St. George’s Park, Burton. The English Football Association’s gleaming, state-of-the-art facilities are playing host to an international training session. The air is thick with the squeak of quick-turning trainers, the thud of balls staying hit and the quietly insistent instructions of an array of coaches on the sidelines. Four areas have been marked out with cones for febrile games of quick pass-and-move football. To one side, an internationally renowned manager is giving interviews to camera: so far, so normal.
But this is not a normal international training session at all. This is something far more interesting and, for the players involved, potentially far more significant to their lives as well as their football. This is the Homeless Football Association.
Set up in 2011, the Homeless FA merged with leading homelessness charity Centrepoint in 2014. It grew out of the previous organisation, run in cooperation with the magazine The Big Issue. The HFA is an official partner of the Homeless World Cup, an annual event being hosted this year in Amsterdam. The HFA is also an affiliate partner of the FA, which is what has led to this residential training session in the high-tech environs of St. George’s Park. Gareth Parker, Head of the Homeless FA, set it up in 2011 and has been involved ever since. His mission was and is to harness the power of professional football to change the lives of homeless people and challenge negative stereotypes surrounding homelessness.
This four-day immersion in Burton is a significant step towards doing just that for everyone present and a testament to the involvement of the professional side of the game is the presence of Harry Redknapp, the manager giving interviews. That morning, Redknapp had conducted a skills session with the players, made possible by the assistance of BT Sport’s The Supporters Club, who have thrown considerable financial muscle behind the project with the aim of harnessing sport to help young people to change their lives for the better. Redknapp was adamant that the HFA can do just that, as he told me: “Football is a game that brings everybody together and can be important in fighting homelessness.”
But just how can football do this? The English HFA, and there are other homeless associations in most countries around the world, are unusual in that the players present are not selected purely on ability. The emphasis is on an ethos, one of respect, team-building and harnessing skills on the football pitch in a way that transfers into the players’ lives off it. Those selected have to demonstrate that they buy into this programme and are willing to take personal responsibility and develop themselves are people, not just as players. The HFA ran a series of 6-week Training Centre courses in partnership with 11 Premier League clubs, including Arsenal, Southampton and Manchester City. Players were invited to take part, often having been referred by their key-workers or hostels, and those who showed the greatness commitment to the HFA’s philosophy of self-empowerment were asked to come to Burton. It’s an unusual way to prepare for an international tournament, but it’s one that is paying dividends.
The HFA’s teams, men and women, play street football, a rapid, constricted form of the game involving 4 players per team, one of whom is in goal. One attacking player must stay in the opponent’s half at all times and teams play two halves, 7 minutes each way. The standard of football is mixed, but some players certainly catch the eye. A tall, languidly elegant striker whose name, I determine from shouts of encouragement, is Marcel, has quick feet and exceptional control. Waiting for her turn on the women’s pitch, a player with a large number of ear-piercings and her hair piled high on her head strings together innumerable keepy-uppies, her face taut with concentration. The zip of some of the games leaves me exhausted simply watching from the sidelines.
Around each pitch, shouting advice and instructions, are a number of coaches, all of whom were previously players. The HFA runs a mentoring scheme, whereby previous players are invited to train either as mentors or as coaches, ensuring both a continuity of the ethos that underpins everything they do and that the players are surrounded by people they can relate to; every coach has walked in the same shoes as the players.
Head of Coaching James Buckley is no different. He represented England in the Homeless World Cup of 2011 in Paris, before being invited by Parker to become the first player to transition into coaching for the HFA. An impressive and articulate man, Buckley was left homeless for three years at the age of 19 when his adoptive mother, who was his sole parent, died. He briefly slept on the streets before finding a hostel place and it was there that his key-worker suggested he try the Homeless FA. Having lost many of his friends when he became homeless, Buckley found a common purpose and sense of belonging in the “big family” of the HFA. He gets wistful when I ask about his experience in Paris. “Pulling on an England top”, he says, “It’s the best experience you can have. I’m jealous of what the [current] players could experience because I can’t do that again.”
What Buckley can do, though, is shape the lives of those current players through his coaching. He has designed the new HFA training manual, Real Skills for Change, which brilliantly combines on-the-pitch football exercises with counterparts that can be used in ‘real life’ outside the white rectangle. This deliberate pairing of skill sets means that players are constantly learning things that will benefit them in any scenario, as Buckley explains: “People don’t realise they are taking on psychological skills while they’re learning football.” That morning, the players had been focussing on awareness, practising drills where they receive the ball with their back to a defender and have to be aware of where that defender is, the pace of the pass coming to them, and where their teammates are. That was combined with a workshop on situational awareness, how their actions and reactions affect those around them. Another example might be control, which is obvious in football terms, and where the off-field workshop focuses on self-control; as Buckley says, “You’ve got to think about things, whether it’s the ball or your emotions.”
