Find out how football has helped Paul Menacer, a survivor of the Grenfell Tower fire

As we mark the third anniversary of the Grenfell Tower fire, survivor Paul Menacer tells us how football has helped him cope with tragedy. The 26-year-old Arsenal supporter escaped from the sixth floor of the building after heroically helping others out first. The fire sadly claimed 72 lives. Usually a silent walk takes place to honour their memories, but this year a virtual vigil will be held due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Saturday 13 Jun 2020
Paul, with his friend Luke Howard, at Arsenal's Emirates Stadium

The third anniversary of the Grenfell Tower fire is going to be one of the hardest days since the tragedy.

It will be weird, due to social distancing, not being able to hug other survivors and families of the victims. We need to ensure, despite the unique challenges everyone is currently facing, that we don’t forget the memories of the 72 people who died.

Since the fire I've suffered quite badly from mental health problems and I struggle to engage with people online. I much prefer face to face chats and, to be brutally honest, the loneliness of lockdown has made me think more and more about the horrible events of 14 June 2017.

I sometimes get flashbacks at night. I wake up crippled with guilt and just can’t get back to sleep. I still often say to myself, ‘Paul, could you have knocked on more doors?’

I did as much as I could, but I just remember coughing due to all the smoke and then the brave firemen telling me to get out of the building.

Meeting one of my Arsenal heroes, Pierre Emerick-Aubameyang

When you witness dead bodies on the ground, or see helpless people jumping off of their balconies to their deaths, it’s very hard to process. Those images will stay with me for the rest of my life.

I try to combat these dark thoughts with breathing exercises along with remembering happy memories from my time living in Grenfell Tower. But my main coping mechanism is actually football.

Like a lot of other residents from the tower, I support Arsenal. It was actually crazy how many Gunners lived there given we were so near to Stamford Bridge.

I've been watching a lot of old games recently to keep my mind occupied. I'm so happy the Premier League is returning. That’s huge for me because it helps bring some normality back. Arsenal may be ninth, but we can definitely still qualify for the Champions League. Liverpool aside, the top half of the table is pretty tight.

Football has really helped with the healing. Luke Howard, Arsenal’s community disability lead, has been brilliant and now become a friend. He even invited me down to an Arsenal training session in 2018 and I got to meet Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette.

One of my favourite Arsenal legends is actually Mikel Arteta and I really think he’s the right long-term manager to guide us to another title soon.

Just a few days before the fire I got his name printed on the back of my shirt, but sadly it was destroyed with my other belongings. It would be so cool to meet him!

I've also been following England pretty closely of late, too. It’s such a shame the Euros have been delayed. Gareth Southgate has done an outstanding job. I hope to get to some of the games at Wembley Stadium next summer.

Along with watching football again, I'm also excited to play soon. I was the co-founder of Grenfell Athletic and now I play and coach for South London Football Network. Our games take place in Wandsworth. I'm an attacking midfielder, a bit like Mesut Ozil…although I track back more!

With Grenfell Athletic in the build-up to our Game for Grenfell

The football community has really rallied around me since the fire and I was fortunate enough to play in the ‘Game 4 Grenfell’ in September 2017 at Loftus Road. I was part of Team Shearer and we lost on penalties to Team Ferdinand.

It was a fantastic experience, especially sharing a dressing room with Jose Mourinho. But it was also kind of bittersweet knowing all those players and celebrities were only there because 72 people had lost their lives. One of them was Yasin El Wahabi, who I used to play football with at school.

I would love to organise another match next year, but this time with the proceeds going to mental health charities. It’s really important to me to help others in this area.

At the time of the game I was in a pretty bad place. I was on several medications, had gained significant weight and felt extremely tired all of the time. But during the warm-up, I got talking to Jamie Redknapp and he had a significant impact on me. He took a genuine interest in my story and that gave me a big boost.

He also wrote me a lovely message on my match shirt and even gave me his mobile and said we would organise a kickabout. Sadly, I lost the number, but I hope he reads this and reaches out. I'd love to talk to him again.

Even though he played for Spurs, Jamie is an idol of mine. He scored some amazing goals in the Premier League and for England. Meeting a role model like Jamie, and realising he's just a normal bloke, was really inspiring for me.

A signed shirt from Jamie Redknapp, who I met at the game at Loftus Road

That’s why the Heads Up campaign is so important. When you hear footballers like Danny Rose or Marvin Sordell going through the same emotions as you, or even just offering empathy, and talking so openly about depression it's a reminder that you're not alone.

Thankfully I am doing much better now, but I must admit it has still been a tough year.

My uncle Rafiq died last December and it was all quite sudden. He lived with me in Grenfell Tower. Fortunately, he was away in Algeria on the night of the fire.

Had he been at home I don’t think either of us would have survived. He suffered from arthritis and was quite a big man, so it would have been very difficult to get him down the stairs.

My foster mother has been a huge source of comfort and I'm now looking to find a new job. I would either like to become a firefighter – having been inspired by those who helped saved so many lives that night – or a football coach. Once the anniversary passes, I will start taking proactive steps to pursue one of these dreams.

But for now it's time for quiet reflection to mark the third anniversary. Plus all the survivors also have the conclusion of the Grenfell Tower fire inquiry to focus on. 

Hopefully, one thing to come from it is a ban on the type of flammable cladding that caused the fire. Some steps have already been taken to remove it from other council housing, but the same type still exists in other buildings across England and we need to get it removed and replaced with something safer so this never happens again.

Along with the online vigil, I also plan to make a short trip down to the base of Grenfell Tower on Sunday. I will bring a chair and just sit there and reflect on the good times. After all, despite the tragedy I still really loved living there.

You can join the multi-faith Grenfell Tower vigil from 6pm on Sunday via YouTube. 

By Paul Menacer Grenfell Tower fire survivor