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 ninth in a 13-part series of instalments from that diary. This week the Rebels play FC Wavertree, a team that walked off the pitch the other week in protest at racism.
Barrie and Pauline first turned up to watch the Rebels a few weeks ago and have been watching the team ever since. The various political badges pinned to Barrie’s chest give away their reason for coming to watch us.
Rev. Phil has invited Barrie and Pauline to the church to play table tennis, so I pop in to have a chat on my way home from work. They are from Manchester and support City, so we have a laugh about the bad old days of the 1990s when crowds at the Theatre of Comedy grew in inverse proportion to the teams’ dire performances. Average crowds of 24,000 in the Premier League grew to 32,000 when they were relegated to the third tier! We talk about how the City fans went ‘Forward with Franny’ and then backward with Alan Ball, leading to the emergence of a ‘Free the Manchester 30,000’ movement and a seemingly endless appetite for protest.
Before Barrie and Pauline leave, they offer us a brown envelope with, “A little something inside.” I look at Phil and he looks back at me. “Blimey, it’s like running a real football club,” he says. We wait until they’ve gone to open the envelope in Phil’s vestry when we discover that these two people are giving us an amount of money that is on the frontline of generosity. After some of the problems we’ve had on the field, I feel grateful that we live in a world that contains generous people like this.
With the contents of this envelope tucked away in the church safe, our focus turns to Saturday. Pete and Larry have been working on our defensive game, so there are grounds for optimism. We know we can score goals, so if we can stop leaking them, we will start winning more games.
The plan is to meet at the changing rooms in Newsham Park, our current home ground, at 12.45pm for a 2pm kick-off. I am relying on Pauline to give me a lift, whereas Larry, whose house is currently our equipment storage facility, is relying on Pete to pick him up. Having complained at players for turning up late for games, this complex web of dependencies means that it’s our turn to be late.
Charlie and I turn up at 1pm with the kit, so go straight to the changing rooms to lay it out. Pete and Larry are running late so, as the lads start to arrive, I ring Pete and suggest I give out shirt numbers to ensure the players are ready when he arrives. With the players kitted up, Pete and Larry eventually arrive to give the team talk. Pete reminds the players of their slow starts to games. “If we can get through the first 20 minutes without conceding we’ve got a chance of winning,” he says.
Out on the pitch, things go to plan. The Rebels manage to get through the first 20 minutes without conceding and the lads are looking good; they are keeping their shape, keeping things tight and, as a bonus, we’ll be kicking downhill in the second half.
AFC Liverpool played their league match last night, so Adrian has made it to the game. As we chat our way through the first half with Barrie and Pauline, he tells me that AFC had a Muslim female referee last night. Full of enthusiasm, he tells me how well she officiated the game, that seven members of the FA were there to watch her performance and that she is on a fast track to the Premier League. He’s proud that AFC Liverpool welcomed her so warmly and that the club has now played a part in her journey to Premier League football. The referee clearly appreciated her welcome from AFC Liverpool because she has already written back to say so.
If Adrian is pleased about the acceptance and welcome AFC Liverpool fans gave to the referee last night, then we’re also pleased about the acceptance and friendship our players are being given by the opposition today, AFC Wavertree. I suspected things would be ok: Wavertree walked off the pitch last week, in protest at racism directed at one of their players, by a team we’ve already had issues with.
I am pleased AFC Wavertree has taken a stand because this is something that we are also discussing. What is our line in the sand? At what point will we walk from the pitch? Much depends on the referee, of course, but we need to be clear what our walking policy is, in the event of a referee not taking any action.
The half-time whistle goes and the game is delicately balanced at 0-0. Pete and Larry approve of the lads’ performance during their half-time team talk, whilst offering them some advice on how to turn 0-0 into a winning scoreline. The second half is as good as the first. The lads keep their shape. They are tight and compact. We have a new goalkeeper, Milad, from Iran. He has replaced my good friend Tsering, from Tibet. Tsering was only filling in because we had nobody else to do it, but now we have a real ‘keeper!
Milad is playing really well. He stands tall in goal, commands his penalty area, and comes out to close opponents down. He has made some good saves. Alas, nobody is perfect. Following a goalmouth scramble, a Wavertree player latches onto a loose ball and awkwardly swings his foot at it. It goes beyond the despairing dive of Malid and nestles in the bottom corner of our net. We’re 1-0 down.
Although numerous chances come our way, they all go. We can’t put any of them away, so lose the game 1-0. Pete and Larry tell the lads that they’re proud of their performance. They tell them that training has recently focused on our defensive game and that this is now working well.
“We haven’t put our chances away today, so we’ll focus on that next,” Pete says. “When we are better drilled at both ends of the pitch, the victories will start to come”.
Larry adds that we are a new team and that a record of winning two games out of ten is not bad. Rome wasn’t built in a day so we mustn’t be hard on ourselves.
I grab my phone to text the result through to HQ; a fine awaits if it is not sent through before 5.30pm. Whilst I am on my phone, a tweet catches my attention. It’s FC Ramos. Their game was abandoned after 50 minutes because they had received six yellows and four reds. They sound aggrieved. But the rest of the grassroots world knows the truth! Charlie and I gather up the dirty kit and wait for Pauline to pick us up. We spot some Wavertree lads sitting in a car, so knock on their window and thank them for the game. They tell us about the racist incident last week. Whereas some teams think that Twitter is a forum for winding up or abusing their opposition, we exchange supportive tweets with each other, as we report our match result to a wider world. In a twist of the fixture computer, we play them again next week. I am looking forward to it.