Published: 06:00, 24 November 2020
| Updated: 11:40, 24 November 2020
It’s been quite a journey for Sheppey United head coach Marcel Nimani - plotting promotion with one of Kent’s most ambitious non-league clubs just 20 years after arriving on the back of a lorry as a refugee.
Nimani’s family fled the troubles in the former republic of Yugoslavia as Serb forces looked to dish out punishment to those who had opposed them during the Kosovo War. As an Albanian Muslim, with teacher parents and living in a border town, they were a prime a target.
Nimani was 13 at the time, his sister even younger, but his parents felt they needed to leave before anything bad happened. Fast forward two decades and Nimani is now a teacher himself, a football coach and a dad. It’s been a journey he’s embraced, through good times and bad.
“It has been a positive journey,” said the 34-year-old.
“Looking back now it was a sad journey that we had to go through but at the time, coming from a poor country, it wasn’t as dramatic as it would be if I had to do that now.
“We came from a country of war and constantly being discriminated against because of our religion and background. At the time it didn’t seem so dramatic.
“We were sheltered very well by our parents. It was difficult for our parents to protect us when we were being occupied by Serbs, that was far more difficult than the journey coming to the UK. They sheltered us very well.”
The family were taken into custody on their arrival to England, jumping off the lorry on a random piece of the motorway network, before being ferried away in a police van for processing.
They had left a territory that would suffer reprisals. Many young men had joined the Kosovo Liberation Army, formed to fight against persecution from the occupiers. In the town near where Nimani had grown up, hundreds were killed and homes were emptied.
“My mum and dad predicted what was happening,” he said. “There were a lot of tensions and before the war kicked off the Serbs were very vicious, they bullied and were criminal towards the Muslim Albanians.
“My parents were teaching Albanian so they were a particular target. The Serbs wanted to destroy the culture.
“We went on a journey which a lot of people criticise, and how a lot of immigrants come to the UK, but I have a lot of admiration for my mum and dad because they showed great character.
“People ask why the UK? The UK has the greatest opportunity to raise a family and as a parent now myself, I understand why they went through it. Every parent wants the best for their kids. The UK was the best place at the time and still is.”
The family spent a couple of years in Folkestone but it was a move to Ashford that really saw Marcel fully integrate and football was key to that.
“Football was the ladder for me settling into the UK,” he said.
“I could integrate with people without speaking any English, I could express my personality without speaking, then bit by bit I integrated socially, I developed skills and the language.”
‘People ask why the UK? The UK has the greatest opportunity to raise a family and as a parent now myself, I understand why they went through it’
He played for Ashford Town and Hythe but in the end had to accept that he wasn’t going to make it far as a player. He turned to coaching while at the same time his career as a teacher also took off.
After three enjoyable years at the Marsh Academy in New Romney he moved onto the St Simon Stock Catholic School in Maidstone, where he has been for the last six years, heading up the PE department.
As for the football, he said: “At around the age of 28 I got frustrated with playing and could never live up to the standards that I could coach and I started to get a better kick out of coaching than I did playing.”
He took an under-18 side at Hythe Town, getting a good insight into coaching while working with Darren Beale and Tim Dixon. Then he went onto Tunbridge Wells as an under-21 coach with Lee Mackelden before being promoted to first team coach under Jason Bourne.
Nimani said: “Once I got into the first team I realised that was for me and I did my UEFA B Licence and then moved to Sheppey last year.”
The Ites are a team on the up. Unbeaten in the league before the second lockdown and looking to progress to the latter rounds of the FA Vase - a competition for non-league’s smaller clubs with a Wembley final.
The departure of Sheppey’s previous assistant Jono Richardson left the door open for Nimani to act as manager Ernie Batten’s right hand man and he is enjoying the role.
“Sheppey is an incredible club,” he said.
“The chairman is very committed in terms of investment to narrow the gap between semi-pro to professional level, Matt Smith is very passionate about it. He invests his time and Ernie is very open minded and anything that involves upgrading the system he is all for.”
Nimani is making it in his own way, as have many other families from the region, including some high-profile stars, including Liverpool’s Xherdan Shaqiri and Arsenal’s Granit Xhaka, who grew up in a family that also fled the troubles. Global pop star Rita Ora is another to have made it big.
Sheppey United may be a modest boast in comparison, but from having nothing to now, Nimani is certainly an example of what can be achieved with commitment and belief.
“My message is of embracing opportunities rather than allowing scars of the past effect the future,” he said. “It is a message that I strongly enforce to my students from whatever background or experiences they may have gone through.
“Once I’d moved to the UK, my experiences of the life behind disappeared and my focus then became about embracing the future, expressing my personality into a new world. This mindset really helped me forget and move on freely.
“So many teenagers often struggle to fit in socially or express themselves due to their ethnic background and working in schools I see this often. Being of immigrant descent, of whatever ethnic and religious background, is something to be proud and something you should always share with people around you.”
At Sheppey, there’s a real melting pot of backgrounds and he’s enjoyed embracing that.
“We have great times,” he said. “I am very proud of the way we do things at Sheppey, it is a very dynamic side in terms of ethnicity. We have boys from a lot of different backgrounds and cultures and they integrate with each other and we know about the world a lot more because of it.”