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Former Wolves goalkeeper Carl Ikeme: Growing up with racism and getting into football

Wolverhampton | Wolves | Published:

In the second day of our exclusive serialisation of Why Not Me? – Carl Ikeme’s new book – the former Wolves goalkeeper recalls how his family faced horrific racism as he was growing up in Birmingham and Stone.

Carl Ikeme

For me, life growing up was sometimes tough.

We lived in a couple of fairly basic flats during my childhood in Birmingham and didn’t have a great deal when it came to luxuries or anything beyond what we needed to live on, but I am certainly not complaining.

At the time I didn’t know anything different, and most of the friends I played with were in exactly the same situation.

We had a roof over our heads, and I had a lot of friends to pass the time of day with – and of course, to play football with!

Looking back now I had probably already decided what I wanted to do when I was six or seven years old.

I wanted to be a footballer. Who doesn’t at that age?

Carl Ikeme as a child with his mother.

We were never what I’d describe as ‘poor’, but Mum and Dad had to be careful over money so they would never splash out and spend over the odds for anything.

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My very first boots were a pair of Patricks, and I looked after them with great care and attention.

It was a similar story when it came to football kits, and, while Villa was my team as a kid, we didn’t really have the money for a nice, expensive replica kit.

So it was that the very first kit I had, was a Heart of Midlothian one!

I can’t remember if my Mum or Nan bought it me, but it was something they had seen down the market and thought ‘it’s claret, that’s the same colour, so that’ll do!’

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Villa were my team growing up, and when my Dad came over from Nigeria he lived in Aston with my Grandad, who was just ten minutes away from Villa Park.

I loved the atmosphere of being at the football and standing on the terraces. As a young lad it was my first taste of the magic of football, and more motivation for me to one day go on and play at Villa Park myself.

At that point I was about seven or eight years old but a few years later I would go on to play for Villa’s Academy which meant I got a free ticket for games. Happy days!

Away from football there were a few mad things that happened around our estate growing up, although to us, at the time, they became seen as normal.

At maybe 13 or 14, a lot of my friends were drinking, smoking, dabbling in drugs.

I remember one of them overdosed at the age of 14 – fortunately, he lived to tell the tale. There was a lot to deal with in those days, including racism.

It was a different world back then, and, for a white lady like my Mum, going out with a black man just wasn’t seen as the right and proper thing to do.

We moved to Stone not long after I was born, and my Dad wasn’t completely up for that idea.

Carl Ikeme in a Villa shirt as a youngster.

It was 30 miles away from where he was happily settled, but it was a nice area.

The only problem was that there was a fair bit of racism there, but my Dad was never shy about sticking up for himself.

Obviously, a lot of this racism took place before I came along or was very young, including when I was a baby.

Once when we were back in Birmingham there were three Irishmen on the bus from Four Oaks to Sutton Coldfield who were calling me and my Mum horrible names – apparently, I was only two at the time.

They were calling me a n***** and mum a n*****-lover and saying how much they hated black people.

Mum told the bus driver who kicked the men off the bus and while my Mum was tough, I think incidents like that, when the abuse was directed towards her son, affected her far more.

To be honest it didn’t affect me massively, as having a white Mum and a black Dad was just normal, just like it was to be living in a flat without having a car or any real luxuries. I didn’t know anything different. They were just my Mum and Dad.

Back to the football, and my first junior team was Castlehurst Colts, and then Chelmsley Ravens, where it was really good fun, training in the week and playing matches on a Sunday.

From there I was given a great opportunity to join a Premier League Academy when I was spotted by Villa, but part of me felt sad that I had to stop playing for Chelmsley.

I’d say I was at Villa from the age of ten to maybe 12 or 13 and, looking back, my memories are very much about finding it difficult at their Academy.

At that stage of my life, I think I found it all a bit too serious.

I was playing in a team with some top players, the likes of Gary Cahill and Luke Moore, but, at that moment in time, it just didn’t feel like it was what I wanted to do.

I remember coming back from Villa’s Academy one day and just saying I didn’t want to be there anymore.

I went back to Chelmsley in the Sunday League, and this time I was able to play outfield.

Soon another academy came calling, this time Wolves, although not in the traditional way you might imagine.

Why Not Me?

One of my mates, Paul Bonar, had been invited along to Wolves for a trial, and they were short of a keeper.

While I can’t completely remember how the conversation went, all of a sudden, one day I found myself sat in the Bonar’s car, and on my way to a trial at Aldersley.

It went well, they liked what they saw, and from there I just carried on going.

The Under-15s manager then was Mike Smith, and I felt like I was at ease straightaway at Wolves and settled so much quicker than I had at Villa.

Eventually, I was told I was going to get a scholarship, to officially become a footballer and sign for Wolves, and that was a massively exciting prospect for any 15-year-old boy to think about.

Mum and Dad were both really happy that I had a full-time occupation after leaving school, that everything I had done so far and everything we had all put into it now had an end goal and something to strive for – to try and go on and become a professional footballer.

I wouldn’t need to be hanging around the streets anymore, football had given me a positive focus when I was a youngster and now it was giving me my first full-time job as well.

I still had so much to do to achieve my dream of becoming a professional, and I was now heading into a spell of my career and my life which would mean so much, either good or bad.

But I couldn’t wait to get started.

Tomorrow: Dean Saunders, and the infamous tactics board.

Carl’s book – for which he joined freelance journalist and former Wolves press officer Paul Berry – is on sale at the Wolves club shop, and Wolverhampton’s Waterstones book shop.

He will be signing copies at Waterstones on Saturday (12-2pm), and at the club shop on Saturday, December 14 (10am to 12pm) and Thursday, December 19 (5-7pm).

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