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 sixth in a 13-part series of instalments from that diary. Having encountered hostility and trouble in their match against FC Ramos last week, the Rebels are playing them in the cup again this week.
After the game last Saturday, I was copied into a tweet from FC Ramos. They were claiming that our game finished 8-0. Although I was more concerned about Tommy’s broken leg, I felt dutybound to correct them. First, I needed to check with the referee. He confirmed the score was 6-0, so I replied to FC Ramos on Twitter, informing them of the correct score.
“Referee got it wrong mate, we no (sic) what score it was,” they Tweeted back.
AFC Liverpool club secretary, Adrian, interceded with a tweet in support of mine. It made no difference. They are as arrogant on Twitter as they were on the pitch. I am beginning to feel that playing them two weekends on the run is not the best outcome for us.
An unpleasant mid-week WhatsApp exchange, to arrange our forthcoming game, confirms my fears. They finish it by telling me how they’re, “Especially looking forward to this one,” our immediate return fixture in the cup.
Our preparation hasn’t been great. We had 12 players at training on Monday; that’s a far cry from our usual 20+. Nevertheless, Pete made the most of it. He worked on what happened last Saturday, to prepare the lads for what is coming this weekend.
All week our WhatsApp group has been alive with talk about the Rebels being ‘up for it’, so FC Ramos’ overconfidence might be misplaced. At least, I hope it is. Our coach, Larry, has been one of the most vocal on the WhatsApp group. He has been trying to convince our lads that the FC Ramos team is not 6-0 better than us. He tells our lads that they are technically better.
He’s probably right, but I am not convinced by the talk. We were intimidated by their aggression last week. That’s not going to change in the space of one week. I remain concerned and anxious about the forthcoming game. I am also worried about our lads because I don’t want their confidence destroyed.
I turn up at the ground early for the game, to be met by Larry. We are the only two here, so we talk in the dressing room, where I lay the kit out as neatly and carefully as I can; it tells the lads that someone cares about them.
I started the season laying the kits out in a 1-16 order. Now that I know Pete’s numbering system, I lay the kits out into clusters based on the defensive four (numbers 2, 3, 5 and 6), midfield three (numbers 4, 8 and 10) and attacking three (numbers 7, 11 and 9). The substitute kits have their own spot in the dressing room, too.
Larry tells me that he’s going in goal. Although that means no start for my friend, Tsering, it makes sense. Larry’s an oldtimer that will not be intimidated by FC Ramos. He will talk, shout, cajole and organise the defence. That’s what we need. However, as I hand the kit to Larry, Habo steps forward and offers to go in goal instead. A conversation about goalkeeping ensues, which results in Larry agreeing to Habo taking the goalkeeper jersey.
Pete gives his team talk. As usual, it is direct, concise, logical and understandable. He addresses all of the issues that led to our downfall last week in a few short minutes. We will be tightly packed out of possession. We won’t allow any balls over the top. We will make ourselves wide in possession, and attack down the flanks where they are weak. Larry intercedes, “Last week was a fluke. We’re better than that. Better than them, even.”
After listening to Pete and Larry, I suddenly feel a strange sense of confidence as I walk to the pitch. On arrival, I am met by AFC Liverpool club secretary, Adrian. He has a free day due to a fixture cancellation, so has come to watch us. Adrian and I take up a spectating position, just a few feet away from the opposition manager and substitutes, on the opposite side of the pitch to where our coaches and substitutes are stationed.
We begin the game so well that the FC Ramos players are soon arguing with each other. They obviously expected to steamroller us, so the fact it isn’t going to plan is clearly upsetting them. Their manager is particularly animated on the sideline. He spends most of the time standing at least five yards inside the playing area, barking at his players, and shouting about how “sh*t” we are. But, we aren’t, which is why he’s so upset. We’ve actually got them on the back foot.
About 10 minutes into the game, one of their players hauls our Egyptian forward, Oscar, to the floor as he heads towards their goal. Oscar was clean through so Adrian shouts out in protest, only to be verbally abused by their bench. Worse is to come. Their number 9 runs all the way from the other side of the pitch to threaten him with violence, “You f***in’ tw*t, you f***in’ tw*t, I’ll smash your f***in’ glasses you f***in’ tw*t. F**k off”. I’m stunned by the verbal attack on Adrian, who stands his ground and keeps his cool; he looks straight back at the player but says nothing.
