Feet stamp, clouds of breath fizz beneath the floodlights, laughter and greetings echo around a secondary school football pitch in the East End of Glasgow. It’s a cold Thursday night at the end of January, and two of United Glasgow FC’s teams are training. As the noise and movement settles into a routine rhythm, left-back Samuel Gebretsadik peels away from the shouting, running, occasional missed ball, and more laughter, to chat at the edge of the astroturf.
Gebretsadik was 19 when he came to Scotland from Eritrea, in East Africa, in 2015, seeking political asylum. He arrived without family or friends following what he describes as “a very difficult journey”. Once in Glasgow, Gebretsadik began adjusting to the cold, to the customs, and to the food. However not everything in the local culture of his new city was unfamiliar. At the Unity Centre, a collective organisation that offers support to asylum seekers and refugees from their base along the road from the Home Office in Govan, Gebretsadik met some other young men from Eritrea.
“They told me they were playing with United Glasgow’s development team,” he says. “They said this was a team that also welcomed players who were not from Glasgow. I used to play football back home, and so I started to play for them too. The guy who was coaching, Alan, said I was playing a wee bit better, so after two months I moved to the first team.”
Now 21, Gebretsadik has been given refugee status, and is looking for work. In the meantime, the regularity of training and games, and the camaraderie and social life that underpins them, has not only helped to provide him with a structure to his life, but also, crucially, a sense of belonging.
“I want to work, I need to work to survive in life, but I want to play football too,” says Gebretsadik. “I’ve got the refugee judgement to stay in the UK for five years, so I am able to work and to travel anywhere, except my country. I am still looking for a job, I am hoping that will come. But football is important in my life. I don’t feel good if I don’t play football. If we are off for a holiday then I have to go to the park with my friends! Football is essential.
“United Glasgow is the best team I’ve ever known. There are people here from lots of different countries, it’s multi-cultural. You get to meet so many different people, and get to know about them, and learn about their culture. I really like that, and I have made friends here now in the club.”
Gebretsadik joins his friends, his team-mates, for their warm-up. It’s just a few degrees above freezing, and training is soon underway, just as it happens at hundreds of other amateur clubs across Scotland. However, United Glasgow’s goals don’t just involve trophies or league positions.
Alan White, the coach Gebretsadik mentioned, founded the club in 2011, when he was still a student. However White, now an education worker with Show Racism the Red Card, has remained a driving force at United Glasgow as it has continued to grow. From a team set up initially to help target the isolation and sense of exclusion felt by many asylum seekers and refugees, the aims of United Glasgow, in the true spirit of their name, are now all about inclusivity and anti-discrimination. The club’s commitment to those values is also reflected in the fact United Glasgow last year became a registered charity.
It’s been an exciting evolution. For White too. A lifelong football fan, being part of United Glasgow’s development has reignited his love for a game he had become disillusioned by. “I had played football until I was about 17, and then lost interest for a while,” he says. “When you grow up in Glasgow, you can see football as this thing that divides people. It’s easy to forget that it can be powerful, a social way of bringing people together. I suppose I’d always kind of known that, but it’s good to see it in practice.”
Almost seven years ago, White was a student volunteer at the Unity Centre, and when the group decided they needed someone who knew something about football to organise some games, he was the obvious choice. “Asylum seekers, who are end of process cases, refused or going through appeals, aren’t well supported by other charities in terms of integration,” says White. “A lot of the people in this situation coming to the Unity Centre were young men who were particularly socially isolated. They couldn’t access work or education and were sitting in the house all day. One thing they all had in common though, was an interest in football.
“We started playing five-a-sides a few times, along with the volunteers, but there was a keenness to get something a bit more organised, and we began a sevens team, becoming involved in the anti-racism tournament. However, we quite quickly realised many of the other teams who talk about anti-racism tend to represent only one community. We felt the best way to do anti-racism was not to divide, but to integrate. We worked with young Scottish guys too, and so we moved away from the idea of being a refugee team to being an anti-racism team. Everything snowballed from there, and our connections have grown progressively ever since.
“Like any amateur organisation or community group, as it grows you gain more challenges. When United Glasgow was first set up I didn’t know what it would go on to become, and we just went with what people were keen on, and let it organically grow, trying to be fairly responsive rather than saying, ‘this is how things will be’. When we first set up the team we still had links to Unity and the charity for a while, then it became apparent we would need to go our own way, as it would make applying for funding easier as a stand alone football club, although we would still work closely with Unity.”
The club now runs two men’s amateur teams, both playing in the Glasgow Community Co-Operative League, and a women’s team that competes in the SWFL’s Division Two West, along with providing community drop-in sessions that are not competitive, but kickarounds for anyone of any ability.
