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 third in a 13-part series of instalments from that diary. It tells the story of the Rebels’ first-ever league match against FC Hartson.
As the days count down to our first-ever league match, and with FC Hartson ready to descend on us, we are still not sure where we are playing. Rev. Phil and I have put hours of work into organising our home ground; it’s a brand new 3G pitch in Liverpool 8. Yet, we still only have a text message from the owners, from about four weeks ago, as proof we actually have a home pitch to play on.
Despite weeks of texts and phone calls to the owners, asking for formal confirmation of our tenancy, I’ve had no reply. As it stands, we still have no formal proof that we can play on the 3G pitch. Then, finally, I get a text on Friday night, a matter of hours before the match on Saturday. Apparently, the groundsman will meet us at the pitch at 1.30pm. He will unlock the ground and let us in. Kick-off is 2.30pm, so that seems to be plenty of time.
However, there’s now a new problem. The text also informs me that facilities at the ground are not yet finished. There are no changing rooms. Sat in the church kitchen the night before the match, Rev. Phil and I stare blankly at each other. “What are we going to do about the changing rooms?” I ask. Phil looks into his computer screen for inspiration, but only sees wall-to-wall bookings in the church; he sees a christening in the morning and a wedding in the afternoon. We are stumped. Then, Phil springs out of his seat.
“We’ll use the church,” he announces.
“But how? It’s full,” I say.
“I’ll take the christening through the main door and, whilst I am doing that, you bring the lads in the side door and usher them upstairs to get changed.”
“Ok,” I reply.
“By the time the christening has finished, you will all be changed and gone,” Phil announces triumphantly.
“But, what about the wedding?’ I ask.
“When you are gone, and after the wedding has started, Paul will move all the lads’ gear from upstairs to the main entrance vestibule. When the wedding finishes I’ll move the wedding party into the main hall. So when you come back, just make sure the lads come back through the main door and get changed in the vestibule and I will look after the wedding in the main hall.”
“Are you sure it’ll work Phil?”
“Yeah, but is your faith going to transport the players between the church and the pitch and back again?”
“Sh*t, I’d not thought of that one. How many cars do we need?”
Miraculously, we cobble together enough transport to arrive at the ground on time for our big day. I pull up outside the ground to be greeted by AFC Liverpool club secretary, Adrian, who is bearing gifts. He’s holding two large bags of Rebels scarves and hats that we can use to raise money. What thoughtfulness.
Dressed in our Blue and Yellow Rebels scarves, Adrian and I stare through the locked gates of the ground. The clock is ticking towards 2pm. However, there is no sign of the groundsman. A frantic series of phone calls to the pitch manager ensues. Engaged. Try again. Engaged. And again. Engaged. Finally, I get through. I’m told the groundsman lives around the corner and is on his way to let us in.
Fifteen or so minutes later, there’s still no sign of a groundsman. FC Hartson players are beginning to give me funny looks, so I start to panic. With my stress levels rising, I ring Phil to see if he has any ideas.
“Phil, there’s nobody here and we’re locked out of the ground.”
“F***ing hell!” comes the divine reply.
Just then, the groundsman arrives. After five minutes of moaning, he lets us in, when I make my next unwanted discovery; there are no corner flags. I look at Adrian. He looks worried for me and offers sympathy as well as a warning.
“The referee won’t like it, so you might get a fine.”
I decide to be proactive.
“I’ll go straight to the referee when he arrives and confess everything. I’ll say we’re just simple church folk and that we don’t know what we’re doing.”
As it happens, the referee has just arrived and is expressing concern about the safety of his car. I offer some helpful advice and find a solution for him. Then, and only then, I break the ‘flag news’ to him. The referee looks sympathetic and hands me a linesman flag. I can run the line for him as compensation. I try to look enthusiastic. But, enough things have gone wrong already today, so the last thing I need is the line flag.
Pete names the team. I haven’t got a clue who is who, except that my Tibetan friend, Tsering, a veteran of the AFC Liverpool refugee fan project, is in goal. Tsering responds to this news by pulling me to one side to let me into a secret. He’s never played in goal, ever. More worryingly, he can’t catch.
Our lads look nervous, so we start the game slowly. FC Hartson take advantage and are soon 1-0 up. But, we quickly come back into the game and a fine second-half goal makes it 1-1. The game is pulsating. From my vantage point on the line, I kick every ball, head every header and tackle every opponent. It’s as though I am on the pitch myself.
With a minute left on the clock, we go down the FC Hartson end of the pitch and nearly score. Alas, whilst the lads are busy feeling cheated of a winning goal, they forget the game is still on. This allows FC Hartson to make their way to our penalty area, unopposed, where their centre-forward rounds our ‘keeper to score a last-minute winner.
Their bench erupts in celebration. I throw my flag to the ground in frustration. The players’ heads are in their hands. Pete and Larry look distraught. And Rev. Phil cites Jesus’ attack on the money lenders in the temple to justify threatening violence. But the brutal truth is that we’ve been given a harsh lesson.