Steve Davies, secretary of the Walsall FC Supporters' Trust, recalls his recent trip to Walsall FC Sierra Leone...
IT'S ALL JOHN KEISTER'S FAULT
Nearly six years ago, when I added John Keister as a friend on Facebook, little did I know that the journey would take me to Freetown Sierra Leone!
It all came from the Facebook add and a young man named Ibrahim Kamara, already on John's Facebook, wanting to know how I knew Keister. I explained that he played for Walsall FC and away we went with him and Abdul Rahman, talking about football. The lads would have only been 14 or so but they decided they wanted to form a football team of their own in their community and decided to call it Walsall FC.
WFC kindly donated their old Youth team kit which IC Shipping kindly sent over to them and away they went, playing local friendlies and small tournaments.
Walsall fans over here started following their fortunes via Facebook and took the lads to their hearts. In the meantime, we started collecting old items of kit to send over for them. We live in a disposable world here in the UK and sending kits and boots to SL gave them a new lease of life.
Tragedy was to hit Abdul Rahman, the eldest of four sons, as his mum died last year. His dad had died four years previously, leaving him unable to finish his studies to get the qualifications he desperately needed to get a job, in order to look after his brothers. We decided to run a raffle at the Class of 94/95 evening to help fund his course at college. He then started the course thanks to the generosity of Saddlers fans who had donated. However, he was the only student in his IT class without a laptop, and was unable complete course work away from the college. Again Saddlers fans stepped up to make a sizeable donation, which we topped up, to buy a laptop for him.
We decided that the only way to make sure it arrived safely was for me to deliver it personally - so away I went on November 5th, thankfully missing our FA Cup exit.
On arriving, the laptop was duly handed over to Abdul and we found our way to the hotel via Aberdeen beach, where thousands of people were out jogging early on Sunday morning - and I mean thousands! After freshening up, we found our way to an inter community seven-a-side match on a pitch that scared me to death, with rocks sticking up out of the barren sand surface and a four-foot drop one side of the pitch. But the skill factor was high on a difficult surface, which Boston Community made light of, beating Smart Farm 6-1!
The lads have stepped up on the pitch and they won their first-ever junior trophy a few weeks ago, which was a wonderful achievement.
A gift from Walsall FC Sierra Leone
From left to right: Steve Davies, Saddlers left-back Scott Laird and CEO Stefan Gamble
Monday morning and it was early rising for me as the lads train from 7am until 9pm. After training, the lads got to see the football polo shirts donated by Staffordshire FA, as well as the training gear donated by Adam Davy and the Walsall FC Community Programme. I had to address the players and give them a speech, which I always feel uncomfortable with, and then got to hold a medal and the cup that meant so much to the team and the club as a whole. They were, as a result of this junior cup win, able to register with the Western FA and can now apply to join the National Second Division, which is a huge step in just five years. Next stop was a local radio station to do an interview with Club Secretary Alex about why I was there and the relationship with the club.
Tuesday morning and it was off to training again, an early morning followed by a visit to a local school to give items donated by my employers, Pirelli, to the kids. We also visited the National Stadium and had a walk around one of the few grass pitches in SL.
Wednesday was matchday at the National Academy, and they had a special referee for the game - ME!
The coaches seemed doubtful that this 57-year-old would be able to survive the pace on a very hot day, but we set off across town and got well and truly stuck in traffic. Approaching kick-off time, the decision was made for the coach and myself to continue the journey on foot and then jump on the back of a motorbike to get the game started! So there we were, going through Freetown with no helmets on the back of motorbikes - a novel way for me to arrive!
The coaches, I hope, were pleasantly surprised that, despite going a deep shade of red, I completed the game, albeit cut short 15 minutes as the late kick-off meant by the end it was dark! The match ended 1-1, although our boys missed many chances to take an easy win!
After the game, it was lovely to meet the Keisters and be able to present John with his certificate of achievement on behalf of the fans. John kindly signed a SL shirt for me - I couldn't find one to fit the "pregnant white man" as someone kindly tagged me - but it was great to have a chat to John and he is hoping to come over soon to see us all.
The academy is also the home of the SLFA and has an astroturf pitch that everyone uses. In this country it would have been condemned, as it had come apart at the seams, had bumps, and was generally not fit for purpose - but when it’s all you have, you get on with it.
Thursday was beach day and my first view of the country’s beautiful coastline. On the way up there we stopped off at the Craig Bellamy Foundation to look at the facilities there. The foundation saw nine students placed on Football scholarships in the USA and UK, including Mustapha Bundu, who starred last year for Hereford FC. His dad is one of our coaches, and a very experienced one at that.
A closer look at the gift from Walsall FC Sierra Leone
One can only hope that someone takes the facility on and gets it going again, but at the moment, our British friend Simeon Hartwig's orphanage team are the only ones training and playing odd games up there. Some of the boots that were donated will be finding their way to Simeon's kids and some kit. Everyone shares in Africa!
The beaches are something else - truly hidden treasures - and the trip to the Chimpanzee Rescue sanctuary was also well worth the visit.
Saturday night we arranged a farewell party and invited all the players’ girlfriends and officials, and presented them with Certificates of Achievement, just like we do in the UK. I will admit that much of Saturday night I was in tears, such was the effect the lads had on me during the week. They truly touched me. They also sent back gifts for the club, the Trust, Amadou Bakayoko - their hero - and even Saddlers skipper Adam Chambers. People who have so little still wanted to give things back to us, which again was a humbling experience.
So what is the long term aim of Walsall FC SL? The structure of the club is in place and they will not rush but progress steadily. The aim is to get into Division Two, and then who knows? They would like to forge closer links with Walsall FC itself and the dream is for one of the WFC SL players to pull on the Walsall FC shirt and represent the club. This is a dream that Coach Bundu has for his son, who is playing in Copenhagen this season.
In the short term, it would be nice to get enough funds to bring one of the coaches over for a couple of weeks to observe our training and coaching methods. They could then take them back and show other coaches in SL the way things are done over here.