For Fahd Saleh, a conversation at the Job Centre sticks in the memory. A couple of years after arriving in Mansfield as a Syrian refugee hoping to land trials at Liverpool, Manchester United and Chelsea and continue his football career, he was on the receiving end of a cold and quizzical look when asked which vocation he ideally planned to pursue. “I mentioned that I was a goalkeeper and that I’d like to work for a team,” Saleh says. “The lady, and I can still picture the conversation now, she said to me: ‘You are dreaming.’ Now I would really like to see her to tell her that I’m working for a professional team called Mansfield Town and I’m very proud of where I am.”
Saleh combines his role as an academy goalkeeper coach at Mansfield with working as a PE teacher at Crescent Primary School in the town. After spotting a local advertisement, he is grateful to have been given a chance by the academy manager, Richard Cooper, and the League Two club’s manager, Nigel Clough, who allowed Saleh to work alongside his coaching staff for a couple of months last season.
Mansfield are paying for Saleh to complete his Uefa B licence, a course that has seen him deliver a session in front of the England goalkeeper coach, Martyn Margetson. “I went to St George’s Park,” Saleh says. “‘Wow, here is where the England team train.’ It was a dream come true.”
It is a long way from Homs, where he played for Al-Karamah, winning domestic titles and competing in the Asian Champions League. He left the city after being caught in the crossfire of the Syrian civil war, when his wife, Tahrir, was expecting their first child, Nour.
“One night, armies assembled just behind my home, on the street, to check people’s IDs, and they brought tanks to send bombs and missiles. I could hear everything. During the night they started to attack each other. We were in the middle. I had an apartment in this building that had three floors, and the top floor got bombed. My flat was on the first floor. From that point in the morning, I said: ‘In the morning we will escape. No more.’”
Saleh joined a club in the United Arab Emirates for four months but, anxious about leaving his loved ones behind, he took his family to Jordan. He spent three and a half years there before applying to claim asylum via the the UN Refugee Agency. He was told he would be resettled in the United States, before they changed his destination. “They said: ‘Are you still willing to come?’ I was like: ‘Come on, yes, Liverpool, Man Utd, Man City, yes I want to come!’”
On arrival in Mansfield in 2015 he could not speak a word of English and although he always takes his hefty English-Arabic dictionary to classes and courses, he carries out this interview with a perfect grasp of the language. He candidly discusses everything from idolising Gianluigi Buffon, Googling Clough, meeting Gary Lineker, his growing love for fish and chips and jacket potato, and getting to grips with the football lexicon. “I heard ‘drive, drive’ … oh ‘drive with the football, go forward’. OK, thank you,” Saleh says, smiling. “And then: ‘whip it, whip it.’ What do you mean ‘whip it’? Oh, cross it. OK, thank you. I have to be able to use these kind of words in my sessions.”
Saleh enrolled on a college leadership course and spent a year working at a secondary school to support three Syrian children before volunteering at AFC Mansfield and the school he now works at twice a week. “I learnt from this country that if you don’t ask for something, then you’ll never get it.
“I’ve been there more than two years now. I didn’t come to the UK to get benefits from the government and sit on the sofa. I came to the UK to learn, develop myself, get a proper job, support my family, support my community and be a good example in front of my children. I say to them: ‘If you wake up early, you will do your job while they [others] are sleeping.’”
Saleh’s family moved to Mansfield with three other Syrian families and realised it was a blessing in disguise that they live in separate parts of town. “I mentioned it with Gary Lineker,” Saleh says, recalling how the former England striker told him he tried to avoid spending too much time with expats when he played for Barcelona. Lineker interviewed Saleh for part of a book to support refugees.
“He asked me: ‘How did you learn the language?’ I told him how I was trying to not be involved too much with the other families because I knew it would affect my English. So we had the same mindset … Now when Match of the Day is on my kids say: ‘Daddy, it’s Gary Lineker, your friend.’ I say: ‘Well, I’d like him to be my friend!’”
Since arriving in England he has seen his mother only on video calls and was ineligible to attend his father’s funeral in 2017. He stays in touch with friends in Syria but only recently has he been able to stomach news of events back home – “for the first two or three years I didn’t watch it at all because it is heartbreaking” – and the landscape there is much changed.
“In the past the life was great: playing for a team, you walk around the city, most of the people know you and want to take photos, and suddenly everything is gone. It is awful. Before I escaped I decided to go home to bring some of my stuff. When I went there, my home was burnt down. All of my trophies, photos had gone. Sorry, I get emotional,” he says, as tears pool in his eyes. “It is not an easy one.”
Saleh’s aim is to work in the Premier League within five years. How does the 37-year-old reflect on his journey to this point? “I’m going to say it’s a big achievement. To rebuild the life that you had in the past is extremely hard, with a new language, new culture, new atmosphere, new food, new everything.
“The main thing is to believe in yourself, to believe in what you have and in where you want to go. I just needed an opportunity. I didn’t want money, I just wanted a chance.”