Tayshan Hayden-Smith speaks to FTF about his love of football, memories of Grenfell and fighting for justice at Grenfell Athletic.
Tayshan Hayden-Smith had a grin on his face.
At 17 years of age he was sitting in a meeting with Newcastle’s academy coaches.
He had just come to the end of an extensive trial with the Premier League giants. The coaches at the club were awed by his influence on the team.
‘There were three trialists, one from Atletico Madrid, the other from Rangers, and again I was the last one standing,’ Tayshan Hayden-Smith recalls to First Time Finish.
On the turf of Newcastle’s training ground complex he had demonstrated what he was all about. Technical, fast, lightning feet, and boisterous energy. The coaches loved every minute of it.
‘I played the best football of my life, beating players on the ball, spraying passes and scoring two goals in my first game.
I blew them away. They told me after the trial that they liked what they saw and that they could see me in the first team.’
To think that this was a player who had no experience of academy football was remarkable.
When the coaches said ‘they could see him in the first team’ it was no empty words or false promises. They were convinced they had found a gem in Tayshan.
‘They told me to wait until they (first team) came back and go back down to London for a few weeks to get some rest and then come back to join up with the first team.’
Tayshan had been playing football since the age of three at Westway. A community project with football pitches and facilities to provide kids an opportunity to play sports among other activities.
He’d had brushes in academy set-ups. Extensive trials sometimes as long as three months at Fulham and Brentford never amounted to being snapped up.
The coaches were always impressed. And they’d keep him on for longer than expected.
‘I was always a nearly,’ Tayshan recalls.
But in the end there would be concerns about his height. Several times he would be rejected by high profile clubs for being ‘too small.’
‘That was difficult to hear, physically I never looked strong but no one would really be able to knock me off the ball. I felt like my height and my size didn’t effect the way that I played. It didn’t limit me at all.’
It’s a sentiment the coaches who worked with Tayshan agree on. His ex-coach Kevin Green once claimed Hayden-Smith had the potential to be the ‘English Neymar.’
But far too often a culture of pre-determined stereotypes pervade the English game. From labelling taller physical players like Erling Haaland ‘target man’ and dismissing their talent to rejecting shorter, diminutive players like Tayshan simply for their smaller frame.
In the midst of it all, talent like Tayshan are lost.
‘That was the theme of my career. Being “too small.” For me football was just a way of expressing myself so it didn’t affect me at first. But when I started seeing football as a career it really started to impact me. It’s not the easiest thing to take.’
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After numerous rejections, being on the cusp of Newcastle’s first team, gave Tayshan a newfound confidence.
‘When I went back to Newcastle I thought I had this,’ Tayshan remembers.
He was on top of the world. It was unfathomable.
News of his success attracted attention too.
‘In London there was another agent, and I was encouraged by him to go to other clubs for trials.’
This is a moment Tayshan regrets.
‘This was naïve of me to do, I didn’t really understand the behind scenes of football or even the size of Newcastle. So over the weekend, I went on a one week trial with Crystal Palace without Newcastle knowing.
‘I had a week of training with them and they were really interested. Then a week after that Fulham were also interested, so I went on trial there too.’
This is when disaster would strike. On Tayshan’s first training session he was challenged and fell awkwardly on his hand. The diagnosis would be a broken wrist.
‘You can just imagine what was going through my head at the time, Newcastle were expecting me back the next week and I had only gone and snapped my arm. I had to put a cast on it and I couldn’t play for about a month.’
A month later when Tayshan could be deployed again, pre-season was already over. Newcastle United’s first team had embarked on their Premier League campaign.
‘The trial with the first team was no longer an option,’ Tayshan remembers of his return to Newcastle.
‘I got the sense Newcastle realised what was going on. I went with the U23s again. In the month that I rested, I didn’t do too much to maintain my fitness.’
‘It became very difficult to impress them. After another two weeks, they told me they loved what I was about but they didn’t think it would work out.’
Tayshan never gave up. He worked his way up the ladder earning himself a move to Canvey Island before an opportunity to join a Third division side in Austria called FC Kitzbühel arose.
Southend United were partners with the Austrian outfit. It was through them that Tayshan moved abroad.
‘They (Southend) had me in for a few training sessions with the first team, the plan was to go out to Austria as sort of a trial period.’
On the pitch Tayshan thrived in Austria.