My wife, Pauline, has been in the gym next to the pitch. She arrives in time to see Adrian subjected to this tirade of abuse and leaves immediately. Phil turns up after the Oscar/Adrian incident, but in time to see another one, right in front of us. One of the FC Ramos players deliberately puts his studs down the back of Thomas’ leg, after he has hit the ground. Undeterred by the intimidating behaviour of the Ramos bench and players, Adrian complains. Again, he is subjected to vile abuse. Phil has seen enough so walks over to their bench, which seems to calm things, temporarily. A dog collar can have that effect.
At half-time, we are only 1-0 down, much against the expectations of FC Ramos. We have been at least equal to them, possibly better. Adrian, Phil and I walk over to listen to the team talk. Pete is upset that some of our players have risen to the FC Ramos bait. He tells them to ignore it and concentrate on their football. Before the lads re-enter the field of play, he dispenses some more tactical advice.
The temperament of the second half is much the same as the first. The Ramos players continually belittle and denigrate our lads with endless volleys of, “Come on, they’re f***in’ sh*t.” The Ramos goalkeeper implores his teammates to, “Put some holes” in our lads. The Ramos centre-forward starts a ‘conversation’ with one of our lads about the stricken Tommy. He informs him that, “I broke his leg and I don’t f***in’ care, so what are you going to do about it?” And, once again, threats of physical violence are issued to spectators, who are informed they will be, “Seen after the game.”
That’s not the only action we see. The second half is witness to a flurry of goals, which produces a final scoreline of 7-3, in their favour. At the final whistle, FC Ramos vacate the playing area without shaking hands; the same as last week. Pete and Larry are having none of it, so they force handshakes out of those they can catch. I say goodbye to Adrian and walk back to the dressing rooms with some of the lads.
Phil has raised the issue of complaining to the authorities about FC Ramos. Adrian has offered himself as a witness. Back in the dressing room, I suggest it to Pete and Larry, who reluctantly dismiss it, in case it works against our players in the longer run.
We all go home, feeling despondent.
Phil leaves me a phone message on Sunday in which he is audibly upset about the match. Like me, he is angry and wants something done about it. I catch up with him on Monday morning, when I drop the kits off for laundering. I tell him I’ve found an article in The Guardian about the problem of aggression and violence in grassroots football and how it is pushing people out. I have started to wonder if we have done the right thing setting up a refugee football club. Is this really the right way to gain acceptance? In the heat of battle? Especially when some clubs see it exactly like that, a battle! How can we reconcile our objectives, to build understanding and cooperation, within the competitive ‘battle’ context in which we have pitched ourselves?
Although we are not going to be making a formal complaint, Phil and I agree that we cannot accept violence and aggression on the football field. So, if referees won’t control other teams’ behaviour (because, as Pete said, “Would you get a flat nose for £30”), what’s our response going to be? We discuss the issues and agree that we are prepared to pull the team off the pitch and even out of the league if the situation demands it.
Coincidentally, Hope Not Hate has just released a report about attitudes to race and immigration in the UK. Are we victims of racism? We’re not sure for certain; nothing explicit has been said, but the Englishness of the hostility is tangible. The most important question is, how are we going to gain acceptance for our players? Pete thinks he knows. “I’ve found that playing football and winning in an exemplary manner is the only way to gain respect in this city,” he tells me. That’s what he’s aiming to achieve.
As a football administrator, I look elsewhere for inspiration and find it in the words of Martin Luther King, “I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear”. So, when I receive a message from FC Ramos on Tuesday, asking for our film of the match, I return a friendly message saying, “Of course, we’ll provide the video.” I also feel compelled to raise some of the issues arising from the game with them, in a friendly and constructive way.
“I needed to raise something with you, too. A couple of spectators from the church that runs the club wanted to complain to the league after Saturday’s game. They were threatened on the touchline and things were said on the pitch about ‘putting holes’ in our lads. They were upset by it. I have suggested it would be better for me to raise this with you informally than have it go to the league. Sorry to put this on you, but I thought it better to raise it directly with you than have it taken up elsewhere. If you need to call me about it feel free, mate.”
A few days later, I receive a further request for the video, but no response to my concerns.