Changing Lives FC, based in Harlow, Essex, are a football team with a story.
Every training session, and during every game, you can hear around a dozen different languages as each member of the squad is a migrant, asylum seeker or refugee.
They have all either fled war, terror or they are in desperate search of a better life. They are young men who – if left to fend for themselves – would be extremely vulnerable in our society.
Sadly, they are also a group who have had to face racism and discrimination when they are on the football pitch.
The team was originally created two years ago by a local social worker as a way of bringing positivity into their lives. But, as word began to spread, the team soon became overwhelmed with the number of young migrants wanting to be a part of it.
That’s where current manager David Simmons came in.
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David, along with friend Ben Doyle, launched the Changing Lives in Harlow project back in September 2018 with the aim of helping vulnerable youngsters find their way in life away from violence and gangs.
The project has grown hugely in that time and has now become Changing Lives Community Services as they expand beyond the Essex town.
Soon they took over the team, renamed them Changing Lives FC, and David began a journey like no other alongside his players in the second division of the Harlow and District League.
But it’s a journey that has been fraught with abuse each step of the way.
“They are human beings and I think people forget about that”
“I wasn’t too sure what I was going into,” said David reflecting on the moment he was asked to take over the team.
“I didn’t really understand, and most people think – when they are meeting refugees, migrants and asylum seekers – people have this opinion that they don’t deserve free things, especially funding.
“I sort of had that concept. Why should I support these people when they’ve just come over to the country?
“But I gave it a chance and I wanted to help these people. As soon as I saw the first person when I went to that training session everything changed. My whole mindset changed, everything.
“These guys have fantastic stories; they are human beings and I think people forget about that.
“When I met the team, it was fantastic. They are technically brilliant – they are gifted players – and the only thing they lacked was the knowledge of the game. It was simple things like the offside rule and throw-ins and the first season was hard.
“It was hard for the boys because there was lots of racism and discrimination towards them and there were occasions when there was violence on the pitch.
“I think our team had the most yellow and red cards because our players reacted to what the other teams were saying to them. The other team knew they would get a reaction from them.”
“When we score it’s like winning a World Cup”
Despite the skill the group have, taking over the team has proved challenging particularly when there are so many different languages amongst the group.
But it was the abuse that really became apparent for David as manager. It’s led to fights, appeal panels and he has even had to invest in a video camera he feels he needs to protect his team.
“The discipline has been much better [this season], but things haven’t changed on the pitch,” David continued.
“Discrimination and racism still exist, and you’ve got everything going on with the FA – the most topical thing with the chairman [Greg Clarke] resigning due to his comments.
“We’ve had to have hearings already regarding fights on the pitch and what teams have said about our players.
“It still exists, it’s still happening when we’re playing, and I’ve had to invest in a video camera which tracks and monitors the football, but it also picks up on what people say.
“It gives these players a bit of protection. I didn’t want to have to do that, but I felt I had to, to protect my players.
“But I’ve fallen in love with the team and it’s like my little family when we train on Saturdays and play our matches.
“When we score it’s like winning a World Cup – the joy that you have of when these boys score is fantastic.”
“Racism and discrimination is still happening every Sunday”
Depressingly racism in football is not a new problem. It has been prevalent for years and there have been numerous flashpoints we can all recall.
Think back to 2019 for example. In April that year Tottenham defender Danny Rose said he couldn’t wait for his career to come to an end due to the racism he faced.
In that same month Watford captain Troy Deeney reported abuse on social media, and the EFL declared itself ‘angered’ as Derby, Wigan and Northampton all reported racist abuse of their players.
Later in the year Tammy Abraham and Paul Pogba were both targeted online after missed penalties and this is just scratching the surface with all the incidents reported that year.
And who could forget the incident this year where Crystal Palace’s Wilfried Zaha was sent racist messages on social media – a 12-year-old-boy was arrested and subsequently received education lessons through charity Kick It Out.
“Before we start pointing the finger at other countries, we’ve got to look at ourselves and sort our own country out,” David continued.
“Racism and discrimination is still happening every Sunday – it is, it really is.
“We’ve had to appeal and go to FA hearings because one of our players was subjected to discrimination. From that it turned into a mass brawl and I had to get statements, witnesses and it turned pretty ugly.
“When you go to an appeal phase you either say, ‘I accept it’ and get a ban or you can give all the statements.
“I said to the player ‘do you want to fight this?’ and ‘if you do, I’m right behind you’ and he said, ‘yeah I want to fight this’.
“That’s exactly what we did, we got the statements and from those statements the FA rejected the claims from the other team. My player wasn’t banned at all and that was fantastic.