‘I went out there and it was completely different. The culture and everything. But the footballing experience was amazing. I really enjoyed it. I was part of a title winning team, we played in front of big crowds. We were training everyday, learning all these tactics, changing formations during the game, pressing really high and with intensity.’
‘In football terms it was exciting,’ Tayshan recalls. ‘I was offered to stay there for longer.’
The offer to extend his contract came at a difficult moment.
In the early hours of 14th June 2017, a fire broke out in the 24 storey Grenfell Tower. For the rest of the day Britain stood still. Firefighters fought to tackle the fires, but for those trapped inside it was to no avail.
72 people lost their lives in the raging inferno. They were 72 avoidable deaths as it would be discovered.
Grenfell reeled in the aftermath of the tragedy. The pain was too raw. Unimaginable. Grief and mourning enveloped the community.
Tayshan had grown up around the tower. He had friends living in the apartment block. Amidst that environment there was only one place he could be.
‘I had to make quick decision based on what was going on at home,’ Tayshan recalls.
On top of that he had a young son to take care of and his mother was ill.
In the aftermath of the tragedy the community had been neglected by the British government. Very few officials made a visit to the area.
For many like Tayshan football became an escape. A solace and a way to bring the community together.
‘Before 2017 I’d definitely make decisions based on myself, but after Grenfell and my son coming into my care, my perceptions changed, and I’ve had to grow up really quickly,’ Tayshan says.
Football was the one thing which kept Tayshan grounded.
‘For me if there’s not a ball in between my feet there’s not a smile on my face.
When you play football it takes you into a completely different realm. You’re not thinking about anything. I couldn’t tell you my thoughts in a football game, I’m out of touch with everything. It immerses you in your experience.’
Through that experience sport can be a great release for many.
‘It does so much for my mental health,’ Tayshan admits. ‘For me my angle on football was always about playing to enjoy the game. That was my priority. It has been a platform to express myself and let go off everything else that’s going on in the world.’
A football team for justice
In the years since his return Tayshan has made his home playing for Rising Ballers FC. An initiative and a football club designed to help former academy players and talented individuals get back into the professional game.
Some of the club’s alumni have gone onto play in the Football League, Sheffield United and the Netherlands.
But earlier this year, having turned 24 Tayshan has decided to return to his roots and join Grenfell Athletic.
A club founded in the aftermath of the tragedy as a way to commemorate the victims and continue the fight for justice.
‘For me Grenfell Athletic couldn’t be closer to home,’ Tayshan recollects. ‘It resonates with me more than anything else. I’ve grown up with the guys in the team since I was 3 or 4 years old. I lived beneath Grenfell tower. I was born and raised in this community and now I’m representing where I’m from our culture and diversity.’
But playing for Grenfell comes with much more than just the game.
‘We are also building a legacy in Grenfell’s honour to make sure the world never forgets.
A football team is a great way to do that. You can’t take that away from anyone. And if you go out there and make a statement through football it’s a nice way to honour the people who lost their lives at Grenfell.’
In the process Grenfell Athletic has also been able to heal wounds and open up conversations within the community.
‘Football brings communities together and breaks down boundaries. It is a great medium to allow conversations to happen in the dressing room.’
At the core of those conversations and the main ethos of Grenfell remains one powerful message.
‘We are part of the fight for justice, we want to keep the name in peoples’ mouth to make sure they never forget,’ Tayshan concludes.
It is not just on the football field where Tayshan has taken up ways to help his community.
Shortly after coming back to Grenfell, he set-up a gardening project called Grow 2 Know. The non-profit organisation’s mission is to empower and build London’s neglected communities into more resourceful and eco-friendly areas.
‘After Grenfell a lot of people took to art to express myself, but personally I’m not much of an artist.
I saw this land that was neglected. So we went to that place and we started greening it up. We got a few smiles from people. And I felt a bit like I felt in football. I was in a new realm.’
Tayshan embraced horticulture ever since.
‘Being in a garden breaks down boundaries. Planting and engaging in nature helps give us something in common and initiate conversation.’
The movement has also helped to open Tayshan’s horizons.
‘Footballers don’t realise we rely on horticulture to play football. We spend most of our time on the grass playing in nature in parks.’
In the process, Tayshan’s community project is helping to build a more sustainable and environmentally friendly future.
You can catch Tayshan’s horticultural work at the Chelsea Flower Show later this year with his own sustainable project.
You can support the victims of the Grenfell disaster by purchasing a Grenfell Athletic kit here.