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 fourth in a 13-part series of instalments from that diary. This week the Rebels play Hall FC. They are chasing their first league win.
We’re now three games into the season and a pattern is emerging. We start slow and always go behind early on. Nevertheless, we are resilient and have a habit of coming back into games. Alas, in the three games we’ve played so far, we have not managed to pull ourselves far enough back to claim any points. We always lose.
Will today be any different?
We meet the lads at Asylum Link at 1 o’clock where our transport awaits. Several volunteers are on hand with cars to take the lads to Childwall Valley, in the outer reaches of Liverpool’s suburbs. My car is the first to leave containing my good mate Tsering, from Tibet, and our new friend Tom, from Eritrea. We’re going to the ground early to lay the kit out in the changing rooms, ready for the lads’ arrival.
We arrive to find an old rusty shipping container locked up and no sign of life. Instead of twiddling our thumbs, we undertake a pitch inspection. It’s bumpy, but this is grassroots so we pass it. Whilst we’re at it, Tom and I give Tsering a late fitness test. Tom throws Tsering a ball and he catches it. Just! We have a goalie.
Soon after Tsering’s fitness test, the lads begin to arrive with our manager, Pete, and the volunteers that have offered their cars as team buses. One of them, Guy, comes over to say hello, as we have never properly met before. I explain that the changing rooms are the old rusty shipping container and that we are locked out. Clearly more observant than I, Guy spots an open door on the shipping container.
We enter the dark depths of the container to lay out the kit. Ever so carefully, and professionally, we place 15 pairs of socks on top of 15 pairs of shorts. We then place each of the shirts, with numbers showing, on top of the shorts and socks. We’re now ready for the lads, so we beckon them to join us in the murky world of the container. After fumbling around in the darkness, the lads eventually start to emerge into the cold autumn sun in their distinctive all yellow kits.
As they emerge ready for battle, it becomes apparent that the opposition is not here. Kick-off is 2.30pm and it’s now nearly 2 o’clock. Where are they? There is so little sign of life in the park, other than our players, that I begin to wonder if we are in the right place! Then, the phone rings. It’s the referee.
“Is this game on or not?”
“Erm, yes,” I reply hesitantly. “The home team should have been in touch to arrange it with you.”
“Well, I wish they’d f***in’ told me,” he says before putting the phone down abruptly.
Does that mean he will, or will not, turn up to referee the game? I start to worry, only to be distracted from my concerns by the sight of a blue opposition shirt emerging from the car park. “If one of them is here then that must mean the rest of them are coming,” I think to myself.
I need not have worried.
As the minutes tick away towards kick-off, more players in blue shirts and assorted shades of over-washed shorts and socks begin to appear, in enough numbers to suggest they might be our opposition. What’s more, they are bearing flags and nets.
As the opposition lads continue to arrive, Pete takes the lads through their warm-up routine. Meanwhile, Wilson, my new friend from Pakistan, puts Tsering through his paces in the goalmouth by helping him make a pre-match rollie!
With Wilson, Guy and myself encamped on the touchline, we are now only missing the Reverend Phil. Much to his frustration, he’s having to preside over a wedding ceremony before making a quick dart to get here. The game kicks off without him.
With only five minutes gone, we’ve hit the post and had a shot cleared off the line. Then Phil rings to say he’s on the way and will be with us in 10 minutes. Just as I am about to tell him all about our good start, we suddenly go 2-0 down. I leave it.
I break the bad scoreline news to Phil on his arrival pitchside. He looks despondent but gives his pulpit voice an airing to encourage the lads. The lads respond with two quick goals to drag the score back to 2-2. We’re ecstatic. Phil runs down the touchline, arms aloft, screaming his approval. In a total loss of decorum, I behave similarly. As Phil and I make a show of ourselves, the opposition concentrates on the job in hand. They immediately hit back to end our parity. Come half-time, we’re 3-2 down.
Blinded by our passion, Phil and I can’t see the tactical woods for the trees. We greet the lads off the pitch with words of mindless optimism that are about as useful as Kojak’s hairbrush. We’re talking sh*t. On the other hand, Pete exemplifies calm. He gathers the lads together into a group, explains what has happened in the first half, and then tells the lads what they need to do to win the game.
The second half kicks off and the lads are right at it. Our Sudanese number nine, Maher, is on fire. Fifteen minutes in, he secures his hat-trick to put us level at 3-3. We continue to attack but the game remains delicately balanced. Then, with five minutes to go, it explodes.
At this point in the match, we have already missed a second-half penalty, to go with the shot against the post and clearance off the line in the first half. What happens next is the stuff of Istanbul, 2005. A Saad goal and Sandro penalty, seemingly within seconds of each other, put the Rebels 5-3 up. Three points are now clearly in sight, so we all go bonkers again on the touchline.
Of course, football is never quite so straightforward. The Hall FC lads pull a late, late goal back to make it 5-4 and then lay siege to our goal as the clock runs into the red. A worried silence suddenly descends on our touchline but, thankfully, it doesn’t last long. The referee confirms our win with a final blow of the whistle and the celebrations begin. We congratulate the lads as they leave the field with handshakes, high fives and Klopp-hugs. They’ve been through so much in their short lives and this means so much to all of them. And us. Up the Rebels and roll on next Saturday.