remember.

“For African-Americans it was a speech that is an indictment of American racism, delivered in the black vernacular by a black preacher. At the same time, it’s deeply patriotic. A dream rooted in the American dream, in the shadow of Lincoln, paying homage to the founding fathers and the constitution. So for patriots it’s something to remember. For liberals and the left it was delivered on a passionate day at the end of this huge march. And for conservatives they hang on to one line. It is remembered as a patriotic speech. A speech showing the best of America, at a time when, in many ways, the country was at its worst.”

For Younge, in order for Americans to remember King as an icon, as someone who is worthy of having a statue on the National Mall and a federal holiday in his honour, there has to be consensus about how he is remembered. And that consensus is the ‘I have a dream’ speech.

More controversial elements of his politics, his opposition to American military power and his critique of capitalism, have been largely forgotten. Meaning that people from all backgrounds, conservatives and liberals, blacks and whites, can view King as a hero. While politicians can evoke his memory even when carrying out policies of which he would disapprove.

“It does a disservice to his politics if we only remember him through that speech, but it doesn’t do a disservice to remember him as the man who delivered it,” argues Younge.

“It’s part and parcel of how history works. History isn’t just a collection of the best and the most important stories. It’s a collection of the stories that people want to hear. Part of the purpose of the book is to say there is another story to be told here. It wasn’t a popular march. America was not united behind this man. This was not all Dr King stood for. That’s my contribution to understanding a different kind of history.”

Younge has lived and worked in America for 10 years, becoming the Guardian’s foremost commentator on the United States in the process.

During that time he’s witnessed the invasion of Iraq, the re-election of George W. Bush, the rise of the Tea Party movement and the emergence of the country’s first black President.

Obama

On the eve of Barack Obama’s inauguration in January 2009, he described his election as “dramatic, implausible and impressive”. More than four years later, his assessment of his record in office is blunt: “I never invested huge hopes in him, so I’ve got nothing to be disappointed by.”

He argues that Obama’s legacy, like King’s, is being contested and misremembered even as it happens in real time.

There are those on the right who call him at turns, a fascist, a socialist, and even the devil. While some on the left claim his election changed nothing and that he is worse than Bush. Like King’s ‘I have a dream’ speech, people listen to the President speak and choose to hear the things they want to hear.

“I was in a bar on election night on the south side of Chicago in 2008 and a woman shouted ‘my man’s in Afghanistan, he’s coming home’,” says Younge.

“But Obama never said he was going to stop that war, in fact he said he wanted to escalate it. I don’t know why that woman thought that. She was reading something into his campaign that didn’t exist.”

Younge offers a more sombre, matter-of-fact assessment of Obama’s record. He says the President has governed like the man he always was: a centrist Democrat, and Younge criticises those on the left who have complained about the President, without putting him under pressure to do any different.

“Those who look at him outside of the context he is working in are doomed to misunderstand him,” he argues.

“Obama reveals the limitations of American electoral politics. An electoral politics which is heavily gerrymandered, run by money and has imbalances written into the constitution in terms of who can get elected to the Senate. There was no one more progressive who had a chance of getting elected.”

“I thought his election was a great thing and I wondered about what would happen to the people who supported him. Would they carry on marching? Would they carry on campaigning? Or would they cede their power to him? His campaign had the capacity to become a movement. If this grassroots campaign tied its aspirations to him, therein lies all forms of disappointment. But if it tied its aspirations to the changes they wanted to see, that’s a different thing. Unfortunately, people packed up and went home as soon as he was elected.”

As he turns to the failure of the left to create a movement to challenge power, Younge becomes more passionate.

“Progressive change is not going to come from the top, and I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect Obama to organise a movement himself,” he says.

“Until America has a truly progressive movement, it will be disappointed by people who seek to be progressive in its place. Occupy Wall Street redefined the economic debate away from the deficit and towards inequality. And the lesbian and gay movement forced the President to come out in favour of gay marriage and repeal ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’. Those are two areas where popular protest forced some kind of reckoning with the rhetoric that the President espoused. That’s how you do it. You don’t do it by saying that ‘now we’ve got him elected, let’s watch CNN and see how he does’.”

Race

For all his opinions on the state of American politics, Younge is much more than just a political commentator.

His work draws on a number of different areas, his varied interests informing his articles. He is just as confident interviewing South American authors, as he is analysing the workings of Capitol Hill.

Yet as with all writers from a non-white background, his work is often pigeonholed and he is criticised for returning to the same issues.

“There’s always responses to my work on the Guardian’s ‘Comment is Free’ section saying ‘why do you always write about race?” he explains.

