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South Of The River: BT Sport docuseries explores the greatest football talent factory in the world
The unmissable three-part series, also available on Netflix, looks at how south London has become one of the most productive breeding grounds on the planet.
In 2020, 14 percent of the Premier League’s English-born players came from ten square miles of south London.
The area has become one of the most productive breeding grounds on the planet despite being in the grip of austerity and crime.
From Jadon Sancho to Joe Gomez, a new generation of players raised on cage football and fuelled by the desire to escape deprivation have taken the game by storm.
There’s a palpable swagger emanating from south London and the proliferation of talent transcends football. Grime superstars Stormzy and Dave, the voices of an empowered generation, also originate from the area.
South Of The River, a docuseries available to watch on BT Sport and Netflix, explores the exponential rise of players from the area and takes an unflinching look at the associated social problems including knife crime, gang culture and funding cuts.
Champions League winning captain Rio Ferdinand, who was raised on a Peckham council estate, is an executive producer.
The three-part series features Premier League players from London’s most prosperous catchment area, but it’s the disarmingly candid and heartfelt testimonies from those aspiring to follow in their role model’s footsteps that makes it essential viewing.
The tragic dichotomy between earning a contract and falling into crime is a prevailing theme and the statistics reveal the horrifying extent of this scourge.
Since 2014, knife crime in London has increased by 53 percent and from 2014 to 2019 killings from gang related violence increased by a staggering 150 percent.
“Would I want to be a kid in these times now?” says Ferdinand. “No. In my era if you have a punch up, that’s it. In this era there ain’t no fistfights no more.”
In a heart-wrenching scene, we’re introduced to an aspiring professional whose brother was stabbed to death in 2014. “The pain hurts now more than it did,” he says in a haunting sequence.
The rise in the number of elite players from south London has coincided with the crime epidemic and for many, football is perceived as a passport to a better life. A silver bullet. Freedom.
“It’s either you go in that gang life, or you go in that football life,” says a youngster on the books at Millwall.
The production line is even more striking given the slashing of centralised spending on sport and leisure facilities in the capital.
It's a talent factory like no other
- Rio Ferdinand
Grassroots funding has been cut by almost a third over the past five years. The concurrent rise in school exclusions and criminality is resulting in a lost generation.
But hope springs eternal and local clubs like Lambeth Tigers, Madabout FC and Kinetic Academy are leading the fightback.
“Our programmes are very holistically driven so they are centred around developing the person,” says Harry Hudson, co-founder of Croydon-based Kinetic which was set up shortly after the 2011 riots.
They work with children from London’s most disadvantaged areas and have a knack of spotting talent. Rangers' Joe Aribo and Josh Maja of Bordeaux have made the grade after graduating from their academy.
The series also shines a light on the importance of social cohesion as a driver for change. Volunteers like Darnell Simpson play an integral role in children’s all-round development and are the unsung heroes of the community.
Simpson once dreamed of making it to the very top. He grew up with Liverpool defender Joe Gomez but has since focused his attention on coaching at Catford club Moonshot FC.
“I realised that it wasn’t going to be me playing football that was going to fulfil my dreams, so I had to find another way,” he says. “I come from that dark place. You want to make sure others aren’t in that dark place as well.”
Bristol City’s Kasey Palmer is one of several players to benefit from Moonshot’s coaching, but only a fraction of hopefuls make it all the way to the top.
Of the players entering Premier League academies at the age of nine, less than 0.5 percent will ever make a living from the game.
“How I enjoyed football playing in the cage, that’s what I want to do in the Prem,” he says reflecting on his tortuous road to the top. “My advice would be to never lose faith.”
West Ham’s Michail Antonio is another player who took the road less travelled.
He was a part-time lifeguard during a spell at non-League Tooting & Mitcham United and is now one of the Premier League’s most personable players and prolific forwards.
The Earlsfield-born Jamaica international even reveals AFC Wimbledon refused to pay his £7 registration fee before he was picked up by Reading in 2008.
“Football has stopped me from being on the streets,” he says.
“If you’re from south London, cage football is what you’ve done from young.
“Where I grew up, people take what they wanted. It was down to you to stop them from getting it and I put that into my football.”
The capital is a cultural melting pot, but prospective black footballers are increasingly battling against rising state harassment in the form of stop and search without reasonable suspicion.
In 2020, black males aged 18-24 were 19 times more likely to be stopped and searched than the general population.
For so many football represents freedom from social ills and personal turmoil and a deeply affecting closing scene demonstrates the enduring power of football when tragedy strikes.
Heartbreaking but hopeful, South Of River is so much more than a sports docuseries.
It’s the perfect encapsulation of the aspirational and defiant spirit of south London and a reminder that football reflects society at large.
It transports us back to a time when, unaware of the malign influences permeating the game’s upper echelons, all we had was a football and a dream.
“It’s great that the area of London I grew up in is getting the recognition it deserves. It’s a talent factory like no other,” says Ferdinand.
“You’ll hear from me and many others who, against the odds, have been lucky enough to represent South London at the biggest clubs and international competitions in the world.”
“South Of The River shines a light on what makes the place so special and the obstacles that need to be overcome, whilst showcasing the next generation who are daring to dream by following in our footsteps. I’m proud to be from South Of The River.”