Life at St Matthew’s Football Club starts with one simple lesson: don’t litter in the park.
“Put the rubbish in the bin,” Lee Dema, the south London club’s founder says. “That’s always been the first step since I started. It’s basic stuff. This is how you should behave and treat other people.”
But as the children get older, the lessons change.“[It’s] don’t make bad choices. Don’t hang around with the wrong people.
“It’s, ‘Do you take a knife out with you?’” he says. “And this myth, that it will protect you.
“We aren’t miracle workers, you just try and do what you can, don’t you?”
SUBSCRIBE AND FOLLOW NEWS
Get top stories and blog posts emailed to me each day. Newsletters may offer personalized content or advertisements. Learn more
Dema knows better than most how hard it can be to get the message across. On November 5, John Ogunjobi became the sixth teenager from the St Matthew’s scheme to die as a result of knife crime, losing his life on the Tulse Hill estate, less than a 10 minute walk away from the fields he once played football.
In the days that followed Ogunjobi’s murder, the St Matthew’s Project provided vital support for the teenagers grieving for their friend, while Dema faced another unexpected battle.
Without his permission, a tweet about an agreement he’d made with the 16-year-old became front-page news. His story reveals the incredible grass-roots work being done to fight the knife crime epidemic, but also reveals the toxic media atmosphere people like him must endure.
Dema never intended to be the founder of a football club. It all started when he began taking his daughters, and other kids from his estate, to the park for a kick about in the early 2000s. Then a parent governor at nearby primary school, he also ran a Friday night football club and was soon asked to run a summer school. But “six weeks somehow turned into 14 years” and now, running the project is a full-time job.
With low sign-up fees and match subs that haven’t increased since 2005, the club remains accessible for kids growing up on the three council estates just west of Brockwell Park: St Matthew’s, which lends the club its name, Tulse Hill and St Martin’s.
The litter lesson is just one element of a wider ethos that sets St Matthew’s apart from other kids’ league teams, who often prioritise pushing youngsters towards trying out for football academies.
As St Matthew’s has grown in size, it’s become a key part of the community, providing much more than just football training for the kids who turn up. Their mission statement now reads: “To help children of South Brixton fulfil their potential and have a positive impact on the community.”
The club’s evolution Dema says, has come as gang problems in the areas “have definitely got worse”.
“It’s evolving,” he explains. “It’s less street based, you used to see them hanging about, sometimes 50-handed. They looked like a gang and they want to be seen as a gang.
“Now they have less of a physical presence, they’re more sensible and harder to police, harder to catch.
“Their allegiances shift. [It’s] very volatile. It’s very hard for the police.”
Ogunjobi first came to the St Matthew’s Project when he was six years old. His death 10 years later came in the middle of a week that saw five people die in London as a result of stab wounds, and within hours of the attack, news of the murder had spread.
Residents on the estate awoke to find one of the streets closed off, with police cars and officers in place. Ogunjobi was yet to be publicly named but his identity was known by many locals, and Dema cancelled St Matthew’s Tuesday night football training, but the older kids still met up at the weekly wellbeing workshop.
The workshops have been taking place since last year and are perhaps the best example of how St Matthew’s provides vital services for the young people off the football pitch.
“We have someone there who is a trained youth worker and counsellor,” Dema explains. “The next night [after John died] was our session so they came and talked about him. For the ones who knew him, it was very subdued... very subdued and they are now.
“I think they’re depressed, but depression isn’t a word they understand. I think a lot of them are depressed in general before that but they wouldn’t know it, and I’m not a doctor.”
In the wake of Ogunjobi’s death, Dema sent a simple tweet referencing another tweet he had written in April.
“Shook hands in agreement today with 3 of our 16 year-old boys that they will attend my funeral and not vice versa,” Dema had written. “Please God they stick to it.”
Quoting that, he added: “Very sad to say that one of them did not stick to our agreement.”