In reality, only 20 per cent of Younge’s most recent work has been about race; this in the year of the re-election of America’s first black president and a high-profile murder of a black child in Florida.

On the night George Zimmerman was acquitted of the murder of Trayvon Martin, Younge wrote an impassioned and moving piece in which, having asked why Martin was in some way guilty for trying to defend himself when being followed by a man with a gun; he posed the question “is it open season on black boys after dark?”

The piece attracted global attention; going viral in part because the article was taken down by the Guardian shortly after it was published. It was put back up with one minor change a few hours later.

Younge describes the reasons behind the decision to take the article down as “a series of banalities which are difficult to explain on social media” and insists there was nothing sinister about the decision.

Having finished the piece at 1am, Chicago time, he sent it off to a Guardian sub-editor in Australia who put it online.

The newspaper’s Comment Editor then chose to take it down so a British lawyer could take a look at it. As Younge explains “no one wants George Zimmerman suing the Guardian.”

After Younge had got some sleep and when the lawyer’s queries had been answered, the piece was put back online.

“You could argue that we put it up too quickly,” admits Younge.

“But I would say that it was important to put it up as soon as possible. We were working on different bases. If it was an American lawyer, they would have seen it and it would have been fine because they would have been more familiar with the case.”

With regards to the trial itself, Younge says “Trayvon Martin’s murder wasn’t a surprise. In many ways it was just another day in America.”

He argues that what shocked people about it was that Zimmerman was allowed to walk away with his gun, due to Florida’s controversial ‘stand your ground’ law.

I ask Younge, whose six year-old son Osceola was born in the States, about his personal view of the case. He responds with an anecdote.

“Just the other day I was in Boston and I went back to a friend’s house late at night. I knew what number their house was but couldn’t find it on the door. So I walked up to another door to see what the number was. That kind of thing can get you shot in this country. It can get you killed,” he says; adding that the incident has made him question what advice to give his son.

“What do I tell my son? Do I tell him if someone’s chasing you and they have a gun: stand still and don’t fight? Do I tell him to run? Do I tell him to call the cops? What options do we have as human beings when this level of violence is effectively ignored by the state?”

For all his knowledge of American politics and current affairs, Younge grew up in Stevenage, England.

After joining the Guardian shortly after graduating from City University London in 1993, he wanted to be the paper’s Moscow correspondent, having studied French and Russian at undergraduate level.

It wasn’t until he fell in love with his American wife Tara Mack that his fascination with the country really blossomed.

“It’s a big crazy country where people are willing to speak to you,” he explains. “So it’s an easy place to report from.”

As with his work on Martin Luther King, it is the contradictions within America that fascinate him. How the nation’s self-image sits at odds with the way much of the rest of the world sees it.

“It’s great when you go to a small town and you tell them that you’re English and they say ‘why would you come here? No one comes here!’ And yet tomorrow in school those same people’s children will learn that their country is the leader of the free world and that everyone wants to come here,” he says.

“If I hadn’t fallen in love with an American maybe I would be somewhere else, but this is as interesting a part of the world as any. The world is fascinating.”

Gary Younge’s book ‘The Speech: the story behind Martin Luther King’s dream’, published by Guardian Books, is available now.

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Journalism, News

Tottenham’s stadium plans will force locals out of area

Tottenham Hotspur’s much discussed plan to build a new stadium could force people out of the area around White Hart Lane by driving up house prices and demolishing whole streets.

In this article for When Saturday Comes I spoke to local people about how the plans to regenerate Tottenham High Road as part of the stadium development would affect them.

Guardian journalist David Conn, who later published an in-depth investigation into the development plans, said of this article: “it’s a good piece of work; I was very impressed that you did it as a journalism student.”

You can read the full article, published in October 2013, here.

 

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Journalism, News

Manchester’s homeless problem

Walk from Oxford Road to the Northern Quarter, and the thing that strikes you about about Manchester city centre is not the impressive Victorian architecture, but the sheer number of people sleeping rough.

The city has very few provisions in place to help the homeless population. In fact, the Narrowgate emergency night shelter is the only one of its kind serving Manchester and Salford and only has a small number of beds.

In two seperate articles for the Guardian in the summer of 2013, I explored Manchester’s homeless problem.  I intend to look at this issue in more detail later in the year. For the time being, you can find the two articles in the links below.

Salford homeless shelter forced to close after funding ruling (published May 15th 2013)

Closure threat returns for only emergency homeless shelter in Manchester and Salford (published July 10th 2013)

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