Good Game: SE Dons

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SE Dons is the football club doing something that so many organisations have failed to do before them: bring Londoners from different postcodes together.

‘Good Game’ is a new content series in partnership with Versus and PUMA, giving a platform to some of the most important and influential grassroots collectives in London’s football communities. We’re here to showcase some of the beautiful game’s most dedicated ballers and local heroes. We’re here to platform the impact these incredible organisations are having on their boroughs, on and off the pitch. First up, Don Strapzy tells us how SE Dons is bringing big time football back to the fans.

Don Strapzy is a name synonymous with South London. The rapper and founder of Lewisham’s internationally recognised grassroots club SE Dons is passion personified. Tearing up and rewriting the script when it comes to perceptions of one of London’s most notorious boroughs, SE Dons is all about putting Lewisham on the map for the right reasons.

Don’s local hero status transcends his native South. While speaking to him in one of the Capital’s most prolific footballing spots, Kensington & Chelsea’s Westway, several people have come bursting through the doors asking where Don Strapzy and The Dons are. Don still looks humbled every single time he’s recognised.

And yes, he took time out to take pictures and speak to his fans. Or his family as Don prefers to call them. Something very special about SE Dons is that they’ve done what so many have failed to do before them: bring Londoners from different postcodes together.

VERSUS: A lot of people know you for your music – including Declan Rice’s mum – but when did your love of football begin?

Don Strapzy: From birth, to be honest with you. My Dad loved football, all of the men in my family loved football, so from really early on I was the same. I can remember walking at maybe 3 or 4 years-old and kicking a ball. Plus, I’m British and football is such an important part of British culture, the game was created here after all.

Why do you do what you do?

I just love it, and I’m fortunate enough to have made a business out of it. I get to do what I want with my friends and share opportunities with them. The impact our work has on the community is just massive as well, it’s a special feeling.

The fact I can share all of this with my friends especially, it’s crazy when I think about it. Even down to little things like getting new boots, tracksuits, big days out, or travelling all over the UK representing The Dons together. It’s a dream come true.

Why does representation, especially at grassroots level, matter in football?

I think it’s very important because most people don’t make it professionally, and players are led to believe they’ve wasted their talent if they don’t make it. And when we think about it, everyone who does play pro-football started at grassroots level.

What SE Dons are doing is making people feel happy and proud to represent their grassroots football team, but we take it dead serious! For us, it’s like the Champions League and we’re not ashamed of that. We are London, we are grassroots and it shouldn’t be just because we aren’t professional footballers, our players and our game isn’t important.

Grassroots is vital for our community, and where we come from. The hostility that exists in South London, and London in general, is real. For example we recently played against Peckham – we’re from Lewisham and there’s so much history between our area and Peckham, but the fact there were 400 fans at the game and we were all there together, it’s good! It gives people something positive to do on a Sunday morning, something to look forward to on the weekend, it gives people purpose. Grassroots goes a long way to supporting people and their mental health in particular.

‘Sunday League team, with Premier League reach…’ Did you ever imagine people writing things like that about SE Dons when you started all those years ago? Was that level of professionalism always on the cards?

That’s mad. I believe anything and everything is possible, that’s just me as a person and because of that, I’m not surprised by a lot of things anymore. I just believe in hard work, consistency and dedication. With clean hearts things can happen.

When I started filming I didn’t envision this to be honest, it wasn’t like: “we’re going to turn this into the biggest grassroots team in Sunday League football”, we just brought the camera out and started filming. But when I think about it, it is crazy and sometimes I am lost for words, but there’s so much more to do. We’re going to keep pushing to new heights. Get The Dons out there on a global scale, and push Sunday League football as far as it can go.

Why do you think The Dons have reached this level of ‘stardom’? What’s the magic formula?

Authenticity. We are just so authentic. Our best friend is the cameraman so it’s not like we feel uncomfortable in front of the camera, we can just be ourselves.

It’s real life stories, real life people within our community. Everyone knows who we are before football. I just think it’s honest, how can you not like it? It’s just passion. We’re in a country that loves football and Sunday League. To see men playing every Sunday morning and loving their club. Seeing them really trying to win a County Cup or their league, and to show the stories behind that. What’s happened to those people, what’s happened in their lives and to share that with our audience is what makes us special.

Anyone can hold trials and bring in 16 people, or have sick production and camerawork. It’s so easy to tell someone to play a character, but that’s not real and that’s not us. We don’t hold trials, everyone comes from South East London, we all grew up together, nothing is scripted. We are who we are.

We need to talk about Big G and his Soccer AM performances in particular. The man is an unstoppable force of nature. You’ve got some characters in your team. Or should I say, family?

I grew up with Big G, I live with him, I’ve known him since I was about 6 or 7. The thing people don’t understand about George is that he’s like this off camera. He could be playing a game of FIFA and he’s taking it dead seriously, and I’m watching him thinking “bruv, are you serious right now?” but this is how he is! And that’s why he’s our captain, he is unapologetically himself, all the time. I am so proud of him, he should be on Soccer AM all the time, everyone knows that. He’s the main man and I am so happy with how he’s transformed his life, and getting the recognition he deserves instead of just being the guy that used to be behind me in my music videos. He’s now standing by himself.