United Glasgow FC’s simple stated aim is “access to regular, structured football for those who might find themselves excluded”. There are 23 active volunteers from a wider group of around 40, their input vital in terms of finances and general organisation, together with the coaching and education work they are also now involved in. Mainly based at the Firhill complex in Maryhill, the club also run sessions on the city’s south side and training sessions in the east end.
“Players come in who need the team, because they can’t access football elsewhere, can’t pay or don’t have a lot of confidence,” says White, now chairperson, and on United Glasgow’s board of trustees. “Players turn up rain, shine or snow. Many will quickly become quite invested in what we are doing, others come in who will agree with the values, but are maybe not as committed as the others.
“In terms of integration, we see a lot of people making friends, but it also gives people confidence, they are comfortable playing in the team – and it rapidly improves a lot of people’s English. We can offer help too, refer people on to lawyers or give people character references, and this can be helpful in immigration cases. We also work in education, speaking to our players about racism, where these ideas come from, women’s rights, homophobia. We do a yearly workshop, and get the players together to talk around those issues. We’ve had around 130 people go through those workshops in the past few years, they’re really good in terms of exposing people to those ideas, that might differ from what they hear around family or friends. For example, we wanted to counter some of what is said about asylum seekers, to hopefully bring people together and start to break down barriers.
“Over the last couple of years, we’ve been trying to make the club sustainable, solidifying the football side, and the drop-ins, along with the educational, and campaigning side. We do have a lot of connections with organisations that work in this field.
“Last summer we had a joint event with Show Racism the Red Card, we’re also part of a European club network, and club members have gone over to a tournament in Italy, and to the Anti-Racism World Cup. This year we’re trying to do warm-up events in other cities, and we’ve been approached by the European Coalition of Cities Against Racism.”
Player-coach Paul Georgie first met White when he was studying international development, and joined United Glasgow not long after the club was set up. Like White, Georgie is a passionate believer in the power of football, as a participatory sport, in terms of breaking down barriers, and bringing people together.
“I already used football as a tool to help bring communities together in southern Africa, with HIV and AIDS, so I’d seen it work, in terms of community mobilisation and engaging young people,” he says. “At United Glasgow we have a three-step process where players can join drop-in sessions, for anyone of any ability, a development team that helps get players used to a structured 11-a-side, and then this Sunday team that tries to bring together those players with the attitude, ability, and the attendance, to commit to the club.
“As in true United Glasgow style the results on the pitch don’t often reflect our ambitions off it! However, the vision is always the same, the message of anti-discrimination, no matter where we find it, and an ability to lower the barriers of access to people to financially afford to get involved in the sport.
“We have got a role to play here in Glasgow, and that role is getting bigger all the time. Many new players join us on a continuous basis from difficult backgrounds, but ultimately when they show up to training it’s all about being footballers. We remove our identities at the gate, recognising that by playing football it helps us to realise how similar we all are anyway.”
At the heart of United Glasgow FC, is it still just about playing football? “Exactly,” Georgie says. “That’s the beauty of the game, we all kind of understand that language here.”
Half-way down the pitch from the men’s first team, the United Glasgow women’s team stand in a circle, talking training, the new season ahead, the weekend before. Holly Butler, from Wolverhampton, and Sophie Murphy, from Fife, both moved to Glasgow for their jobs. What they also have in common is a sense of joy at finding a way back into playing the sport they love.
“I couldn’t live without it,” says Butler, who although injured, is now coaching. “From the very first training session, everyone was so welcoming, and the team environment so positive, it’s also great to watch the progression of some players.” Murphy, a defensive midfielder, adds: “They have just made it very easy to come back to the sport. I had played when I was younger, but had been away from football for 10 years plus, I lost touch in high school. It’s such a big part of my week now.”
For skipper Emma Porteous, United Glasgow offered an opportunity to return to playing football, but also the sense she is part of something much bigger. “I had just played football in the street as a kid, then I was with Airdrie for about a year,” she says. “But then I had stopped playing for a good five years. About four years ago I started going to the United Glasgow drop-ins at Firhill, the women’s beginner sessions, then it evolved into the 11-a-side team.
“Just getting to play football means everything. Plus, I volunteer coach, and I’m part of the committee, I throw everything into it. They’re just like a wonderful team that helps everyone, making it so socially inclusive for everybody, it draws you in, makes you want to play football, and to love playing.
“We’re mixed ability, and we accept everyone who wants to play, and that is something, watching people grow as footballers. I just wanted to play football again. It was just five a sides at the drop-ins, and very casual at first. Then when you come and find out about the message, and the family orientated aspect of the team, that’s why you end up staying, and never leaving.”