Children with Down syndrome lack a social filter. I appreciate this quality: Allan Cockram, the individual responsible for the Mighty Penguins.

“Life has turned upside down the last eight weeks,” Allan Cockram says with a breathless smile after another muddy Sunday morning training session with the exuberant kids in his football team for players with Down’s syndrome, the Brentford Penguins. “It’s gone from just the training to all this recognition from so many people. I’m at a stage in my life where I can handle this stuff so let’s go for it. Let’s highlight these extraordinary children.”

Cockram’s life has been remarkable and unusual. After a couple of games for Spurs in the 1980s, playing in midfield alongside Glenn Hoddle and Ossie Ardiles despite his undiagnosed attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, he became a playmaker with a magnificent mullet for years at Brentford. His depression after football, while he found work as a fireman and then a taxi driver, lifted when Cockram met a teenager with Down’s who, years later, inspired him to start the Penguins.

A powerful documentary about Cockram and his team, the Mighty Penguins, has been created. They have also been recognized and celebrated by famous figures such as David Beckham, Conor Gallagher of Chelsea, and Gordon Ramsay, who invited them to lunch. The Penguins even traveled to Spain to compete against Athletic Bilbao. Cockram and his wife Vickie, who has played a crucial part in the team’s success, seem overwhelmed by all the attention, but during a coffee break in the clubhouse, they continue to focus on their main priority: the kids.

Allan Cockram poses after coaching Down Syndrome children football in Gunnersbury Park, Brentford.

Cockram explains that students with Down syndrome receive more recognition for attending school or college than typical students, whom he refers to as “normies.” This is due to opportunities such as representing Brentford at a Premier League game, traveling to Bilbao, and having a film made about them. Cockram anticipates even more exciting opportunities in the future.

“If someone attempts to bully them, our children’s response will be: ‘How many times have you personally encountered Beckham? How many times has Gordon Ramsay invited you for lunch?’ Without exposing our children to such extremes, we cannot gauge their potential. Has anyone ever challenged the limits of these children?”

Cockram has a playful relationship with his energetic Penguins, showing that he sees them as similar to himself. He states, “This is where I belong,” because he appreciates their genuine and uninhibited nature. Most people are cautious about expressing their feelings, but these children can tell when someone is being insincere. For Cockram, he feels a stronger connection with children with Down Syndrome compared to adults or those considered “normal” because he admires their authenticity and lack of pretense. He thrives on their rebellious behavior and enjoys it.

Cockram is warm and funny but he is thoughtful too. “This is a good subject,” he says when I ask if his humour hides his own past pain. “Fucking about is my mask but I never realised that until Covid hit. I have ADHD and that was only diagnosed three years ago. It explained so much of my life after growing up in an era where such things were never spoken about. Whether being a footballer, firefighter or football coach, my brain works in a very frazzled way. It constantly needs movement and emotion and when that got cut in lockdown I had to address it. I was like a caged lion who didn’t know what was going on in my head.”

He acknowledges that he can cause problems when he is alone, but ever since receiving his diagnosis, Cockram has gained a better understanding of his hazy past. “I spent 10 years at Spurs, starting when I was 12. Unfortunately, at the age of 14, I was confined to my bed for nine months due to a severe injury. Looking back, that was when everything changed for me. I never returned to school and despite being told by the doctor that I would never play again, I never lost my determination. That’s why I always stand up for the underdog.”

“I had the opportunity to play in two First Division matches with Ossie, Hoddle, Ricky Villa, Steve Perryman, and myself. This was the lineup for my midfield. I have fond memories of the world-class training sessions where Hoddle’s skill and Ardiles’ intelligence were unmatched. This is also why I stood my ground at Brentford and refused to play the long ball. My time there was truly special.”

Allan Cockram and members of Brentford Penguins in Gunnersbury Park, Brentford.

“In the past, after retiring from football, players were often forgotten and left without support. The mental aspect of the game was not given much attention. As a result, I faced numerous challenges and had to take on odd jobs such as being a fire-fighter and a cab driver. One day, I was asked to pick up a child named Phil with Down’s Syndrome and take him to school. During our rides, we bonded over our shared love for house music and football. Phil would refuse to get out of the car until a certain track finished playing. I felt a strong connection with him and we even trained and played football together.”

Cockram’s face turned troubled. “I left after six months and later received a call from the controller informing me that Phil had passed away due to complications from DS. He was only about 14 years old. I was overcome with sadness and ever since then, children with DS have been on my mind. I couldn’t stop thinking about them and what sets them apart, and why I have such strong emotions towards them. Eventually, I made the decision to take action.”

