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 seventh piece in a 13-part series of instalments from that diary. The Rebels are the victims of the hand of God.
Our league form so far is played four, won one, lost three. This week we face MSB Woolton. After the trauma of the last two weeks, I am approaching the game with trepidation.
We have shared our stories of the last two weeks with other people around the city to which they respond, “What league are you playing in?”
“The N’ Competente league,” I reply.
A sharp intake of breath usually follows, accompanied by the exclamation, “THE N’ COMPETENTE!”
It is not just us beginning to wonder whether we have done the right thing. Everyone else seems to be wondering, too.
With these anxieties in the back of my mind, I text the Woolton lads and receive a pleasant phone call by return. Perhaps we have arrived at our judgment of the N’ Competente too soon? Unfortunately, I won’t be around to see the beginning of the game because there is an ‘Open Day’ at the university and I am on duty.
After several interesting chats with parents, who are now my age or younger, I make a quick dart for it just after 2pm, when the ‘Open Day’ finishes. We kick off at 2:30pm, so I run across town to catch a bus to our ground. On the bus, I check my phone for football results. Chelsea and Manchester United have drawn 2-2. I am a bit disappointed with the result until I discover that Chelsea scored their equaliser in the sixth minute of added time, which upset Mourinho. I allow myself a private chuckle.
On alighting from the bus, I stride towards the ground excitedly. For the first time in Rebels ‘history’, I am not in the changing rooms, laying the kit out, hearing the team being announced, and listening to the team talk. As I take each stride towards our ground, an uneven grass pitch on the edge of an urban park, it begins to feel like I am going to a ‘real’ match. Who will be in the starting XI? Will Pete keep the same formation? Just over 10 minutes have elapsed already; will we be 3-0 behind as usual?
As the questions keep coming, the pitch comes into view. I am drawn to the movements of tiny yellow figures dancing across the surface of the distant parkland. We seem to be in possession. As I draw closer, we mount an attack. F*ck me, we score! WE’VE SCORED! I announce my arrival to the first person I see on the touchline, one of our substitutes, Majid. Forgetting all about the pessimism I carried with me from the bus stop, I am now in my own little Theatre of Dreams.
“Are we 1-0 up?” I ask Majiid excitedly.
“No, but it’s 1-1,” he replies triumphantly.
I see Pete standing a little bit further down the touchline, looking pensive as he takes in every detail of the game. I don’t want to disturb his thought but, in my excitement, forget myself. Inconsiderately, I walk over to shake his hand. Ever the gent, he greets me warmly. But, I don’t want to intrude any longer so I leave him to it.
Barrie and Pauline are also here. They first appeared at our ‘broken leg’ game against FC Ramos, the 6-0 defeat a few weeks ago. They originate from Greater Manchester but came to live in Liverpool four years ago when their disabled daughter moved here to attend university. They are committed to our cause. I can see that from the numerous badges, pledging allegiance to humanity, pinned to Barrie’s jacket. I ask Barrie for his ex-referees opinion on proceedings.
“We’re doing ok,” he says. “But the referee is yet to move out of the centre circle!”
A 1-1 half-time score is grounds for optimism. Pete tells the lads that we are looking good and that three points are there for the taking. Our hopes start to turn to reality early in the second-half when we go 2-1 up. As Rebel shots rain down on the Woolton goal, it’s only a matter of time before we extend our lead.
We reach two-thirds of the way through the second half and should be 5-1 up. But, we’re not. Woolton are still only one goal behind and look like a team that knows they’re not out of it. Inevitably, they equalise against the run of play to make it 2-2. The frustration is etched on Pete’s face.
“How could we have allowed them back into the game like that?” he despairs.
But worse is yet to come. With a minute left on the clock, the referee awards Woolton a corner. The ball drifts into the Rebels’ penalty area, to be met by a Rebel hand. It reminds me of the nonsensical handball that Glenn Hysen committed from a similar position at Old Trafford back in 1991.
“A handball by Hysen. Penalty, given,” Brian Moore exclaimed. “I can’t understand that. And the Liverpool players look totally non-plussed. Kenny Dalglish can’t believe it either. That was amazing.”
You said it, Brian. Here we are, 27 years later, and exactly the same thing has happened. And, just as Steve Bruce dispatched the United penalty that fateful day, so it goes that Woolton do the same today. Almost immediately after they do, the referee’s whistle signals the end of the game. We have gone from winning 5-1, in the dreamscape of my head, to losing 3-2. We are all stunned.
“Oh well, there’s always next week,” I say, trying to look on the positive side.
“Who are we playing next week?” Barrie asks.
A quick glance at my phone confirms that we are playing bottom of the league FC Northern. Hope springs eternal.