From the outside looking in, it would be very easy to look at SE Dons and think they’re a professional football team. They set levels that some of the biggest teams in the game are still catching up to.
They’ve just signed a new kit deal with PUMA. Their star player transcends the sport. They’ve got commercial partners in spaces like financial services, sports science, food + drink, and more. Fans queue round the block to watch them on a matchday, and they’ve got hundreds of thousands of followers online.
But the reality is that while Liverpool and Man City slug it out in the Premier League, SE Dons are fighting for the right to take home the Orpington & Bromley District Sunday Football League crown. And while Bayern Munich rampaged their way to the Champions League last season, the self-professed Sunday League revolutionaries were celebrating a big dub in the Paul Picard Cup.
Ultimately, SE Dons is a Sunday League team with Premier League reach.
Since the club was started by Don Strapzy and friends as a bit of fun, it’s gone from strength to strength as a symbolism of hard work, community and how football still unites people at every level of the pyramid. SE Dons is a family that’s grown into one of the most exciting football brands of the new era.
We got evidence of their progress first hand, when we visited the club for a training session in South London last month. While most Sunday League teams are fighting for pitch space to get their one-hour-a-week training time in, SE Dons were hosting legendary Olympian Colin Jackson as the club’s ‘Ultra Speed’ coach, courtesy of PUMA.
While the ballers were put through their paces, we linked up with club kingpin Don Strapzy and team skipper and Soccer AM shot-stopper, Big G, for a no-holds-barred conversation about how SE Dons became the Sunday League team taking on the world.
Photography by Kojo Dwimoh.
VERSUS: The Dons are an international team with ‘family” all over the globe. What does it mean to have that influence from something you formed with your friends?
Don Strapzy: It means a lot! It’s amazing to think that something which started in a park in South East London is now reaching a worldwide audience. It’s definitely amazing to see it all and gain recognition for the hard work that we’ve put in.
Big G: The most important thing is that they are our family and not fans. Whatever journey we are on, they come alongside us. That’s the best part. I feel like they believe in everyone who is in the team and see the desire we have. They want to be a part of it all. That’s why our mindset must be the right one, which is one of champions. That’s all we constantly try to encourage. Try and get more people to win in their lives. No excuses.
You’re definitely helping to change the perception of Sunday League. One thing that stands out about the Dons is how well it’s run. Why is that such a big feature of what you do?
Don: It’s the way we live our lives! We take our lives seriously and there’s an etiquette to the way we live and hold ourselves as men. We carry that into everything we do whether it’s football, music or other businesses that we may have within the team. We take everything seriously and we give 150%. It just shows. It’s a Sunday League team but we’re showing you can be proud of where you’re from. It doesn’t matter what level you’re playing at. That’s what we do.
Big G: We had to take two steps back to take three steps forwards. That’s literally how it felt. When we first started, it literally was like any other Sunday League team, a kick about with your mates but then, we started to realise something special was happening.
We realised we had to go back to the basics of what we wanted the club to be. How do we make sure everyone benefits and are we making the right decisions for the club? As you can see, we’ve got opportunities that have come up but is everyone winning? Is everyone benefiting? If not, that could have caused problems long term.
We realised we needed to be transparent through the club structure, so we put a board in place. When there’s opportunities to do things for the club, we will do it professionally. You have to be pure hearted in everything you do and not be greedy because we get opportunities all the time.
Between Colin Jackson, who is now your Ultra Speed coach, your SIS partnership, deal with PUMA and having yoga instructors come in… people would think the Dons are a professional club. Was that always part of the plan?
Don: It’s weird because we never sat down and planned all of this. It started off as a Sunday League team and still is. We didn’t say in five years, we wanted to be a professionally-run football club, things just organically grew. We then took the jump to go full-time and dedicate our time to the cause. This is just the result of hard work.
Big G: Definitely! We pride ourselves on being elite. A lot of people throw around the word ‘professional’ in everything but to be professional, you have to be professional about things every day. That comes with having a structure to the club.
We’ve managed to do that by looking at the top athletes. You look at some of the top athletes in the world such as Neymar, Ronaldo or Messi. They are all conditioned due to the structure of their programmes.
What we’ve tried to do is control the controllable. The things we can’t do, we manoeuvre around. Look at a team like Chelsea. Lampard has a transfer ban and uses it as an opportunity to bring through some younger players. It’s the same with us. We’re no different.
You’ve definitely transcended the limitations usually seen with Sunday League football. Your following on YouTube is obviously huge and has built an entire community. How does it feel knowing that the Dons actually mean more than professional teams to the “family”?
