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      Meet Mary Barnett: Palace for Life's Community Captain


      At the end of the day, football amounts to cause for celebration – celebration of a goal, three points, a thumping sliding tackle, or on occasion, even, something greater.

      Ahead of our 3-0 win over Burnley at Selhurst Park a fortnight ago – a day of joy for new manager Oliver Glasner and his new Crystal Palace charges – there was a smaller-scale, but certainly no less meaningful, celebration which took place just yards from Selhurst Park.

      For inside a packed Fanzone ahead of kick-off, host Rob Thornton momentarily paused the pre-match proceedings – and Mary Barnett, unknowingly but wonderfully deservingly, was about to get pulled up onto the stage.

      “It was a total surprise!” she admitted, speaking to – but perhaps it shouldn’t have been.

      Mary was about to receive a special ‘Community Captain’ armband, frame and pennant on behalf of the club and the Palace for Life Foundation, for whom she has dedicated a vast amount of time to assisting fundraising efforts – and ultimately changing the lives of young south Londoners – in so many different ways.

      The theme of this year's International Women's Day is to 'Inspire Inclusion' – a feat Mary accomplishes every single week.

      Presented as part of the Premier League’s ‘More Than A Game’ campaign, there can be few characters who embody the community spirit of their football club more than her.

      “I'm born and bred in Croydon, went to school in Croydon – and basically haven't left Croydon!” she laughs. “I'm of Irish descent, but I've lived in Croydon all my life.

      “I’ve been attending home games over the last three or four years, and my husband’s had a season ticket since he was four years old!”

      Having worked in a bank for almost four decades, Mary took early retirement but, always into her sport and inspired by her football-playing daughter – whom she used to drive to games – signed up for the Foundation’s Ladies Walking Football sessions in 2021.

      “My daughter was a sessional coach at Palace for Life and kept saying to me ‘come along, come along’ – and eventually the opportunity and the timing was right for me to go along on a Thursday night, and I’ve been there ever since. It’s something I really enjoy – it’s good for your social life, your mental health and for your fitness.

      “From that, an opportunity came out just before Christmas to take my [FA] Level 1 [coaching qualification], so I started doing my Level 1 over December. I passed that, and then Roxanne, who worked at Palace and was in charge of Women’s walking football, said to me: ‘there’s a coaching job coming up – why don’t you apply?’

      “I did. I started coaching – and it’s the best thing I’ve ever done. And last year, I passed my UEFA C Licence – it took a little while, but I persevered and got there in the end!”

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      There was never the opportunity there. I think if it were, I would have played football at school.

      Mary Barnett

      Having loved playing, where does Mary’s love of coaching come from?: “When I was at school I was really sporty.

      "I loved running, rounders, hockey, gymnastics, trampolining… but we never had the opportunity to play football.

      “It was always the boys, so there was never the opportunity there. I think if it were, I would have played football at school.

      “I love sport so much and I think this is why I enjoy my role, because I'm not doing the same thing day in, day out – I do lots of different sessions, so I'm mixing with different people as well. That's why I enjoy it so much.”

      As she refers to, having initially joined Palace for Life as a sessional coach, Mary soon got stuck into delivering a wide range of programmes such as Premier League KicksPremier League Primary StarsDisability and Pan Disability sessions, Adult Health, NCS, and Holiday Camps.

      Over this period, Mary built up her coaching abilities, working with a wide-range of participants from different ages and environments.

      She eventually took on the role of lead coach of the Women’s Walking Football team, who can these days often be found doing a pub quiz together, watching the Lionesses or taking part in fundraising activities – such as the Marathon March, in which they raised over £10,000 – to help transform the lives of young south Londoners.

      “Myself and some of the ladies from the walking football team, we decided we'd sign up to do the Marathon March, and so we did fundraising events to help us to get our sponsorship up, like quizzes and football tournaments, to raise money for the Foundation.

      “We were in Boxpark watching the World Cup last year, and we went to most of the games that were showing on the screen. Socialising with them… I think that's probably quite a big part of my life.”

      As well as coaching, Mary also became a matchday volunteer, running the football competition in the Fanzone before every home game, which helps to engage and introduce young matchgoers to the Foundation’s work.

      Taking on so many different, but equally vital, roles, Mary simply loves the community at the heart of it.

      “They’re all really lovely people and they are so heart-warming,” Mary smiles, when asked about the characters, young and old, she has met through the Foundation.

      “Yesterday I did a session at Waddon for adults with learning disabilities, and you walk through the door and their faces light up. They smile at you and they greet you. They give you pictures that they've drawn… it's just so lovely, it really is.

      “I love working on the disability side of the Foundation because I see so many different characters with different needs and when I see them, they come in, they give you a big smile and with that smile, you just want to help them so much.

      “Also, it's nice to see the progression of some of the people we work with, where some, who had never played football, are now starting to move and work with the ball, dribbling around cones, whereas some of them could never do that before.

      “It’s being part of the community, and giving back.”

      Which brings us onto the Burnley game – and the moment the community, in one small way, gave back to Mary.

      “I had no idea!" she recalls. "I was in the Fanzone working, because I run the inflatable shootout goal, and Bobby [Webbe, Senior Fundraising Coordinator] came over to me and he said: ‘oh, about two o'clock, if you hang around there's just something I just need to mention to you!’… then he goes: ‘it’s nice, don’t get worried!’

      “We'd done the competition, and the young boy that won was going to be awarded a little prize on the stage… then Rob came over to me and asked if I could give him the prize, which I thought was a bit strange. I went over – and that's when I got pulled up on the stage. It was a total surprise.

      “I felt really honoured. It’s a lovely thing to happen to me, but I do feel really honoured. I’ve got it [the award] pride of place on my wall.

      “I still don’t know why I got it – but I have!”

      Today marks International Women’s Day 2024 – returning us to the theme of celebration, particularly of inspirations like Mary.

      How will she be spending it? You can probably guess.

      “We’ve got a Walking Ladies team entered into an International Women's Day tournament in Fulham!” she explains. “We want to win that!

      “It’s teams of six – a goalkeeper, two defenders, one in the middle, and two up-front – and we normally play for between 12 to 15 minutes.

      “I play defence because I can’t score goals! The only goal I ever scored in a tournament got ruled out because they said I was talking too fast – I’ve never forgotten that one! And it was a good goal, with my left foot!”

      Let’s hope that there’s at least one more – of the many out there – reason to celebrate Mary Barnett on Friday afternoon. A true Community Captain.