In October 2017, Cockram began the Brentford Penguins, which was six years ago. During his first indoor session, five children showed up. “I was fully prepared with cones and footballs,” Cockram recalls. “But when the first kid arrived wearing corduroys and a jumper, he started flapping his arms like wings and making bird noises. I found it delightful and decided to forgo my planned activities for the next 18 months.”

Currently, 35 members of the Penguin team are participating in a training session. The Cockrams, along with some volunteers and parents, assist in organizing the session. The activities include exciting penalty shootouts, lively celebrations for goals, spontaneous “interviews” on the field, and a pretend phone call between Cockram and Ramsay to discuss their favorite pizza toppings.

After watching Mighty Penguins, a movie skillfully directed by Louis Myles and Ahmed Twaij, I feel like I am already familiar with most of the children involved – from Big D, a former Penguin now serving as Cockram’s assistant coach, to Charlie, the team captain, to Louis who openly expressed his attraction to Alison Hammond on morning television before proposing to her, to Peanut who has bravely undergone 50 surgeries and still manages to maintain a positive attitude, to Katherine who has triumphed over numerous challenges in her personal life.

Mark Kermode praised the film as “truly extraordinary and incredibly life-affirming” during a recent showing at BFI Southbank. However, Cockram’s first viewing of Mighty Penguins was during the world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York, where he, his wife, and their 16-year-old daughter Katherine were invited. Cockram affectionately refers to Katherine as ‘Special K’ and sat between her and Vickie during the screening. According to Cockram, they intentionally avoided watching the film beforehand because they wanted to experience its rawness.

He stops and inquires, somewhat amusedly: “Rawity? Is that a positive term?”

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Vickie says in a dry tone that it is a newly coined term.

Cockram expressed his satisfaction, stating that he was surrounded by Vic and Special K while wondering about the upcoming events. They had been documenting for four months and he couldn’t help but think about what he may have said during that time.

Cockram has already spoken about his “Tourette’s moments” which mean that he can’t help shouting “Wiggy” if he sees a bald man wearing a toupee in the street. He has also been banned from the weekly shop with Vickie because he will count up the number of apologies he can get when gently banging his supermarket trolley into people.

Cockram recalls sitting in the darkness and being moved by the emotional response of Vanessa, Charlie’s mother, as she reflected on one of his old school reports that highlighted his challenges. This realization of being different and having a unique thought process affected Charlie deeply. Cockram was also affected by this moment and felt a physical change in his body which Special K noticed. She comforted him by putting her arm around him and assuring him that everything would be okay.

Three Penguins players enjoy themselves at a training session in west London.

Cockram expresses amazement. He believes that Special K brings a sense of spirituality. When Special K is present, everyone becomes more tranquil. However, after the incident, it was quite comical. While others were engaging in small talk and mingling with celebrities, Cockram and Vic chose to step outside. They soon noticed that Special K had left and was drawing attention to herself by bringing film industry people to meet them. She was definitely working the room.

The group has become accustomed to seeing famous people, but when Beckham unexpectedly appeared to present an award to Cockram, the 60-year-old was surprised. “I smelled him before I saw him,” Cockram recalled of Beckham. “He was wearing Issey Miyake. I thought to myself, ‘Is Issey Miyake behind me?’ Then I realized, ‘Oh my god, it’s like seeing Santa Claus.’ It was David Beckham with his son Romeo. My Tourette’s kicked in and I blurted out, ‘Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo? Where’s Juliet?’ He looked at me like, ‘Who is this crazy person?'”

Cockram chuckles once more. “However, they stayed with us for the next two hours and Beckham showed great intuition and respect towards the children. Young Louis entertained him with jokes and he couldn’t stop laughing. Later, Beckham wrote a kind letter and gifted us a signed Miami shirt with penguins on it. Romeo also sent a Brentford shirt. As someone who used to practice calligraphy, I wrote both of them a heartfelt letter. I also asked Romeo to become a patron and ambassador, and he couldn’t refuse after receiving a video from Louis saying, ‘Hey, friend! It’s your buddy Louis here.'”

The powerful Penguins are currently thriving, and Cockram acknowledges that his youthful players uplift him just as much as he supports them. He emphasizes the mutual nature of their relationship, stating, “I am very mindful of that. It goes both ways.” Having worked with numerous individuals throughout his life, Cockram expresses a strong emotional connection to the Penguins and their families. He and Vic are fully aware of the long-term dedication required to build this community, and they thoroughly enjoy it.

Mighty Penguins is included in Sports Explains the World, a fresh series of sports documentaries by Meadowlark Media. The anthology features 15 short films that go beyond the traditional realm of athletics.