When Michael Noone embarked on his solo stroll 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’d embarked on a journey into the unknown. A youth coach with experience 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 stumbled upon it,” he says. “I just came over with a backpack and didn’t have anything organized so I just wandered around. I started volunteering at this orphanage, attended a few games and found the football culture amazing. I’ve been a coach for many years and had previously played with some guys from East Africa and they told me there was so much untapped talent here. So I came here more out of curiosity than anything, I guess…”
Noone began coaching a group of players in Mivumoni, a small town about 300 km north of Dar es Salaam in one of Tanzania’s poorest regions, and was so impressed by the level that he founded the Route One academy, the 150 boys and girls cared for from under eight to under 18 years.
“Every week more and more people joined our group,” he says. “What started out as something casual has resulted in me wanting to stay and help.”
As well as providing coaching and equipment for the growing academy, Noone – who splits his time between Mivumoni and Manchester – has rented two houses nearby for some of the players to live in and makes sure they come along regularly be supplied with clean water.
“When I got here, they were all asleep in a house of more than 20 people, and there were really high rates of malaria,” he says. “Our project is in an area of extreme poverty – there are many cases of typhoid, malaria and dysentery – so it’s a real struggle for them. I’m up at night because I want to improve everything. We also have a hostel after all to give them a place to sleep.”
Noone adds: “My goal now is to improve that environment and demonstrate the skills of these players. The skills here are really high. We’ve just started making ourselves felt at tournaments here.”
The recent call-up of star player Mahmoud Kanyota to Tanzania U17 boys’ team was further recognition for the academy and Noone is hoping to build on his growing relationship with the country’s football association, having recently submitted a non-profit application. “If we’re on the map, that’s a real option,” he says. “A lot of our players don’t have the right papers, so we had to start working on that.”
After using up his life savings to get the academy off the ground, Noone has taken on a number of fundraising challenges in recent months, including the run from Anfield to Old Trafford and his epic walk to the home of football, which begins on Sept New Year’s Day ended day.
“I averaged about 35 miles a day – my toenails are still falling off now! I also did it in a really silly moment because we were having a very rainy spell… but I kind of weirdly enjoyed it. In the beginning I had buddies with me for some of it, but almost everything was on my own. I just tried. When I got to Wembley Way I met some buddies at the box park and I really struggled. It was great drinking that first beer but I fell over in the end!”
The effort raised around £1,500, but with Noone estimating it costs him around £800 a month to keep the academy running, his need for more funding is obvious.
“I’ve asked everyone I know to throw something to donate,” he says. “A friend of mine sponsors the shirts and some local businesses in the UK have also been very generous.”
A shipment of 25 new Crystal Palace shirts donated by the Premier League club is on its way to Mivumoni, and Noone took back training kit and shoes given by members of the Manchester United women’s team after losing his final fundraiser – a 182-mile coast-to-coast walk culminating in Robin Hood’s Bay in Yorkshire.
Mbwana Samatta’s short stint at Aston Villa in 2020 made him the first Tanzanian to play in the Premier League, but nobody believes there’s any chance much 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 slim, but here is an 11-year-old player who is incredibly good,” he says. “If I could find a way for someone like him, I would be very happy.”