Don: Means a lot! We all love football. I grew up as a Manchester United fan and one thing about that is, you can’t touch the footballers or get close to them. Here, if you support the Dons, you can come on the sidelines with us. You will see the boys in Greenwich, Lewisham, Peckham or the local areas. It’s hard to put into words sometimes. People genuinely support what we do. We don’t call them fans; we call them family. They support the club the way I would support United.
Big G: Sunday League football has been going on for a very long time. A lot of people would like to discredit what we do but there’s also a lot of people who respect what we do and understand that we are all Sunday League teams. Everyone at our club loves Sunday League football. A Chelsea fan could go to Stamford Bridge but the likelihood of them playing there is very low.
When we play Sunday League, we play on the same grass pitches that some of our supporters play on. Fans will say ‘I played at the Dead End’. They will say they played at Mottingham Fields where the Dons first started. People will look at what we’ve done and relate to it. On our socials, you get to see the day-to-day of what we are doing, and you know it’s not a fluke! Everyone in Sunday League knows it’s hard to run a Sunday League team. It’s hard to run a team with your mates. It’s hard when people don’t turn up on time. However, it’s about the respect for each other and what the club means. The club you play for on a Sunday is the club you love and support. That’s why everyone believes in it.
One thing always discussed by the Dons is the importance of grassroots football. What more can be done to help the game and is there a bigger role to be played by Premier League clubs?
Don: I would say funding. The cost of hiring pitches and referees is upwards of £150-a-week. A decent pitch could cost you £130. Players then have to pay subs and some of the pitches in local parks are shocking. If there was more funding from the Premier League or FA, it would be amazing. A lot of these teams can’t continue to function because as a team they can’t afford to play. Sometimes a little rain results in games getting called off because of the conditions of pitches so funding would help a lot.
Big G: I think the pro game lacks a real connection with Sunday League and grassroots. Realistically, there’s enough clubs in and around local boroughs to invest in the facilities and build links. I also think you shouldn’t go out and beg. I feel like those big clubs should go into communities. Imagine if Manchester United had their own Sunday League team or Manchester City. Then, you’re drawing the community closer to the club and building a foundation. If not, everyone just sees their clubs but are distanced from it.
You can see the SE Dons in the community. Our boys will work in the local schools and gyms. They play for their local football clubs. That’s relatable. We take time to go and speak to our community. Pro clubs have to do this and engage more by understanding who is in their community. That’s what the role of influencers should be.
The real influencers are people like Chunkz and Filly who are giving back to their communities and people see them and say, ‘I know him, I’m happy he’s doing well’. We are trying to let everyone know that we are the SE Dons, the community is part of what we are, let’s all go on this journey together.
Despite being loyal to grassroots, would the Dons ever go Semi-Pro or Pro?
Don: We never write anything off. Who knows what the future holds? At the moment, we are Sunday League. We’re trying to push Sunday League as far as we can. We don’t want to step away from that anytime soon.
You’ve always loved football, how did your love for the game start?
Don: My dad was a United fan. From when I could walk, he would take me training. I’ve just always loved it and it was my first passion. Around 15, I lost a lot of interest in the game because I didn’t have that connection with it anymore but that came back with what we are doing now.
Out of all of your football lyrics, what one is your favourite?
Don: There’s so many! I done a Sterling bar once that went over people’s heads a bit.
“I could never fall back (full-back), I gotta chase Sterling / London’s Man City yeah, I’ll pay Sterling / The way I chase Sterling, You probably think I’m Liverpool the way I made Sterling”
That’s a hard question though man, I can’t even remember all of my lyrics!
What are the future plans for the Dons collective beyond football?
Don: On the pitch, success is important. We want to win as many cup competitions as we can and the league. Off the pitch, we will continue to handle business and partnerships whilst growing the brand as big as possible. The future is going to be massive. Big plans to take this whole thing worldwide. The pandemic caused pauses in some things, but we are going for more success.
If you could sign two players for the Dons, one a baller and one an influencer, who are you signing and why?
Don: Baller I’m signing Declan Rice. He’s a massive supporter of the Dons. I know if he came to play for us, the badge would mean something to him. With an influencer or artist, I’ll go with Rihanna.
Big G: To play for the Dons, you have to have to have two things. Our formula is character and ability. Some players have a balance whereas some have one more than other. You have to have something about you that stands out, though. Cause we are with PUMA now; I’ll say we would sign Neymar! I’ll probably bring Filly in too, he’s a Catford boy so he’s local.
Charity matches are a big part of what the club does. If the opportunity to play a pro club came up, who would you pick?
Don: Barca at the Nou Camp. Just because of what it represents and what Barca mean to football. That would be an amazing day for the boys and an unbelievable achievement for the Dons.
Big G: Manchester City! I know we will beat them.