I’m sharing all these moments with my friends, it’s priceless and the fact that we record these moments, means we’ve got them forever.

Creating a family orientated environment is clearly so important to The Dons. Staying connected, and keeping that sense of togetherness must’ve been challenging this past year. How did you all keep in touch? I’m guessing FIFA definitely played its part…

Our main content is filming football matches, and we couldn’t do any of that throughout the whole of COVID, and whenever we did try to do something, it was seen to be breaking rules and people would go in on us. So we really couldn’t do anything.

We started playing Pro Clubs on Fifa but we’re not really that good! But it was fun! It was a good bit of banter with the boys and to us, that’s more important because we’re so used to seeing each other on a Sunday. Usually there’d be about 30 or 40 of us every single weekend, playing football together but that got taken away from us. It was hard.

What role do you think gaming plays in helping communities stay together?

People are connecting across the world through gaming, it’s changed so much from when I was a kid. My Dad would tell me to get off the PlayStation if I was playing it too much, whereas nowadays, kids are making a living out of gaming. It’s positive! You can always look for a negative if that’s your way of thinking, but there is always something positive to take from every situation. At the end of the day, gaming plays a massive part in bringing communities together and that’s always the main thing in my opinion .

How are you feeling going into the Pro Clubs tournament? Will you be applying that famous SE Dons winning mentality?

I don’t think we’ve got much chance to be honest, unless we can draft someone in! We’ll definitely try and get out of the group stages. We’ll try to nick late winners! Score from corners, freekicks and hopefully some penalties. We’ll see what happens.

We saw earlier this year with the Super League how important fans are to the game. What do your fans mean to you and the rest of The Dons?

We don’t even call them fans, we call them family. They’re the 12th man, they really put us out there. Whenwehavecupfinalsandthere’s4,000peoplethere,it’sunbelievable.Justwatching normal guys play football, they support everything we do. It’s mad to be spotted by people walking down the road, but we love it.

What are your hopes and dreams for the club? Where do you see yourselves in five years time?

When it comes to antics on the pitch, being as successful as possible so winning trophies, and winning league titles. In terms of The Dons as a brand we really want to push it as far as we can.

But the beauty of this project is that I can’t really tell you where we are going to be in five years’ time, we don’t really have a set plan, I just know that growth is happening every single season. We sell merchandise all over the world. All over the world. We’ve had people in Papua New Guinea buy merch, and Azerbaijan, it’s actually mad. But to really push our work more across the UK, the USA and Australia is what we want to do.

We’ll never lose what we’re about, and that’s important to us. Not too long ago we were offered to play our home games at a local stadium with 5000 seats but we said no. We said no because we are grassroots.

Supporters come to watch us and they’re on the touchline with us. We are trying to glamorise Sunday League and take it to where it can go. We play our games in local parks, kids can relate to that. They look at us playing on bobbly pitches and see themselves playing. They might not relate to teams playing at Wembley.

We are just trying to stay authentic, but also trying to grow at the same time.

You’ve been working with Colin Jackson on all things speed, but if you could work with any baller – past or present – who would it be?

I’d have to say Cristiano Ronaldo. I like his backstory plus he is the ultimate professional. He is so dedicated to his craft, it’d be amazing to see how he works.

Thinking about the amount of backlash we get online when we play badly, or lose – personally, I’m used to it, I take it with a pinch of salt because I’ve been in the music industry since young – but imagine the scale of it for Ronaldo when he does something wrong? And to be around someone, and to learn how they respond to situations like that but stay so motivated, it’d be incredible.

I’m learning Portugese at the moment so I can practise and see how good my Portguese is as well.

Working with a globally recognised brand like PUMA must have felt like a huge moment for the club. On the flip-side, what do you think working with The Dons has meant for PUMA over the years?

It’s massive for both parties. I don’t ever want to sound big headed, but I truly believe in what we bring to the table.

We are the streets, we are the community, we are the demographic that they are trying to reach. If you see Big G or some of the boys walking around wearing a PUMA jacket, or tracksuit it’s cool, it’s credible, but it’s been a really good working relationship, and I am a big believer in transactions. I wouldn’t be happy if PUMA just gave us kits, did everything for us and didn’t get anything out of it. The team’s been amazing and to work directly with a big brand like PUMA, instead of a middle man, it’s been unbelievable and a big achievement for The Dons.

What do you think they’ve learnt from you?

Our way of thinking and our workrate. It’s admirable. And they’re learning about the way we market.

We don’t have access to millions of pounds like them, so to see how we do our thing, it’s special. A lot of the time when we do campaigns with PUMA they’re based on our creative ideas. We have input at every step of the way and if we think something isn’t going to work we let them know. We know our audience inside out. And like I said before, authenticity is key. You can’t buy authenticity.

Let’s talk about Don Strapzy’s game day style. Talk me through the fit. What trainers have you got on your feet when you rock up to dominate Sunday League?

Game day we’re all going SE Dons attire. All of us. PUMA tracksuit and Dons jacket but I’m not wearing my white trainers. Not on game day, they can’t get ruined. Nothing too extravagant, comfortable but serious. PUMA always have us looking presentable.

Don Strapzy and SE Dons are taking part in the first size? x PUMA Pro Clubs cup on June 30. To reserve your team’s spot and compete against some of the biggest names in football and eSports culture, click here.

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