His words struck a chord. Soon, the post was being retweeted and getting a lot of attention. Inevitably, it was picked up by a number of journalists, who rushed to contact Dema. Anxious about being seen to be “cashing in” on Ogunjobi’s death, he told every single one of them the same thing: “I’ve got nothing to say and I haven’t spoken to the boy’s Mum yet.”
Dema did not give permission for any of the journalists who contacted him to use his picture. The next day, he received a phone call from a friend, who told him that he was on the front page of the Metro newspaper.
“My funeral pact with knifed lad,” the headline read. “Worried football coach made boy vow to stay alive… now he’s been murdered.” Next to it was a picture of Dema and beside it, one of the teenager in his school uniform.
“I was physically shaking,” Dema says. “I must have been naive but it was my way of dealing with it.
“I don’t talk to the press and you don’t see my picture anywhere,” he added, explaining that he didn’t see the reporter’s email and Facebook message asking for comment until later. “There’s one picture of me on our website and he got it.
“When people die you get a lot of talking heads who are in the studio, they’re in the papers, they’re on the radio. I don’t do that and these kids know that. So for him [the Metro journalist] to come out and exploit John’s death, three days after he’s died… I hadn’t even spoke to John’s mum.
“He’s come in and thought, ‘oh yeah this story needs to be told’. For what? For his own purposes? For a paper they hand out on the tube? It made me look terrible.
“If I saw it, I’d say look at him, cashing in on some kid’s funeral, that’s what I think he made me look like. I wasn’t even his coach.”
He points at a bench that sits 20ft away from us. “We were sitting there, it was just a bit of banter really. I always say ‘listen, watch your back’.
“I said, ‘we’ll have a deal and you come to my funeral, not the other way round’. It was an anecdote,” he says. “He didn’t stick to our agreement. And now I am going to his funeral.”
After being contacted by Ipso, the independent press regulator, Dema made a formal complaint to Metro and when she learnt of what had happened, MP Helen Hayes, whose constituency includes Brockwell Park, did the same.
In a statement issued to HuffPost UK, the MP labelled the Metro’s article “gravely concerning”.
“It demonstrated a complete failure to understand both the terrible impact that John’s death has had on his family and those who knew him, but also the extreme vulnerability of some young people who are at risk of violence,” she said. “Printing comments and photographs without securing permission can place other young people in genuine danger.
“It is really important that anyone reporting on incidents of violent crime understands that each incident is more than a news story, and irresponsible reporting can potentially have devastating consequences.”
Metro have since offered an apology online and in print on page two, along with a donation to the St Matthew’s Project, but Dema says: “This isn’t about the money.”
The incident has left him even more wary of the media and for this article, he refuses to have his own picture featured, instead asking that HuffPost UK focus on the club and the young people he works with.
He’s also calling for a change in the way the press covers his local area. South London often hits headlines for negative reasons but as Dema points out, there’s plenty of good to be written about to. “Celebrate what young people are doing here,” he urges. “If you didn’t come from here, you’d think oh it’s just black kids killing one another’, but it’s not like that.”
“We doing a thing with MOPAC [the Mayor’s Office for Policing And Crime] on knife crime next year,” Dema says. “We have young dads sessions at Crystal Palace. The dads have children under four and they get to talk about being fathers and what it means. They get advice on parenting really.
“We work with the police, we have a good relationship with them. We have a PC from Brixton who comes in, referees the matches and meets the kids. The young kids are seeing, ‘oh look, he’s a black policeman. We really like him’.
“Even that gives them a change of perspective, they might think, ‘Well maybe I can be a policeman?’.
“Police are doing much more working with communities, they’re realising they can’t arrest their way out of these problems.”
It’s now been just over three weeks since Ogunjobi died. The news cameras stuck around for about 12 hours. The police cordon remained in place for four days. The flowers, candles, cards and teddybears placed at a spot near where he died are still there. They’ll likely be moved in the coming weeks.
But St Matthew’s – with its mental health workshops, coaching schemes, training sessions and girls’ team – isn’t going anywhere.