“I get sworn at less by the kids than I used to by Gus [Poyet], especially if I gave the ball back to the opposition too quickly,” Charlie Oatway says, breaking into laughter as he compares life on the touchline with working to support young people struggling with education as a family liaison officer at the Russell Martin Foundation (RMF). Oatway first worked alongside Poyet as a coach at Brighton, for whom he also played, and followed him to Sunderland, Spain and Shanghai but these days his focus is on changing lives in Sussex, by returning to his roots and using his challenging childhood as a powerful tool to which others can relate.
He recalls his parents, Doreen and Tony, being thrown to the floor by police and their house, on the White City estate in London’s Shepherd’s Bush, being ransacked. His dad leaned on the Kray twins when on the run after a robbery and hid in a flat above a tailors in east London before being sent to prison. His uncles and cousins have also spent years behind bars and Oatway spent two months in Pentonville prison for GBH, while on the books at Cardiff City. “I’d only just started to get to know Terry Yorath, who had just replaced Eddie May as manager. On a Saturday a couple of hours before kick-off I said to him: ‘I’ve got to go to court on Monday.’ He said: ‘Don’t worry, you’ll be fine, get back as soon as you can for training on Tuesday.’ Bang, I go to prison.”
Sitting beside Oatway is Alan Sanders, the chief executive of the RMF. Oatway sought Sanders’ help at the age of 30, when he was captain of Brighton, to enrol on an adult literacy course to help with reading and writing. Oatway, who is dyslexic and says his spelling is nonexistent, did not attend school from the age of 14 and given his focus on the Extra Time project, which young people between 11-14 are referred to with the aim of enabling their return to education, sometimes it isas if he is looking in the mirror. “A lot of these kids are going through what I went through,” he says. “I’ve got a nephew who is doing 25 years – he’s done 18 so far – for gang crime … ‘Don’t talk to me about gang crime … I know, I’ve got a family member that I go and see in prison who has been in gangs and look where his life is. Crap.’ I am able to tell these kids that’s not the right way.”
Oatway’s full name is Anthony Phillip David Terry Frank Donald Stanley Gerry Gordon Stephen James Oatway, after the Queens Park Rangers starting lineup in 1973, because his father was an avid supporter. His name is in full on his birth certificate but is shortened to Anthony Philip Oatway on his passport. The story goes that his auntie said “he would look a right Charlie”, and the name stuck. The RMF has supplied him with a computer that reads emails back to him to simplify his work. “I can press two buttons and say what I want to say and then I can send an email, very short, very sharp,” he says. “I would fold, even now at 48, under pressure. I try to make sure I don’t go into any situation where I need any assistance with reading and writing. My life has always been like that.”
In his playing days, sometimes teammates in a convoy of cars would give him the slip en route to a reserve game, knowing he would not be able to read the road signs, but he learned tricks to navigate club open days. “I would find someone to latch on to. For example, at Brighton, I would sit next to Richard Carpenter who was my roommate for nine years. If it was ‘best wishes to Joe Bloggs’, he’d put ‘best wishes Joe Bloggs, from Richard Carpenter’ and I’d sign ‘Charlie Oatway’. I had to be open with the secretaries when I would sign my contracts. ‘Look, I can’t write.’”
Sanders’ relationship with Martin goes back to when the current Swansea manager was 11 and playing for his district team: Brighton Boys.
He set up the foundation while playing for Norwich and has three centres across Sussex, working with 30 schools across the county, including all 10 secondary schools in Brighton and Hove, to build the confidence and skills of young people struggling with mainstream education. Oatway is among five former professional footballers who work at the foundation, including the former Peterborough midfielder Chris Whelpdale. Oatway hopes the RMF can work with the Professional Footballers’ Association, whose chairman, Maheta Molango, is a former teammate. “One of the questions he asked me me was: ‘What were you most worried about when you were a player?’ I said: ‘What I’m going to do when I’m finished.’”
Oatway has a stack of fond memories in the game, from trying to coax Carlos Tevez, on exorbitant wages at Shanghai Shenhua with an entourage that extended to a golf professional and a personal chef, into running; avoiding relegation from the Premier League with Sunderland in 2014; and visiting the Camp Nou in his first game as the Real Betis first-team coach. He is still in touch with the Betis kit men, who send over shirts for his son, Teddy, every couple of months. “We were in pre-season in Germany and it came through that our first game was Barcelona away. I’m thinking: ‘A boy from the Bush going to Barcelona away as part of a coaching staff and watching Messi?’ I came off rubbing my neck from going like that,” he says, twisting his head, “let alone what it must have been like for the players.”
He may return to the touchline but is reluctant to step away from the work he is doing to help reshape youngsters’ lives. Some schools have reported a drastic increase in attendance as a result of the Extra Time programme. “It’s not all about me – it’s about us as an organisation – but when you’ve got parents telling you by email, phone calls, text messages, crying on the phone sometimes saying: ‘Thank you for bringing my daughter back’ … I had a text this morning, and I hadn’t seen this kid for weeks, but the mum is saying that they took her away to her nans and she’s been lovely, helpful and kind and it’s all down to the RMF project. You can’t buy that.”