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 final part of the 13 instalments from that diary. This week, the football authorities are up to no good (again) and the Rebels prepare for a Christmas break.
Thanks to bad weather, our game against FC Terri was postponed last week, much to our relief! After a hard introduction to league football, and with only one league win under our belts, we’re now looking forward to our midseason break. But, first, there is a club Christmas party to prepare, which means I am cooking a massive curry meal with Ruth, who is originally from Pakistan.
As we cook, Ruth starts to tell me about her refugee situation and her ordeal when she was recently placed in detention. It’s a heart-wrenching story that, at times, leaves me speechless. I am embarrassed at how she has been treated in the UK and simply don’t know what to say. Fortunately, I am rescued from my awkward silence by a phone call from Chris, the referee for tomorrow’s game against FC Cable.
Chris has been allocated to referee our game this weekend. As club secretary, I contact referees at the beginning of the week to ensure that everything is ok for Saturday. Chris and I exchanged texts on Monday, confirming our game. However, all teams in our division then received an email from the league, late on Thursday afternoon, informing them of a change of refereeing arrangements, ‘Due to postponements’.
When I looked down the list of games, I could see that Chris had been taken off our game. I looked across the list to see if he had been allocated elsewhere. He hadn’t. He had simply disappeared off the list. I was bemused. However, the last words of the league’s email said, “Any problems let me know ASAP.” So, I did. I wrote back ASAP to ask if we could retain our arrangement with Chris, given that he had not been allocated elsewhere, and that we had an arrangement.
Adrian has warned me about league officials more times than I care to remember. Sure enough, having invited immediate responses to the referee changes, there was no immediacy in the league response to my email. When it did come, it simply read, ‘Decision is Kevin’s’. Kevin didn’t bother to respond. So, I text Chris to let him know the situation. He’s now on the phone and is telling me that the league has not had the courtesy to inform him of his impending redundancy.
“I’ve had no contact mate. Thanks for letting me know. It’s typical of some Merseyside leagues, changing referees last minute to accommodate their mates whose games have been postponed,” Chris says.
It’s our first full season and I am obviously wet behind the ears. However, ‘Due to postponements’ is now beginning to make sense. It is code for the league sorting their mates out. What’s worse is that Chris tells me he has refused overtime to referee our game, for which he would have received £30, and is now financially worse off. He sounds like a decent football man, so I am incandescent at the way he has been treated.
“If I don’t respond to their emails, they fine me, but they never bother responding to mine,” I tell him.
We exchange stories about football administrators. I tell him how unsatisfied we are with the league; the aggression from a league official on my very first encounter with the league, the ignored emails, the poor standards of conduct and aggression, teams walking off the pitch without shaking hands at the end of games, and now this.
But, will Saturday’s game be played anyway? Having had two weeks off, due to postponements, our rain-sodden grass pitch has now been deemed playable. Pete and I get to the ground early, to inspect it. It looks ok, so I get into my usual routine of laying out the kit. Ever the optimist, I lay out 15 kits, even though only 10 players have replied to our message on the Whatsapp group to say they’re available to play.
The FC Cable lads arrive en masse. Our players come in dribs and drabs. But, will we have enough for a full team? Eventually, we have 12 players, so Pete gives a team talk. It emphasises his key messages, which are now becoming embedded in the players’ minds: our formation out of possession, the transition into attack, our formation in attack, and so on. “We’ve beaten this team once. Let’s do it again,” Pete says, as he tries to instil some confidence into a team that is on a long losing streak.
We send the lads out for their warm-up. When the last one is gone, our groundsman, Rob, locks the changing rooms for me. I make my way to the pitch, where I see Barrie. The pitch is lush green, as you would expect after weeks of rain. But, what is on the surface belies a deeper truth; beneath the thick green carpet of uncut grass, lies a mud bath. It will soon be excavated by the thrashing movement of football boots across its surface.
The game kicks off and, sure enough, the players’ boots scythe the grass from the surface of the pitch to reveal a mud bath. Pete can say all he likes about playing football properly, but it won’t work on this surface. Every move we attempt breaks down, as the ball finds a home in the mud, rather than at its intended destination. We are struggling.
We go in 1-0 down at half-time, but it’s a fairly even game. Pete says as much in his team talk, whilst encouraging the lads that the game is still there for the taking.
Our good fortune is to be kicking downhill in the second half. This initially appears to be an advantage. Oscar forces his way through the FC Cable defence and then scoops the ball over the advancing goalkeeper. It easily exceeds his reach, but will it come down in time for Christmas? Indeed it does. It’s 1-1 and an ecstatic Oscar runs the length of the pitch to embrace a bemused Pete.
We dare to dream. But, dreams are as far as we will get. Pass and move football is impossible on this surface, which we are not equipped for. On the other hand, FC Cable are much more streetwise. They adapt their game and score three more goals; two of the goals are really good goals considering the state of the pitch.
The referee blows up.
We lose, again. This time, we’ve lost 4-1. I say Happy Christmas to Barrie and head back to the dressing rooms. It’s hard to know what to say to Pete and the lads. I know we’re at the beginning of a project and it’s unreasonable to expect results to come immediately. Yet, losing every week is demoralising. I am worried about what Hassan has said about feeling ‘shame’ because the team keeps losing. I am anxious for Pete and the lads to get some results before they lose heart.
I was thankful when Adrian stepped in the other week to tell Pete how much progress the team has made under his guidance. Now, it’s my turn to do the same. I take the floor in the dressing room and tell the lads that Phil and I are proud of them; we are proud of the way they conduct themselves on and off the pitch and of the way they play the game. I say that it’s been a hard slog, but now we can have a Christmas break, take stock, and come back stronger in the new year, with the advantage of the experience we now have. We go again.
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.”
25% of proceeds from the book are being donated to Asylum Link Merseyside.