‘You don’t turn your back on your family’: A day with Liverpool Homeless Football Club

A football kicks repeatedly against the wooden planks surrounding an indoor pitch tucked away inside a unit on an industrial estate in North Wales.

Eight men – all wearing blue sportswear, four also with red bibs, chase each other around the artificial pitch. Several others stand behind the wire to the side shouting instructions and encouragement while two other teams, one in yellow and another in orange, lounge behind on benches or on the grass outside enjoying from the afternoon heat.

The quality of football is surprisingly good. Players play street football – side four where a goalkeeper stays inside their penalty area and outfield players defend with two and attack with three.

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The four-team tournament takes place at the Football Lab in an industrial area 10 minutes from Flint. It is organized by Street Football Wales – a charity which gives opportunities to people who find themselves in difficult situations due to low income, homelessness, unemployment or lack of skills.

The two teams in blue are Liverpool Homeless Football Club. Earlier, 13 men had piled into a minibus outside the Powerleague grounds, just north of the city centre. The pitches are an unofficial base for the club – a place where bi-weekly sessions on Tuesdays and Thursdays are held for people to come and play football.

The club founded by John Finnigan in 2007 uses sport, particularly football, to engage with Merseyside’s most vulnerable.

“I believe in it – I believe in the power of football, or any sport for that matter,” says John as he sits on the lawn outside the football pitches. “I worked in a hostel with 36 guys who all had alcohol, drug, mental health issues, it was chaotic.

“One day I took three guys on my day off to play football and it was the hostel change. Previously I was a screw with them and no one spoke to me. But after I took them in football once, everything changed.

“The following week I had nine who wanted to come and it grew from that. There was no longer a barrier there and I was spoken to as a mate.”

After spending 27 years in the hostel and juggling the football club, he used the money donated by former LFC player Jamie Carragher which enabled him to earn a salary and he ran the football club full time. But as much as the charity is focused on football, John adds it’s more about reducing isolation, offering emotional support and giving players new opportunities.

The 60-year-old, who holds a degree in housing and human environment from Newcastle University, said: “When you’re born in the city, especially in a poor environment, you don’t have a opportunities, so it’s important to us to get people out to meet new people.It’s what broadens your horizons and shows you there’s more to life.

At first the charity found players in hostels and shelters, but now, thanks to their walk-in sessions on Tuesdays and Thursdays, they are open to everyone.

John Finnigan, CEO of Liverpool Homeless FC

One man who has benefited from the charity is James – the player who scored the peach in the top corner earlier. The 31-year-old has been part of the football team since he was 23 years old.

“I love playing football and I’m happy to be back. It’s the first time I’ve played since October because I broke my collarbone trying to kick it,” he explains wiping his forehead with his red bib as he walks away from the pitch.

James is one of the best in the tournament. He previously played for teams such as Bootle FC and AFC Liverpool, but lived in and out of shelters and homeless hostels for several years.

“Smoking weed and gambling was my problem. I was going out and spending £400 of my salary before I even got home,” he explains. “Being in the homeless shelter was actually a blessing because it meant I had met John.

“Coming to football when you’re homeless is just the boss. It gives me a routine and something to look forward to twice a week – even if it’s only an hour or two. It’s the best thing I can do – it relieves me.”

James now lives in shared accommodation and is looking for a place of his own. He has a son, Chase, who will be two next week. “I spend my time with him – just walking down the park and seeing the family. I can’t wait to bring him to football.”

James’ story is just a story told during the day. Everyone – players and coaches – has a story of how he became a member of the football club.

There is Elvis, a former international footballer from the east coast of Africa who now works as a coach at the club. “Haggis”, a Scot who proudly shows off photos of his weight loss journey. “Seven and a half stones down now,” he said. He also organizes his own football matches and tournaments to support mental health after being inspired by the work of the club.

Darren has struggled with alcohol, but since joining the club he has been sober for two years. Pat is a key worker who comes to support his guys but also to play. “I don’t have cartilage in my knee and the doctors said I shouldn’t play, but it keeps me fit and active.” When Pat scores – passed by another player, JJ, before heading home past the goalkeeper – it elicits one of the biggest cheers of the day.

Dylan is a tall, tanned 26-year-old who speaks in an Irish drawl. He explains that he was working as a security guard at an inn when he met John. After discovering that Dylan had a physical education degree, John invited him to the sessions to meet the team.

“I was very lucky – I love it and I’ve been doing it for a year now. Helping people and being there for the guys is what matters. I’m not like a coach for the boys – they’re all my real friends and I really care about them.”

Liverpool Homeless FC in action at The Football Lab, Holywell
Liverpool Homeless FC in action at The Football Lab, Holywell

Dylan explains that he went through a rough patch emotionally after splitting from his girlfriend, but that the support of the band – and John in particular – helped him through it. “They’re all great people – they’re my friends and family here at Liverpool rolled into one.

“John took me under his wing and helped me. He’s like a father figure. I want to be successful in myself, but I want my success to lead to helping others, just like John.”

Because helping people and supporting them is what the football club is all about. As well as men’s football sessions on Tuesdays and Thursdays, both of which are free, the last Tuesday of the month sees a tournament involving teams from across the region and further afield competing. Food is served and guest speakers come down to give advice to the men. In addition to patron John Bishop, footballers such as Jamie Carragher and John Barnes passed on their wisdom.

The football club also organizes a session for women on Wednesdays. “Women’s Wednesdays,” laughs John. “They chose the name”. Wednesday sessions focus on supporting women, primarily those who have experienced domestic violence.

And on top of all that, they also offer the members of “the family” opportunities to progress towards employment, continuing education or volunteering. It could be in food preparation and hygiene or earning coaching badges. Throughout the day, a few players approach head coach Keith, or “Hecky” as some men call him, to inquire about the opportunity.

In addition to football advice and opportunities, Keith is also particularly vocal, urging men to be respectful and show respect. He told ECHO: “It doesn’t matter where people come from – that’s forgotten. In football, we all come with the same background.

“I tell them I know it can be frustrating, but I always insist on showing respect – it’s good to be competitive but don’t waste it on others or yourselves. There’s great camaraderie – they’re a good group of boys and they bounce off each other.

“I think guys respect me because I’m really on their level. You have to be a bit of a chameleon and know how to communicate with everyone. I’m just a normal guy who has problems like everyone else, but when I I am here, my problems are left at the door.”

John Finnigan(Chief Executive)centre,with members and coaches of Liverpool Homeless Football Club.(Pic Andrew Teebay).
Liverpool Homeless Football Club

Keith has been involved with the club for two years after being recommended to John. He is coached at a semi-professional level and also has his own coaching business where he offers one-on-one sessions. “For me routine and structure are key – have a purpose in what you do. That’s why I mentioned coaching – when guys are ready they can come and work with me, no problem at all .”

The tournament ends with both Liverpool teams watching from the sidelines. A quick introduction and discussion about future collaboration between the teams ensues before the men get back into the minibus for the hour-long journey home.

The mood on the bus is jovial – the players taunt John for leaving someone behind while Keith warns them to get their passports out when the bus returns to England.

But with a cost of living crisis enveloping the country, the most vulnerable in society risk being left behind. And like all charities, Liverpool Homeless FC are in financial difficulty. “Funds are drying up now,” says John.

“But what can we do, we can’t take it away. People depend on it – I have a responsibility to get the funding to continue to support our guys and girls. They’ve had people take it from them. stuff all their life – but we won’t. You don’t turn your back on your family.

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