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 second in a 13-part series of instalments from that diary. It tells the story of the Rebels first-ever match against AFC Liverpool Reserves.
Football tells you a lot about people. We are a new club. We don’t have our own football network to speak of. We are actually alone in this new world that we find ourselves in. The new season is closing in on us and we need to prepare. First, we need a manager. Luckily he comes to me.
I am having lunch in Asylum Link Merseyside, a local charity that works with refugees, when a bearded man approaches me. He looks like Andre Pirlo but informs me his name is Pete.
“Are you looking for a manager?”
“I’m a qualified coach and I’m studying for my UEFA B License. I’ve been told you’ve started a refugee team. Do you need any help?”
“You can manage us if you like.”
“Great, where do we train?”
“Erm, I’m not sure yet.”
Two weeks later Pete, myself and another new coach, Larry, stand in the middle of a field in Liverpool, whilst 40 lads come and go randomly. Most of the lads arrive late and leave early. We haven’t got a clue who they are and where they are from. We don’t even speak their language.
As the weeks pass, we try to instil a bit of order out of the chaos. The key task is to find out who plays where so we can create a team. It’s not easy. We have 20 centre-forwards, 10 left-wingers and 10 right-wingers. We have no defenders, no goalkeeper and barely any midfielders.
We talk to the lads to see if we can rebalance the team with some defenders and midfielders. Most conversations lead down the same path. “I want to play for Liverpool. But, Everton will do.” Some even admit they would play for Man United if the opportunity arose.
Now I get it. They all want to play up front where they can catch the attention of the Premier League scouts. “There are no scouts here, mate,” Pete says. “And if there were, we are only going to look good if we are a proper team. Now, who’s going in defence?”
The players look at each other, but nobody volunteers. Pete takes the initiative. He throws 11 bibs on the floor in a 4-3-3 formation and then taps Hussam on the shoulder. “You’re there,” he says, pointing at the bib in the centre-back position. Hussam reluctantly accepts that he is playing centre-back.
Saad is the next one to receive a tap on the shoulder. “Right-back,” Pete says. Saad enthusiastically occupies the right-back position in Pete’s formation of bibs. And so it goes on until we have a team.
The training session starts with some basic warm-up and fitness work. It finishes it with a match, so we can see the players in their new positions. There is a lot of talent. Some of it is exceptional. However, as a team, the lads are a shambles!
Then I get a text from Adrian, the AFC Liverpool club secretary. ‘We’d like to offer you a friendly match against our reserves, Chris.’ The Rebels were born out of an AFC Liverpool refugee fan project and now AFC Liverpool wants to formally welcome us – their offspring if you like – into the football family. It’s a really generous gesture and we are grateful for it, so we set a date. We will be playing our first ever match on 18 August 2018.
The match is an exceptional event that demonstrates all of the best qualities of the human spirit: AFC Liverpool officials have come to watch (and support!) us, as has their first team manager, Ben Williams. Club Secretary, Adrian, presents us with a pennant the club have had specially made to mark the occasion of our first ever match. It’s a brilliant gesture.
Also in attendance is the club’s official photographer, Dave, who is living proof that labels don’t work. A passionate Brexiteer, Dave has been one of our most ardent supporters and generous benefactors. He tells me why in a DM message on Twitter after the match:
‘Even though I am a hard Brexiteer, and apparently a racist xenophobe, I support the Rebels because I try to see the best in all people. People seeking asylum and refugees are not my foe but rather the criminal persons that have caused untold suffering in Libya, Palestine, Yemen and countless countries around the world for many years. Despite my politics, I hope my actions can make the stay, whether temporary or permanent, of people seeking asylum and refugees a more peaceful experience.’
Dave’s presence isn’t just living proof that stereotypes don’t always work. It also demonstrates how football can break down barriers and help us realise that we are on the same side – humanity – despite what the labels might say.
Nevertheless, a match is a match and everyone is in it to win it. Unfortunately for us, that is what AFC Liverpool do by four goals to one. Still, it’s been our first-ever match and we haven’t done badly. In fact, some of the AFC Liverpool crew are impressed with a few of our players. They think we are going to do well this coming season.
“I’m thinking of where we might put a trophy cabinet in the church,” Phil says to me as we walk towards the changing rooms after the game. “What do you think about the vestibule? So that everyone can see the trophies when they come into the church.”