“We were fighting a big cause here against discrimination and that was one of the big things that gave us support.
“The FA were supporting us; they weren’t letting other teams get away with it and that was a big thing for us.
“But it is still happening, we are trying to fight it and from being the only migrant team in the UK we know we are going to get it.
“That’s the sad thing – we know in these games we are going to be targeted because of what sort of team we are.
“But every game I tell the boys not to react. That’s exactly what they want.
“They want us to fight, they want us to get involved in these altercations but I’m telling them ‘lads, you can’t do that, you’ve just got to walk away’.
“That is something we are still building on, but it is still happening even at a grassroots level.”
“They’ve come without their family across seas, deserts, on the back of lorries and they’ve escaped war”
Abuse aside, it should not take away from the incredible – and terrifying – backstories these players have.
Ultimately this project is the perfect embodiment of the power of sport. Despite the trauma and the vulnerability, football has given these young men something to focus on and something to enjoy while they study at college and learn English.
That can go a long way in deciding their own personal futures.
“These guys, they’ve come without their family across seas, deserts, on the back of lorries and they’ve escaped war,” David explained.
“They haven’t got anyone else and they’re escaping because they’re coming from war, or they are running away from terror.
“People don’t understand that and it’s sad because these guys are human beings.
“Why do we have these horrible opinions? I spoke out to RT News a few months back and the amount of trolls that abused me, and said I should die and that they were going to rape my parents, because I was supporting these young people is wrong.
“It infuriates me that people have these opinions. These guys are young – they’re 16, 17 and 18-year-olds – and why are we not supporting them?
“When they get to this country why are we not doing more to protect them and help them?
“It scares me that these people have these sorts of opinions.
“I was on the news channel talking for about three minutes. After those three minutes, when it went on Facebook, the amount of abuse I received was horrendous.”
David continued: “These guys are very vulnerable. When you’ve got someone – like a gang member – looking at these young boys they say, ‘can you run this for me and I’ll give you £50’.
“£50 would last them a whole week.
“These guys are so vulnerable that if there was no support for them, if there was no football – and it’s not just me that’s helping them as there’s loads of other organisations helping – if that wasn’t in place then these guys would be going down that path.
“That’s exactly what we do not want to happen. These guys coming over have absolutely nothing so it’s really important that we protect them and we educate them.
“These guys we work with – they go to college, they’re learning English, they’re learning core skills and they’re getting education to build them up. We have to support them.”
“We’re committed to ongoing prevention of this sort of behaviour”
In relation to the incidents of racism, an Essex FA spokesperson said: “Discrimination has no place at any level of football. We’re committed to ongoing prevention of this sort of behaviour but, if found proven, strong and appropriate punishments will be enforced. It’s important that any allegations are reported and dealt with.
“During a game, these can be reported to the match referee. After the game, we can be contacted in a variety of ways, highlighted on our website and TheFA.com. There is also the Kick It Out website at www.kickitout.org, plus the Kick It Out reporting app.
“It’s crucial individuals have the confidence to report such incidents, and they can see the transparency in the investigations. Evidence is gathered and fully investigated, in liaison with The FA. There is no ceiling for fines or suspensions of an aggravated nature, and completion of an FA Education course is mandatory.
“We also organise FA Education Workshops for youth teams (aged Under 12s and below) as opposed to a charge for discrimination, which is perceived as a more effective sanction than a charge for the younger players.
“It’s also important to remember the ongoing prevention work. We have a Moving Forward Strategy which outlines our commitment to achieving Equality Standard ‘Intermediate Level’, affirming that we’re focussed on ensuring grassroots football opportunities are open and accessible for all.
“We also collaborated with leagues, clubs and parents to deliver Parent Workshops last season, which proved very popular. Additionally, the Respect and #WeOnlyDoPositive Campaigns are sharing best practice, especially on social media. If discrimination is witnessed, please report it.”
SportSpiel also approached the Harlow and District Football League for a statement in relation to the incidents of racism and discrimination.
League secretary, Alvyn Charles, said: “I am deeply saddened to hear that Mr Simmons has made these comments about the racism his team has experienced.
“The two incidents that have been brought to my attention by Mr Simmons were deemed on both occasions to not be of a racist content. As HDFL is a multi-cultural league, if there were any forms of racism we instruct all teams that if/when it occurs we have procedures in place and always have informed the Essex FA who themselves would conduct their own investigation.”
Words and interview: Alasdair Hooper
Image credits: With thanks to Changing Lives FC
All music in this episode is courtesy of Otis McDonald