Arsenal in the Community: The plucky story of Underhill Soccer School

Tom Cunliffe-Whitford, 09 June 2019

In the second part of our ‘Feel-Good Football’ series, Tom Cunliffe-Whitford recalls the beginning of a love affair with football and the fantastic work done by Arsenal in the Community


16 September 1996.

The big one.

No, I don’t mean Arsenal vs Sheffield Wednesday. It was Underhill vs Arsenal Sports Centre. And I was mascot. Well, sort of.

Having played at an Arsenal ‘Soccer School’ at Underhill over the summer, my elder brother (I was 7, he was 11) was selected, along with 6 others, to represent Underhill. They were due to take part in an 18-team (U-12’s) Inter Soccer School tournament sponsored by Arsenal.

The tournament was a competitive 5-a-side affair and consisted of a league system followed by knockout quarters, semis and a final.

Teams from across London and surrounding counties came and returned, defeated. Conquered.

Underhill Soccer School, a small comprehensive primary school from Barnet, Hertfordshire, were through to the grand final versus Arsenal Sports Centre. It was to be played on Highbury’s hallowed turf ahead of the Arsenal versus Sheffield Wednesday fixture.

Many Arsenal fans remember 16 September 1996 as the day Patrick Vieira made his Arsenal debut. I do not. But that was obviously a bonus.

They had upset the odds and lived a dream

Filled with pride (and at the time, jealousy, I am sure), I watched my brother and his Underhill teammates play, and defeat via penalties, Arsenal Sports Centre – the overwhelming favourites given their official affiliation and funding from Arsenal.

They had won the lot.

The official programme of Underhill vs Arsenal Sports Centre. And also Arsenal vs Sheffield Wednesday. 16 September 1996

Each player was given a replica trophy and a winners’ medal. It was incredible, they had upset the odds and lived a dream.

I returned to Underhill Soccer School for many years and won a range of medals (3 x Skills Champion, I’ll have you know).

Arsenal and football had brought us closer together

I also met a boy named Andrew who would go on to be my best friend, and best man at my wedding some 20 years later in 2017.

I shared many happy moments that year and others with my brother. Arsenal and football had brought us closer together and still does today.

I met young football fans from across the globe and from all backgrounds. In fact, my brother’s Underhill team that year included two young chaps who were simply on holiday in England from Israel just visiting family!

Underhill… here is Tom in the black t-shirt on the far left, standing next to his brother, Liam.

You see, football’s ability to unite is truly phenomenal. It creates a bond, an escape, a freedom.

It creates, by and large, an incredible amount of happiness. It enables you to share moments of joy with friends and family that for a fleeting moment in time are not disturbed by life’s benign or painful events.

As an Arsenal season ticket holder, I recently found myself calculating the cost, both financial and personal, of a trip to Baku, Azerbaijan, for the Europa League final. I found I couldn’t quite manage it.

Football is all about extraordinary moments of sublime skill and ‘you had to be there’ moments

If I had done so, I would have been doing it alone or with fellow ‘Club Level’ season ticket holders. Not for me. Instead, I watched at home with my father and brother.

Football is, of course, about live sporting action. About the sounds and smells and terrace chants. About extraordinary moments of sublime skill and ‘you had to be there’ moments.

But it’s also about who you share those moments with and the joy and sense of community that is shared off the pitch too.

Arsenal’s sponsorship of my local ‘Soccer School’ 23 years ago taught me that, and I hope their continued efforts in the community are teaching many others today.


‘Arsenal in the Community’ has been using the power of the Arsenal name to positively impact the lives of young people since 1985. The team delivers sport, social and education programmes to over 5,000 individuals each week.

To find out more about the great work done by Arsenal in the Community, head over to their website or find them on Twitter.

Named after Michael Thomas, Tom is a season ticket holder at the Arsenal.

By |2019-06-09T16:22:53+00:00June 9th, 2019|

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