On speaking with the players, it’s obvious that this approach is paying off. Jay, a softly spoken 33-year-old, lives in a St. Mungo’s hostel in London. He attended the 6-week session at Arsenal and immediately felt at home: “Being with a lot of other people in my situation really helps, people going through the same issues.” As a lover of football, it isn’t hard for Jay to enjoy the training element, but what he finds most helpful is the sense of communal endeavour and empowerment. “I’m hard on myself”, he says, “being homeless, but the organisation has given me a chance to be open, feel comfortable.” Jay has been homeless for just under 3 years, but sees his involvement with the HFA as a potential springboard to what he describes “a normal life in society”, including permanent accommodation and full-time work. “Football is my life”, he says, “and there are lots of opportunities: some of the mentors here were in my position a few years ago and now they’re looking very comfortable, very happy.”
Jess is 22 and has been homeless on-and-off since she was 14. She is a fanatical Liverpool fan and found pulling on an Everton jersey as part of the team-building at Wavertree Sports Park, where the blue half of Merseyside participated in the HFA’s 6 week course, rather galling. Nonetheless, this team ethic is what kept Jess coming back, despite a gruelling full-time job as a chef. As she told me, “No one knew each other when we started, but we just got on with it, we supported each other. When I started working I didn’t want to let them down because they were there for me.” She also understood why it was important to all wear the same kit because, as she explains, “Whatever’s happened, wherever you’ve been, when you come into this room we’re all the same.” This idea has been carried over to the current training sessions, where players and staff are all wearing the same black training kit with red socks; there are no distinctions and the team is everything. Jess, like Jay and James, grew up around football and was always playing it in Liverpool: “Every park, every corner, there’s a ball. We haven’t got much but you can always play football.” She describes the game as “not so much an escape, but something to pass the time.” Now, though, because of her involvement with the HFA, football is much more than that. Jess says it provides her with “a better option, something to fight for.” She would love to represent England, but it’s noticeable that when asked why, she says how much it would mean to her to “do something as a team.” These are not coached answers, either. The sense of communal endeavour fostered by the HFA is palpable in every conversation, during every exercise.
This team ethic runs through the coaching staff, all former players, and it is testament to the success of that idea that both Jay and Jess want to go into the mentoring scheme and become coaches themselves. Jay believes the fact that coaches and mentors are themselves former players is crucial to the success of the project: “The staff understand us and they’re not patronising.” Head of Coaching James Buckley agrees: “There’s always someone the players can talk to so they don’t need to keep stuff in.” The coaches can empathise with the players’ situations, and so a group of people all too often ignored or rebuffed by society, especially those in authority, find that they have someone to look up to who not only gets them, but was in the same position at one point. Jess wants to go into coaching for exactly that reason, for the opportunity to “support someone else, give them what I got.”
And what Jess and the other players are getting is remarkable. The marriage of football and life skills has yielded real results. Of the players who went on the 6-week courses around the country, 60% were regularly taking substances of one sort or another; 87% of those ended the 6 weeks using less. Almost every player who attended felt their confidence and self-esteem had improved, that they had developed their interpersonal skills, and every single one said they would recommend the Training Centre sessions to others. The legacy data are just as impressive, if not more so. Of the players involved in the 2014 England team, 46% went into further education, 61% improved their housing situation, and 67% gained employment, some after further education. Again, improvements in self-esteem, a sense of empowerment, and physical well-being were almost universal. It would be a struggle to find any other programme with such startling rates of success.
The training session ends and the players drift away to lunch. They head off in groups, chatting, exchanging ideas and talking football. There is an energy and an excitement and exactly that sense of communality the players speak so highly of. As Harry Redknapp said to me while the session was going on, “There shouldn’t be homeless kids around in this day and age and people need to be more aware and do more.” That is undeniably true and the Homeless FA is at the vanguard of those efforts. But they are doing it by giving their homeless players the chance to change things for themselves, empowering them with skills, not hand-outs. Pulling on an England jersey in Amsterdam this year might be the pinnacle of these players’ football careers, but the Homeless FA has given them the confidence to aspire to so much more. And when international football is just a stepping-stone to the rest of your life, then you know you are part of something truly special.
The Homeless World Cup runs from 12th-20th September in Amsterdam. You can follow the progress of the England team on Facebook. You can find out more about the Homeless FA on their website and you can follow them on Twitter (@HomelessFA)
You can follow Alex Stewart on Twitter. (@AFHStewart)