When Michael Noone set off on his solo walk from Old Trafford to Wembley stadium on Boxing Day to raise money for his football academy in Tanzania, it wasn’t the first time he had taken a journey into the unknown. A youth coach with experience of working in schools in Manchester, the United States and Canada, the 37-year-old was “looking for a change in my life” when he arrived in east Africa in March 2020.
“I just kind of stumbled across it,” he says. “I came over with just a backpack and had nothing organised so I sort of just wandered around. I started volunteering in this orphanage, joined in a few games and just found the football culture unbelievable. I’ve been coaching for many years and I’d played with some guys from east Africa before and they told me that there was so much hugely untapped talent here. So I came here almost out of curiosity more than anything I guess …”
Noone started coaching a group of players in Mivumoni, a small town about 300km north of Dar es Salaam in one of Tanzania’s poorest regions, and was so impressed with the standard that he set up the Route One academy, which caters for 150 boys and girls from under-eights to under-18s.
“Every week there were more and more who kept joining our group,” he says. “What started off as something casual has ended up with me wanting to stay and help.”
As well as providing coaching and equipment for the growing academy, Noone – who divides his time between Mivumoni and Manchester – has rented two local houses for some of the players to live in and ensures they have a regular supply of clean water.
“When I first got here they were all sleeping in a house with more than 20 people and there were really high levels of malaria,” he says. “Our project is in an area of huge poverty – there are high levels of typhoid, malaria and dysentery – so it’s a real struggle for them. I’m awake at night because I want to improve everything. We’ve ended up having a hostel as well to give them somewhere to sleep.”
Noone adds: “My aim is now to try and improve that environment and showcase the ability that these players have. The skill levels here are really high. We’ve just started to get ourselves noticed over here at tournaments.”
The star player Mahmoud Kanyota’s recent call-up to Tanzania’s Under-17 boy’s team was further recognition for the academy and Noone is hoping he can build on his growing relationship with the country’s football association, having recently applied for charitable status. “When we’re on the map that is a real option,” he says. “A lot of our players haven’t got the correct paperwork so we’ve had to start working on that.”
Having used up his savings to get the academy off the ground, Noone has taken on a series of fundraising challenges over the past few months that have included running from Anfield to Old Trafford and his epic walk to the home of football that ended on New Year’s Day.
“I did about 35 miles a day on average – my toenails are still falling off now! I did it at a really stupid moment as well because we had a very rainy spell … but I kind of enjoyed it strangely. I had mates with me for some of it at the start but almost all of it was on my own. I just went for it. When I got to Wembley Way I met some mates at Box Park and I was really struggling. It was great to have that first beer but I ended up dropping off!”
The effort raised about £1,500 but with Noone estimating that it costs him about £800 a month to keep the academy going, his need for more funding is obvious.
“I’ve asked everyone I know to throw in something that they can donate,” he says. “A friend of mine is sponsoring the shirts and a few local businesses in the UK have also been very generous.”
A shipment containing 25 new Crystal Palace kits donated by the Premier League club is on its way to Mivumoni, and Noone took back training equipment and boots gifted by members of the Manchester United Women team after completing his latest fundraiser last week – a 182-mile coast-to-coast walk that culminated at Robin Hood’s Bay in Yorkshire.
Mbwana Samatta’s short spell at Aston Villa in 2020 made him the first Tanzanian to play in the Premier League but Noone believes there is every chance plenty more could come if local players are given the right opportunities.
“I often tell my players that the chance of making it at the highest level is fractional but there is a player here who is 11 who is unbelievably good,” he says. “If I can find a pathway for someone like him then I would be very happy.”