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 eighth in a 13-part series of instalments from that diary. This week the Rebels play FC Northern, who are bottom of the league, with no wins.
Referees have a habit of not replying to my first text, inviting them to confirm their participation on the forthcoming Saturday. Les is no different. Two texts elicit no response, so I ring his mobile instead. The line is dead. I move onto stage two of Operation Referee. This involves consulting the league handbook, colloquially known as The Yellow Bible, for his home number. Pages 30 to 31 contain a list of referee names, each associated with an 0151 number. I wonder, ‘Are referees the only people that have landlines in the 21st Century?’ Then I ring Les, but there’s no answer, so I leave a message.
“Hi, Les. It’s Chris from Ullet Road Church Rebels, just making contact to see if you are ok to officiate our game on Saturday. Can you give me a ring back?”
Les duly calls back whilst I am in a meeting with a student, so I have to swerve his call. But, he has left a message for me to call back, which I do.
“You’re a Doctor aren’t you, Chris” Les replies, in answer to my opening gambit of “Hi, Les, this is Chris ringing back.”
“Erm, yeah, but not the type that you’re probably thinking of. I can’t save your life!”
Probably disappointed by my answer, Les moves swiftly on. “You’re a new club aren’t you,” he says.
“Erm, yeah, we are,” I say, before explaining a bit about the Rebels as a Church football club with a team consisting of refugees and lads in the asylum system.
“I’m ever so sorry,” Les returns, possibly thinking I am a man of the cloth. “I do voluntary work with blind people, so I was out when you called. I called you back straight away. I don’t know why my mobile didn’t work. I’m not very good with this technology stuff. I’m sorry about that”.
We’ve had a mix of referees so far. Some are more impressed by our club than others. I am getting a good feeling from Les. I also get the impression the world might have passed him by some time ago. The question is, has football too? The FC Northern lads seem ok, too. At least, they are WhatsApp pleasant. Maybe that’s why they’re bottom of the league, too nice? This could be the chance we’ve been waiting for.
Pete is unable to take the reins this week due to a family event, so Larry is in charge. The team is coming into the game off the back of a 3-1 friendly win against Liverpool University on Thursday, which I missed due to work meetings. Needless to say, we won! Apparently, the addition of Scouse Aaron in the back four made a big difference. He organised things a bit more. Alas, Aaron is not available for selection this week. He works on Saturdays.
I go through my usual Friday routine of sending the team sheet to the manager to complete, so he can return it to me. This enables me to print it out for the game on Saturday. Larry is in the hot seat this week so we liaise over the team sheet, which he duly provides. The usual messages are issued on the WhatsApp group, informing the lads to be at the ground for 1pm at the latest. Larry and I arrive at 12.45pm to lay the kits out, in number order, on the changing room benches. The lads begin to arrive just after 1pm and continue arriving as the clock ticks around towards half-past. We know this is something we need to work on but, on this occasion, it might not matter because Les is nowhere to be seen.
As I walk over towards the pitch, someone is walking towards me that looks like a football manager. Indeed it is.
“Hi, Joe. Nice to meet you properly,” I say.
“Hi Chris, you too. Any sign of the ref?”
I head back to the changing rooms to see if Les has found his way to the park yet. No sign. I look at Rob, our groundsman, who asks who the referee is.
“Les,” I reply.
“The little fella?” Rob inquires.
“I’ve no idea. Never met him. Maybe I never will?”
But, Rob seems to know who Les is, which reassures me: He must have been here before, so he can’t be lost! Still, his facial expressions are not filling me with confidence. Thankfully, my worries are made redundant a few minutes later. Les duly arrives and immediately hands me a line flag, before I have time to hide. He tells me he is 72, a devout Catholic, and that he will take no messing. And that means no swearing. ‘Where were you a few weeks ago, Les?’ I think to myself. But he is here now, even if FC Northern don’t really look like a bunch in need of Les’ iron discipline.
How wrong can you be?
Les, who has very quickly become my mate, comes over to spend half-time with me. He informs me that he has threatened FC Northern with abandoning the match unless they improve their on-pitch behaviour. This would be nothing short of catastrophic for them. Having lost every game so far this season, and with only three goals to their name, they went 4-0 up against us within 15 minutes. As usual, we finished the half strong (albeit we are still 4-0 down) and are kicking downhill in the second half, so all is not lost.
Larry is exasperated to be 4-0 down. I feel sorry for him: All that effort and all that planning. Yet, the lads consigned it to the tactical waste-basket of Larry’s back pocket after only 15 minutes. He has been working with the players on discipline and focus, to ensure they are tuned in to the game from the first whistle.
However, our ongoing issue with late arrivals is not helping the team. It’s not helping me, either. I am tasked with the job of keeping an accurate team sheet, which includes noting substitutions, goalscorers, and cautions. I have no idea what was going on because several changes have been made as a result of late arrivals; I’ve spent most of the first half trying to compile an accurate team sheet, which now includes a couple of new signings that I have never seen before!
True to form, the lads came back strong early in the second half with two goals, to pull the score back to 4-2. Perhaps we could make a comeback? Maybe even win it! FC Northern, with only three goals to their name so far this season, and rooted to the bottom of the league, have other ideas. Having surpassed their goal tally for the whole season in a mere 15 minutes of football against us today, they are quite enjoying the novelty of the goalscoring and want to experience more of it. They score again to go 5-2 up and are well on the way to doubling their goal scoring account for the whole season, in the short space of one game. Thankfully, the Rebels are having none of it. We close shop and go onto the attack. The lads score another goal, but it’s not good enough. Les blows his whistle to signal that we have lot 5-3. Still, our second-half performance (we won it 3-1), and a 10-minute post-match lesson in Catholic humility from Les, is something to build on.