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 a 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 11th in a 13-part series of instalments from that diary. This week it’s the Social Exclusion Derby: The Rebels play Liverpool Homeless FC.
I knock on the door of the church. It opens to reveal a beaming Phil bearing the kit bag. Inside the door are 22 pairs of football boots that we have bought for the lads at a cost of over £600. It is one of the things that makes running the club such a balancing act. Our outgoings are higher than other clubs because we need to provide things like boots and transport. Yet, we don’t charge subs. So, it all comes down to our money raising, which preoccupies Phil and me most of the time.
“Any chance of making it for our big derby game today, Phil?” I ask.
Phil giggles as he straddles the crack in the pavement; it’s a visual suggestion that he is treading a fine line between his football team and a newborn baby at home. “I’m working on it,” he replies with a cheeky grin on his face.
When the fixture list was released, Adrian and I christened today’s game against Liverpool Homeless FC, the ‘Social Exclusion Derby’. I first met their manager, Stuart Carrington, when I was setting up the Rebels with Phil. We were both running football projects with Asylum Link Merseyside. My own project involved taking people that were trapped in the ‘hostile environment’ of the UK asylum system to football matches at AFC Liverpool. That project subsequently morphed into the Rebels.
I initially met Stuart because he was running 5-a-side football sessions for young lads caught up in the UK asylum system. Phil and I went to Stuart’s 5-a-side sessions to offer the lads the chance to play 11-a-side league football. He told me that he set the 5-a-side sessions up after seeing the shocking television images of the three-year-old Syrian, Alan Kurdi, lying dead on the beach. He was moved to do something and setting up football sessions was what he did best. The lads love him.
After Pete announces the team to play Stuart’s Liverpool Homeless team on our WhatsApp group, on Friday, Hassan sends a long reply.
“Tomorrow, we want to play very focused. I am ashamed and grieve for myself from every match that we come out losers. Tomorrow, we want concentration and enthusiasm and desire and strength. Please guys, we are ashamed of the wonderful attention of the coaches. We do not want people to tell us every time we are the team of defeats. Do not you feel ashamed too? I am ashamed every time. We play tomorrow with all strength, enthusiasm, fighting and spirit. Tomorrow we prove to ourselves and prove to the coaches and to all the people that we are capable of doing the impossible. I do not know English very well. I hope you understand me. We are a team of brothers. We rejoice together. We mourn together.”
I arrive at the ground 15 minutes early, which gives me time to have a quick chat with our groundsman, Rob, whilst he opens the changing rooms for me. As Rob and I unlock the changing rooms, our referee and friend, Les, also appears, early. Les follows me into our changing room and parks himself on one of the benches and talks to me as I lay out the kit and new boots. He feels so at home that he stays to listen to our team talk, and then helps me lock the dressing room after the lads have gone out to warm up.
With Pete and Larry’s team talk completed by 1.20 pm, we enter the field of play, a whole 40 minutes before kick-off. Thursday’s meeting seems to have had an effect! On my way to the pitch, I see Stu so we have a nice chat. He tells me that only four of their players have arrived, so the team captain is frantically phoning around to see where the rest of their players are. With our lads already out on the pitch, preparing themselves for the encounter to come, I find myself in the unusual position of feeling smug!
Over at the pitch, Pete’s warm-up routine is interrupted by Les.
“Erm, manager,” Les shouts to him.
Pete looks over, bemused.
“Can you come here, manager,” Les continues.
Les wants to get the game underway ten minutes early. With the lads well prepared, and the opposition in apparent disarray, Pete and I sense an advantage, so agree. As the game gets underway, I notice AC Liverpool matchday steward, Billy Stirrup, walking towards the pitch. Due to the midweek death of the AFC Liverpool manager, Ben Williams, the club’s game has been postponed so Billy has come to support us. ‘Mr. Chairman’ Chris Stirrup and Craig Meddings, an AFC Liverpool volunteer who once played for Liverpool Homeless FC, arrive soon after.
My developing friendship with Les is reaping benefits. He has spared me the line flag, which he has given to our Egyptian striker, Oscar, instead. Oscar undertakes his role with such enthusiasm, pointing out every discretion happening on the pitch, that Les has to pull him up only a few minutes into the match. “I am making the decision here linesman. No one else. Just me,” he tells Oscar. Unperturbed, Oscar puts his flag back into action.
Having been a pre-match shambles, Liverpool Homeless are anything but on the pitch. They establish a two-goal lead, midway through the first half. But we are looking good, too. With Larry in central defence, we are looking well organised and are holding our defensive line. We are also talking to each other more.
Hassan’s move from centre back into a defensive midfield position, alongside Tijany, is also working out. We are now holding our own in the middle of the pitch, where we are playing some composed football. Hassan and Tijany are getting the ball out to the wide men and Yousif, in particular, is having a field day in his new advanced role wide on the right. Each time he gets the ball, he beats their full-back and gets into advanced spaces where he can create goalscoring opportunities. Hussam is doing similar good work on the other side of the pitch. Our danger man is centre-forward, Maher. He’s strong and is causing their defenders, which include Stu, a multitude of problems. He creates several goalscoring opportunities, which Beraki and Hussam take to make the half-time score 2-2.
Chris, Craig and Billy comment on how well we are playing. “You look like you are going to score every time you go forward,” says Mr. Chairman. They all think we can win the match. So do Pete and Larry, who wax lyrical about the first-half performance in their half time team talk with the lads. “It’s probably been our best performance of the season, so far,” Pete tells them. He also tells them that they can now go out and win the match.
Sadly, it isn’t to be.
We play well in the second half and offer a constant threat. However, we can’t get the goals we need. Alas, we concede another three goals, so lose the match 5-2. It’s a scoreline the spectators don’t recognise as a fair reflection of the game, which could have gone either way.
Despite the defeat, we are all positive about a brilliant game of football that was played in a great spirit. Despite the positives, I see Hassan looking upset in the dressing room afterwards. Another defeat has taken its toll. I put my arm around him.
“But you played brilliantly Hassan,” I say.
My observation fails to lift his mood, so I add some perspective.
“We’re a new team. We’ve only been playing for a short while. Our triumph at the moment is being able to go out on a pitch and play that well,” I add.
He smiles, but I know he’s hurting.
I bump into Stu and some of the Liverpool Homeless lads as I am taking the kit bag and boots to the car. We have a chat and I thank them for a great game. When everyone has gone, Pete and I have another chat. I feel for him because he is putting so much effort in, and the team is playing so well, but the results won’t come. I want him to know how much his efforts are appreciated, but I fear I sound patronising when I say that the results will come. Even talking about the results seems to give them undue importance. We all want to win but, as today has shown, this thing is so much bigger than just winning.
Coming up in Part 12: ‘When I play football, I forget everything’
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 here.
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.”
Twenty-five percent of proceeds from the book are being donated to Asylum Link Merseyside.