Behind the Scenes at Britain's Most Misunderstood Football Club
Met Police FC represent the long arm of the law, but there's a lot to like at this often-misunderstood non-league club.
Photos by Christopher Bethell
We're standing in the boardroom of the sports club where the Metropolitan Police football team have played their home fixtures since being established in 1919. A sign on the boardroom door informs patrons wishing to enter that they must wear a jacket and tie. I'm wearing a hoody and Burberry scarf and my photographer is even scruffier, heavily bearded with a nose piercing, unwashed jeans, imitation Barbour jacket and a second-hand NASA t-shirt decorated with rockets and planets.
We're about as un-police-like as two journalists can look, but club chairman Des Flanders doesn't seem to mind. Nor does Graham Wettone, the Met Police FC press officer who spent his policing years at Scotland Yard working on public order, demonstrations and football hooliganism; nor Debbie, who looks after the ground staff, or loyal supporter Diane, who offers me her match day programme so I can read the line-ups ahead of Met Police's clash with Kingstonian FC.
Diane is in her 70s and her husband was the club's vice-chairman. She hasn't missed a home game since 1970; she says the current squad is amongst the most impressive she's seen and that this season's campaign was destined to be their best ever before coming unstuck. Nevertheless, they retain a shot at the play-offs.
"Our manager wants us to go up a division to the Conference South," says Wettone, "but I think this is our level." The Police play in the Isthmian League Premier, the seventh tier of English football. Next comes the Conference South, then the Conference National. League football is three promotions away.
"If we get promoted, a lot of the current squad might have to be replaced with new players," says Pat Mullings, the reserve team secretary, "and then wages go up and we've got budgets to think about."
Wages in the Isthmian League means travel expenses, unless you're Maidstone or Margate who have higher budgets than the rest of the clubs. Met Police have one of the lowest.
Detective Inspector Mullings, a CID officer who worked with the Trident murder team (now disbanded) in Brent and Hackney was an imposing central defender from 1987 until 2001. A self-described "gentle giant," he suffered a leg break in the 1993 season that ruled him out of that year's summer tour. "We used to represent the Met against police teams around the world: Hong Kong, Barbados, France, America, Italy. Really good tours."
In those days the team was made up of active serving police officers but today none of the team are actual coppers; they have day jobs working as teachers, fitness instructors or IT technicians. To all intents and purposes it's just a normal amateur club.
"Getting a squad of police off-duty at the same time to train twice a week and play games was logistically impossible," says Wettone, who used to manage police station sides like Hammersmith and Limehouse from where the Met first XI snapped up the best players. Eventually former commissioner Sir Paul Stephenson refused to sanction time off for sports and now the club recruits players like any other team.
Their last serving officer, PC Craig Brown, hung his boots up two seasons ago when the Met were drawn against Crawley Town in the first round of the FA Cup and he'd already used his annual leave allocation taking days off for matches.
It's a 90-minute freebie with the old bill, even though the players aren't old bill!
"They're not even proper filth," we overhear a Kingstonian fan telling his mates. "They're worse than the filth!" he adds loudly. They are standing behind the goal like hardcore ultras but their transgressions are minor: a rendition of, "We hate old bill and we hate old bill. We are the old bill haters," loud chants of "ONE, TWO, THREE, FOUR..." counting the number of seconds Met keeper Stuart Searle holds on to the ball and the classic, "You're shit – ahhh!" when Searle takes a goal kick.
Back in Mullings' day the opposing fans used to bring along plastic bobby hats and truncheons and relentlessly taunt the police. "They used to call me Hightower [after the giant officer in Police Academy]," he says.
On the field, opposition players step up the physical side of their game. "It's a 90-minute freebie with the old bill," says Wettone, "even though the players aren't old bill!"
But Mullings' broken leg was an accident rather than malice. "I've made a clean tackle and the guy's sat on my ankle and snapped it," he recalls. "I was never quite the same player again. Lost the pace, put a bit of weight on..."
A dedicated Spurs fan, he followed them away to Fiorentina for the Europa League game in February. When he finds out I'm an Arsenal fan he asks if the interview is over, then breaks into a beaming smile.
I'm getting the hang of the police sense of humour now. It's not as caustic as I expected; in fact, the whole experience is something of a pleasant surprise.
We take a wander around the ground, past the tea room where Wettone's wife Michelle is opening cans of tomato soup, past the burger stand and the cake stall raising money for Comic Relief and the press box where 18-year-old Jack works as the announcer. It's warm in the box, unlike the classic late March day outside with freezing cold winds and leaden grey skies.
