In January 2018, Ullet Road Church Rebels were formed in Liverpool. The Rebels are the first club to field an 11-a-side football team in league competition exclusively consisting of refugees and young men in the UK asylum system.
As club secretary, I have kept a diary that tells the story of the Rebels and its players: the development of the team, their progress and setbacks on the pitch, and the personal struggles that some of the players have negotiating the hostile environment of the UK asylum system.
This is the tenth in a 13-part series of instalments from that diary. This week the Rebels play FC Wavertree, again. It’s a far cry from last week’s performance.
Becoming a politicised teenager in 1980s Liverpool was easy for me. Thatcherism was battering the city. Unemployment levels were at record highs (my dad was included in the figures a couple of times) and so were poverty levels. The undercurrent of unrest was palpable in the everyday life of the city. It was hard not to be influenced by it all.
However, a feeling of unrest was not enough. I needed a political philosophy and music provided it. Although The Alarm initially provided it, I soon moved onto the hardcore anarcho-politics of bands such as Killing Joke, Subhumans and Conflict.
My first memory of seeing Killing Joke, in 1985, was the thud that reverberated through my body when Raven plucked his bass, as the band prepared to play. The room shook. Their orchestral noise proceeded to assault my every sense over the next hour and then they were gone. I was too young to have taken drugs at the time but, as I left the venue, I remember thinking that this is what it must feel like to be on them.
Killing Joke are on their 40th-anniversary tour and I am feeling the calling. This weekend, they are playing in Oxford (Friday) and London (Saturday). As Charlie lives with his mum in Oxford, I go to see him before the Friday gig. Saturday usually consists of the Rebels, but this is going to be the first time I have missed a competitive game. Instead, I am getting the train to London to meet Pauline, who has been reluctantly accompanying me to KJ gigs for ten years. Although I insist on taking up a spot near the front, I can tell she is reluctant. When Big Paul announces the arrival of the band, with the thud of his bass drum, Pauline immediately heads towards the back of the Roundhouse. Selfishly I remain fixed at the front.
But, I need them tonight, more than ever.
Walking around Camden market that afternoon, I couldn’t concentrate. Pauline would say something to me, but my mind was elsewhere. I was wondering how the Rebels were getting on against Wavertree. “Will we go one better than last week and beat them? We’re certainly capable,” I think to myself. I can’t bear not knowing what’s going on, so I text Rev. Phil. He replies, “We’re losing.” We eventually lose 6-1. I’m crestfallen, so I WhatsApp Pete for a match report. His reply arrives a few minutes later.
“First half was ok. Similar to last week, we were really organised and went one-nil up. Two minutes later, they got a soft penalty and equalised. Then, they scored a header from a corner. At half time it was 3-1, but it was a pretty even game. We went out in the second half and just collapsed. They scored again to make it 4-1 and then got given the worst penalty decision I’ve ever seen to make it 5-1. At the end of the game, we chatted with the boys and I asked if there was anything they wanted to say. We agreed they’d come in early on Thursday at 5pm, so we can have a meeting to discuss positions, philosophy and expectations of players in terms of commitment. I’ve calmed down a bit now, to be honest. I think we just had an off day. I’ll give you a shout regarding the meeting this week. Fresh start on Thursday and put today behind us.”
Pete’s idea of a team meeting on Thursday is spot-on. One of the issues we face is timekeeping. Most players turn up (very) late on match days, which is affecting our pre-match preparation. This is one of the things Pete and Larry want to address in the meeting, which starts at 5pm …. on the dot. Aware of this, I leave work early to make sure I arrive on time. It will set a good example.
I arrive at 5.02pm, to be greeted by Pete and two of the players. We eventually start the meeting at 5.35pm, with 22 players now present. Pete hands out a sheet containing the principles that should underpin the club philosophy and asks the players to break into small groups to discuss what they mean. His principles are:
We come back together as a whole group and share ideas. Larry is currently on a work placement at Everton. He points out that each of the clubs he has visited with Everton (Bury, Leicester City, and Wolverhampton Wanderers) have philosophies attached to the dressing room walls. Without any sense of irony, he informs the lads that the Bury Football Club philosophy is, “Individuals win games, teams win trophies”.
This resonates with Majid, who points out that we have a wealth of talented players, but that we play as individuals rather than as members of the team. The lads agree the team ethic is one of the many things we need to improve at. Pete then says, “100% is something we should always aim for in all the principles.” He adds, “There is no hierarchy within the list of principles. They are all equally important and all deserving of 100%.”
When the discussion finishes, we go out onto the pitch to train. Pete and I stand on the sidelines talking. He tells me where he thinks our Achilles heel is, and how he feels about managing the team. He currently manages three teams but tells me that managing the Rebels is his favourite coaching role, even though it’s tough.
I know the defeats have hurt, so I remind him of the chaos of our beginnings in the Botanic Gardens and the amount of progress we have made since then. I also remind him of Adrian’s comments a few weeks ago, about the improvement in the team, especially in terms of organisation and shape on the pitch. Getting the team to this level, albeit with results yet to follow, has taken patience, which Pete has in abundance.
The biggest challenge now is to turn improved performances into results. “We’re being beaten,” Pete says, “by long and high balls over the top. Almost every goal we’ve conceded has come as a result of long and high balls coming into the box.”
I say I think our two best games have been played on 3G pitches when the game was on the floor, where we were better than the opposition. Pete agrees. I ask him what he thinks we can do about our Achilles heel. He tells me about a training drill he’s been watching on YouTube. “It will prepare the defence for what we are getting on the pitch,” he says.
We haven’t got time to go through the drill tonight, because we’re running late after the meeting. But, we have moved forward tonight. We play Liverpool Homeless FC on Saturday. It is a Derby for us. As well as being the Social Exclusion Derby, some of our lads have a good relationship with the Liverpool Homeless FC manager, who started the process of getting football in Liverpool involved in the lives of refugees and people in the asylum system.
Coming up in Part 11: The social exclusion derby
If you have enjoyed the short stories in this series, you can read the full and unabridged story in ‘Football Without Borders: The Lives and Times of a Refugee Football Club’, which is now available from https://twenty9publishing.co.uk/product/football-without-borders-the-lives-and-times-of-a-refugee-football-club/
Ex-Everton goalkeeper, Neville Southall, describes Football Without Borders as “a beautiful book [about how] people who have fled their own countries for fear of death or torture find happiness as a football team, supported by a handful of remarkable people.”
25% of proceeds from the book are being donated to Asylum Link Merseyside.