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Introducing Merky FC: Stormzy’s new football initiative aiming to boost diversity off the pitch

Grime artist Stormzy proves once again that he is the UK’s most valuable asset. A constant champion of black youth, the rapper and songwriter has officially announced the launch of his most recent venture: Merky FC—a scheme to help young black people secure jobs and leadership roles at all levels within the field of football.

https://twitter.com/stormzy/status/1588079292323434497

According to The Guardian, Stormzy has partnered with Adidas and ten other major brands, including Manchester United, Fulham FC and Sky Sports, in efforts to bring greater diversity to the sporting industry.

While football may appear a diverse game on the surface, just 6.7 per cent of senior roles within the sport are held by individuals with black or mixed-black heritage. In fact, the FA’s football leadership diversity report for the 2021-2022 season showed exactly that. It reported a decrease in the number of senior management hires for both female and black, Asian and mixed heritage candidates. The recruitment of non-senior diverse coaches in the men’s game, as well as female coaches in women’s football, also fell below the targets during the season.

Speaking with Sky Sports, Stormzy stated: “I always hope that 20, 30, 40 years from now, there is some kid who has no idea who I am—I’m way too old, he don’t care about Stormzy—but there is some initiative that we started now, which allows them to have some ambition and a dream and a future.”

This is not the first time the UK-based artist has used his platform and success to champion black youth. His flagship creation—Merky Foundation—has pledged to donate $10 million 10 years to organisations, charities and movements that are committed to fighting for racial equality, justice reform and black empowerment within the UK.

Branches of that foundation have included #Merky Books, a publishing company established in 2018 in hopes to bring underrepresented voices to the forefront of the industry. He’s also seen massive success with the Stormzy scholarship, a scheme which has provided financial support to 19 black students at Cambridge University.

A lack of diversity outside of the football pitch is unfortunately a story we know all too well. In September 2022, SCREENSHOT spoke with Michaela Gooden, an ex-professional footballer turned football agent. As a black woman, Gooden is a rarity within the industry, but she’s determined her personal attributes will be the key to success.

The Merky FC initiative will provide work placements, from operations and community to creative and marketing and will be available to young people of black heritage aged 18 to 24. Considering Stormzy’s unparalleled popularity with British youth, it’s undeniable that this scheme will have an immediate cultural impact.

Speaking to The Guardian, Tony Burnett, chief executive of Kick It Out which campaigns against racism and broader discrimination in football, said that solving the problem regarding a lack of diversity within senior roles was “complex” and an “uphill battle.”

“Even the numbers that we saw Stormzy quote today are not necessarily 100 per cent accurate, because we don’t know—because clubs will not tell us—what the representation data looks like across all areas of their employee base. And until we know that we can’t even assess the extent of the problem. We need collaboration, so we are more than happy to work with Stormzy or whoever else is trying to drive this agenda.”

This is how we sport: Meet ex-professional football player turned agent Michaela Gooden

Introducing This is how we sport, a new series that will feature women in and around sports that are making waves in the industry. First up, meet Michaela Gooden, an ex-professional football player-turned-football agent who’s on a mission to shake up the sports agency world.

Summer 2022 was a great season for football enthusiasts around the globe, especially women and young girls. On the last day of July, the Lionesses stormed past Germany to win the 2022 UEFA European Women’s Football Championship. The triumph was a historic moment for English footie fans, as it was the first time since 1966 that any England senior football team had won a major tournament.

The legendary game was a testament to those that have been championing women’s football, as the UEFA Women’s Euro 2022 final brought in a record-breaking crowd of 87,192 spectators.

For ex-footballer Gooden, the final was an emotional day. “I was taken aback by the amount of fans at this women’s game,” she told SCREENSHOT. “I’ve been a part of this from when I was young. So to see where it is now, it’s almost like a chapter was closed. We completed something.”

This is how we sport: Meet ex-professional football player turned agent Michaela Gooden

Closing chapters in her life and beginning new ones has always come easy to Gooden. She spent nine years at Fulham FC Women from ages nine to 18 before switching to Millwall Lionesses L.F.C, where she stayed for a year. Hungry for new experiences and a change of pace, Gooden went to college in the US on a soccer scholarship from 2008 to 2011. After a short break, she divided her time between Crystal Palace F.C. Women, Fulham again and AFC Wimbledon Women before eventually ending her career as a football player in 2018.

Like many of us, 2020 was a year that demanded change for the ex-baller, so after two years away from the game, Gooden decided she was going to continue impacting the sport—this time, as a football agent. Now, becoming a football agent is relatively easy, the rest that follows, well, not so much. “To become an agent, you pay a certain fee and then you get your football agent licence. Having a licence is easy, anyone can have a licence,” Gooden shared.

“It’s being able to get players, look after [them] and connect with clubs that’s difficult,” she continued. Shortly after getting her official football agent badge, Gooden joined sports agency GS Magna and managed three players during her time there. After two years at the agency, she craved a new challenge. “My time at Magna was great and I learnt a lot, but sometimes it gets to a point where you just have to go off and learn on your own,” she explained.

As of today, Gooden is starting her own agency called Mrs Gray, all set to launch later this year. As she revealed during our conversation, it was her favourite primary school teacher who helped inspire the name. “Mr Gray got me my first ever trial for Fulham so if it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t be where I am today.”

“I put a twist on it and changed to Mrs Gray, just because I’m big on women’s empowerment.” Initially, Gooden was going to name her company after herself but decided otherwise. “I want whatever I grow or have, to be bigger than me. So I don’t want my name to be attached,” she added.

This is how we sport: Meet ex-professional football player turned agent Michaela Gooden

Until then, Gooden currently manages Brighton & Hove Albion WFC defender Victoria Williams and is in talks with other potential players—all before Mrs Gray’s official launch. The former Fulham player is not your stereotypical football agent and this is probably why players connect with her. “In school, you have the stereotypical teachers and then you have a teacher with tattoos that comes in and school starts to change a little bit,” Gooden went on to admit. “I see myself as the teacher with tattoos.”

Compared to many other sports agents, Gooden most definitely stands out. First off, she’s a woman and she’s black, which is rare in her industry. But beyond that, she likes to believe it’s more her personal attributes that make her unparalleled. “I’m not driven by money. Obviously, I want the best deal for my players, but money isn’t at the forefront of my mind,” she said.

“I’m not thinking that certain players are gonna make me XYZ, so let me go for those players.” Instead, Gooden wants to connect to her clients on a more personal level. She wants to know a player’s background, what their interests are and, most importantly, where they’re at mentally. “If that doesn’t work for a player, then I’m not the right agent for them,” she concluded.

Mrs Gray will focus on women’s football in the first few months of its launch before tackling the men’s side. Gooden believes the success of the UEFA Women’s Euros will bring more attention to the women’s game and open up more commercial opportunities for the players. Which is also why her clients having a life and interests outside of football is a key objective for her new agency.

“I think a lot of players get consumed with the fact that because they play football, they need to be obsessed with only football. When you look at major athletes, yes, they’re obsessed with their chosen sport, but they also do other stuff outside of [it],” she explained. At the end of the day, Gooden wants to build a roster of all-rounders.

Starting a sports agency from the ground up in such a competitive industry isn’t an easy feat but Gooden has a clear vision. “I don’t want to be the world’s biggest agency,” she said. “I’d rather have a smaller number of players who are elite and represent what we stand for.” What exactly does Mrs Gray stand for, you ask? “I want my agency to represent different cultures around the world,” Gooden answered. “I want to house a bunch of charismatic people who think outside the box.”