Despite the bitter weather, when we get to the dressing rooms physio Chad Smith shows us his inflatable ice bath filled with freezing water.
"They didn't have this when I first arrived at the club," he says, buzzing with pre-match nervous energy. "They'd never heard of it. It's still a chore to get them in it, there's three or four who regularly use it, the rest I have to force in." Smith insists that a dunk in the ice bath followed by a few minutes in the warm one "gets all the crap out of your muscles. It's better than a 20 minute cool down."
Their home ground, Imber Court, has been in police ownership since in 1919. An exposed pitch close to the river Thames, sandwiched between Hampton Court and Chessington World of Adventures, it's a decent ground, better than most in the division. However it is fair to say the Met Police have very few fans ("70 or 80," says Wettone) and are clearly outnumbered by Kingstonian supporters today.
Why don't police officers come and support them? Wettone shakes his head. "I don't know. Some don't like the fact that it's not all cops playing anymore, and I get that. But we couldn't have stayed a work side or we'd have ceased to exist – we'd be playing Sunday league. We've got no geographic identity: we play in Thames Ditton but we're not from here, we're the police! We played VCD Athletic in Kent last week, they're a former work side too [founded in 1916 by the Vickers engineering company] and their manager told me they're seriously considering changing their name to Crayford because they have the same problem. There's also other clubs in every direction within five miles of us. So there's not much incentive to come and follow us."
Maybe the £10 adults, £5 kids prices on the turnstiles are slightly restrictive but the club has to raise funds in addition to the revenue it gets from the police lottery which has been running since 1955 and is played by 24,000 police employees each week.
On the tactics board, first team manager Detective Sergeant Jim Cooper (who looks like a world weary character from The Bill) has written down some names, if not necessarily any kind of formation.
What's the tactical approach today, I enquire? "I'll have to tell you that after the game," he cackles. "That way, if it goes well I can say the players did what I told them and if it doesn't go well I can say the players didn't do what I told them."
Flanders had told me that Cooper's pre-match routine involves shouting at the players and then shouting at them again.
In the event, the game involves a lot of smashing the ball 50 metres into the air and thudding headers out of defence. Neither team registers a shot on target and the nearest we come to moments of excitement are a couple of off-the-ball incidents, a blood injury, a penalty appeal and a tight offside decision when opposition forward Pico Gomez is played through by strike partner Jesse Darko. Met captain Steve Sutherland, a refined centre-half who's playing his 300th game for the club, stands out as the class act on the field.
Nevertheless, with half an hour gone we find ourselves somewhat unexpectedly cheering for the police. We had arrived cynically expecting a bunch of stuffy, backwards coppers; instead we found a club run by friendly people, a multicultural playing team with five black and ethnic minority players in their starting line-up, an Asian woman running the tuck shop, a Kick it Out anti-racism hoarding, and plenty of women and young children in the crowd.
I was expecting suspicion of journalists but found touchingly honest people eager to share. "I find it therapeutic," says treasurer Chief Inspector Stephen Kyte, who's currently writing a book about the club's history for their centenary year in 2019. "It's like my sanctuary to come here each week. I've got a 19-year-old son with autism at home who has the personality of a five-year-old. He's got an incredible memory: if you want the complete script of Toy Story recited, he's your man."
But the biggest eye-opener is when I spot a black teenager wearing a cap backwards on the touchlines. His tracksuit bears the Metropolitan Police crest, so I wander over, intrigued. He's 17-year-old Ifeanyi Onwuachu, a youth team player, and he's here with his strike partner Antonios Kozakis and their captain, Mekhail McLaughlin, both 18.
"I've scored 15 goals this season," says Onwuachu.
"Don't say 15! Say 25!" Kozakis tells him.
"Alright, yeah, I've scored 25. No wait – put 30."
You can't just make up your goal-scoring records, I tell them. When McLaughlin pipes up, Onwuachu turns to him and says, "Why is your voice so deep, bruv?" To which McLaughlin starts to say, "I've got to try and sound like..."
"Just speak normal," Onwuachu tells him, and all three explode with laughter.
Kozakis was introduced to the club by his older brother. He had a six-week trial at Brentford when he was younger but didn't make it into the Bees' academy. Onwuachu says he was playing for Leatherhead when he was spotted, but then corrects himself. "Wait, no, it was Bedhead. Yeah, Bedhead FC."
And do they get a lot of stick from their mates? "No, not really," says McLaughlin.
"I do," says Onwuachu, wryly. "All the time, bruv."
There is something of an irony that a young black man, statistically likely to be stopped and searched several times in his life, is chalking up serious statistics on the pitch for the same organisation. Even allowing for the fact that his goal scoring statistics might well be made up.