Meeting the South London football coach who has joined the likes of Bukayo Saka and Raheem Sterling on the prestigious Football Black List
It’s rather apt that when I meet Cordell Lake-Benjamin, he’s on the training pitch. We are pitchside at a Sutton High FC training session, the club where Cordell runs the adult 1st XI and is blazing a trail in giving the amateur football club renewed direction as it approaches its 70th year.
In a couple of days, Cordell will be present at the Football Black List’s annual awards ceremony, to be held in Battersea. He is on the list alongside illustrious names such as Bukayo Saka, Raheem Sterling and Patrick Vieira, recognising the good work he is doing at the Palace for Life Foundation, the official charity of Crystal Palace FC, which has been working with the south London community for over 25 years. They use the power of football and the Palace brand to change the lives of young people across south London, particularly the most hard-to-reach and hard-to-help, and work with over 15,000 people each year, inspiring them to find a better path and to lead a healthier life.
Absolutely London spoke to South Londoner Cordell about the job, the importance of the Foundation’s work, and being recognised in the street.
Why were you keen to work at the Palace for Life Foundation?
I actually participated back in 2005. I went to the Foundation and I had a mentor who helped me with my maths and my English, and growing up I saw them doing positive stuff and there were always positive people there. In 2019 I helped them put on a football match, a community event called Cut It Out, where we brought the youth engagement community and the police community together, so I had experience of their work.
When did you initially get the job at the Foundation?
I saw the job advertised in July 2022, but I was still teaching at the time. My background is SEN teaching, working with a people referral unit. I saw the job and I wasn’t ready to move on then. Then I saw it again in September and I thought, you know what, I am going for it this time. They liked me and I liked them, so I started last October.
My job title is Targeted Intervention Youth Worker. What that entails is I mentor in the community and sports, and I cover intervention and prevention. To give an example of the work, I recently went into prisons and helped prisoners with some football coaching. The job title is another word for being a mentor, but there is so much to it – for example, I will go to child protection meetings and things like that.
How does a typical week pan out for you?
It varies, but on a Monday I will mentor one session, Tuesday I am in two schools, Wednesday I do admin for the Tuesday, Thursday I am in a school all day, and Friday I go into a meeting called My Ends, where sometimes the borough commander or Chief Inspector of the Croydon police and all the professionals working with kids will come together, updating what’s happening in Croydon and what things we can do to help bring about change.
Why is the work you do important?
As you know, the world is starting to turn, the community is getting worse and worse, no-one is able to walk around with nice stuff, a lot of parents are shutting their kids away. The community should be like how I grew up – today, there’s no one knocking for their friends any more because their parents are worried about what could happen. There are a lot of kids running around with trauma and nobody’s really there for them, no one is creating a safe space for the kids nowadays. That’s where we can step in.
Your job must be difficult at times, seeing the things you do…
It really does pull some emotional strings, but… It’s a hard one. You have to take your emotions out of the situation to help THEM deal with the situation. I have supervision, and during those meetings is when you will see my emotions come out, but in front of the kids, they will never know that this is something I have gone through, or something my friends have gone through. It could make the situation worse if they did, but if I thought it might help to say ‘hey, it’s OK I have done this as well, I have turned out OK, we can get through it’, then I will let them know.
It must give you plenty of satisfaction seeing someone’s life change for the better.
When you see a kid trying, or wanting to try, that is enough. Not every kid is going to be the ideal success story. The fact that they want to come to you to create that safe space, that’s enough. They want to engage – the moment they engage and want to change, that’s the buzz for me. It’s understanding for them as well that they will still make mistakes.
To be honest, I am already in a dreamland. I grew up over the road from Crystal Palace’s stadium, so being in the stadium every day and having access to walk around is still like a dream. My goal for now is to keep enjoying myself. You will hear me say a lot of times I don’t see this as a job. This is something I have always wanted to do.
When did you find out you were on the Football Black List?
So it was on the Tuesday, I got an email about midnight – I was on my laptop and saw it, but I was told you can’t say anything till the Thursday when the news is released. I couldn’t say anything in the office, then the media officer came over to me and said ‘do you have something to tell me?’ Erm… They got an email saying Patrick Vieira had won an award, which for them was normal, and then they saw my name too – ‘what’s going on here?!’ It was a surprise.
I didn’t see it as a massive thing, I was just like ‘cool’. I don’t do the job for recognition. But I went out two weeks ago and someone said, ‘hey I saw you on Sky Sports’! I didn’t realise that people actually read these things. It feels good to be on the list with these names, I have Googled my name ten times to see it come up! And seeing my name on the Premier League website… Maybe it will hit home more at the awards themselves.
Find out more about the work of Palace for Life Foundation at palaceforlife.org