It’s been 12 years since I last played football properly. I used to love playing at school. 15-a-side lunchtime kickabouts, jumpers for goalposts, a flat ball, imaginary pitch lines which meant throws in only got called when the strongest lad playing said so, it was fantastic. But after I left school I found it increasingly difficult to get into football, Sunday league sides seemed daunting and hard to access particularly if you weren’t confident in your ability and 5-a-side leagues were incredibly expensive as a 16 year old. A few of us scaled the school fence once a month or so to have a kickabout on the school field, but we all grew apart and that was the end of my playing days.
That was until the formation of Yorkshire St. Pauli and latterly Yorkshire St. Pauli FC. After an invite to a football tournament a few years ago we decided we best give football a go. It’s fair to say our first foray into football was feeble. We weren’t very good. Or very fit. But we did look good in pink shorts and multicoloured shirts. We counted goals rather than points, but despite the lack of quality it was a lot of fun playing in tournaments where teams had a similar ethos to Yorkshire St. Pauli.
At the same time we were trying to create a link between YSP and the service users of local refugee charity PAFRAS. What we found when talking to them was that they weren’t too interested in watching St. Pauli rather than Barcelona or Real Madrid, but they loved football and wanted an opportunity to play. There was an idea.
Born out of that idea came a monthly kickabout where YSP members who had played in the tournaments came along and we arranged lifts for those we had spoken to at PAFRAS and brought them along to. We’d cobbled together some spare kit for the refugees, all was good. But playing once a month on an ad-hoc basis was difficult to organise, it wasn’t regular enough to get more people along. So we decided to join a league with the 6/7 players who were up for playing regularly. In the 8 games we played we’d conceded about 150 goals, and whilst we’d played a couple of teams who were receptive to what we were doing, there were some who were just intent on causing a fight rather than having a friendly game of football. It wasn’t a great introduction for the refugees who for many were playing their first football in the UK. The main positive though was that the weekly fixtures meant our squad of 6/7 soon turned into 11/12 with refugees bringing friends along who wanted to join in too.
The numbers we were attracting meant we had a bigger rotation problem than Real Madrid. So we left the league and decided to try and arrange our own kickabout amongst ourselves. And so the Football For All project began. We arranged a pitch at Powerleague in Leeds City Centre at a discount which meant we could subsidise the cost for those who couldn’t afford to pay, we collected loads of kit donations to ensure we could cater for those attending who didn’t have their own kit and we advertised it at PAFRAS drop-in sessions.
It’s been 20 months since it began, and it’s still as simple as it was back then. Except now there’s 25/30 of us regularly, rather than the 11/12 that started us off. It’s the simplicity of it which is key. There’s very little in the way of rules, just like it was back at school. People turn up, get divided into teams and play until ‘next goal wins’ is called, usually when revert one is knackered. And for all its simplicity, it offers so much more. The football transcends language barriers and it provides a community where people can make friends, meet people from different backgrounds and become involved in an ever-growing group of mates.
We all look back on our school days and wish we could go back. I do go back. Every Sunday. To a time when life is simple, to kicking a ball about without a care in the world, with a group of mates who play for the love of the game.
Football For All is on every Sunday in Leeds City Centre at 12pm. It is open to everyone, as long as you are welcoming to everyone else, just turn up and play, introduce yourself and become part of our lunchtime kickabout. Kit and boots are available to anyone who require them. For enquires, find ‘Yorkshire St. Pauli’ on Facebook or Twitter.