Two Men In Search Of The Beautiful Game visit a month-old club that strives for community over glory.
Words by Daniel Magner. Pictures by Tom Sparks.
On the edge of the famous hallowed turf of Hackney Marshes, is a small complex of grass and 3G football pitches, and there would seem to be no better place to host the first official match of Hackney Wick FC.
A team only months old. The brain child of a once promising footballer, whose life has taken him to prison, where he wrote two books, educated himself, came out and devoted his life to his daughter, his community and football.
Bobby Kassanga originally from South London, was at an all-time low when prison put his football career on hold, he missed the formative years of his daughter growing up, but instead of his time in prison making him bitter, he used it as an opportunity to better himself.
Not a native of Hackney, he has though lived there for 12 years now, he felt the borough was missing that unifying element that a football club can give. Islington has Arsenal, Haringey has Spurs, and Newham has West Ham, so surely a borough as big and diverse as Hackney deserves the same, so Hackney Wick FC (HWFC) was born.
One thing crucial to Bobby’s vision was that of the club being for and about the community. He wanted to make sure the club always gave back to the people around it, much more than it ever took out.
Mine and Toms involvement was down to one tweet, asking if you wanted to be the owner of a football club, the ultimate aim is for HWFC to be community owned. This instantly excited us, as our own work has made us both aware of the great things being done by fan owned clubs, like FC United Of Manchester and two teams we visited last season AFC Wimbledon and Enfield Town FC. In fact a day does not to go by at the moment, without a story of fans reclaiming their club in one way or another.
A meeting was arranged after a bit of email back and forth with Bobby, where I asked eagerly “where do we sign up? In a burger restaurant near Liverpool St Station, our very own Freemasons’ Tavern, the few who had shown interest meet for the first time, and the committee was formed.
HWFC was created with the idea of supporting and assisting the local community at the forefront. The majority of fan owned clubs come from an act of rebellion, a retaliation to perhaps change the way your club is being run, the fact that someone wants to pick it up all together, like an NFL franchise and move it somewhere else, pulling it apart at the seams, or it’s a “phoenix club” trying to save the name and history, once the original incarnation had been destroyed.
The last few months have been a blizzard of WhatsApp messages, meetings and our best attempts to publicise the day, and let the people of Hackney know we are here, and asking them to come and be involved.
Before even a ball had been kicked, HWFC has been making itself known locally, as an organisation willing to help. Handing out water at a half marathon, planting sunflower seeds, singing in a choir, or offering free women’s football training. What started as a session for the Wicked Women of Hackney, the local WI, and was only ever meant to be fortnightly, but was so popular it’s now every week. In fact a couple of their members make up the women’s squad today.
HWFC have done everything to make their intensions clear, and we stand by the moto “Our Borough, Our Club”
The fact we are at this point today, a team which only a couple of months ago was just an idea, and now has a full kit, a men’s and women’s team, and they are both about to play their first games in yellow and black, makes me immensely proud of everyone involved.
The tall trees that line one side of Mabley Green rustle, on a warm but blustery day. “Hackney Wick FC” bunting made in the clubs colours by the local Women’s Institute is proudly on display, tied to a fence fluttering away. Both the men’s and women’s team are there, and Bobby is flying about in his flip flops and club polo shirt. Claire and Brian, two members of the committee, have taken up position behind a fold out table, selling badges and raffle tickets. The chance to win an England shirt signed by the “Golden Generation” is enough to entice people to part with £5. Bobby whips up support, and encourages people to buy one, apologising that his “good friend” David Beckham could not be here today.
The women’s team are warming up on the pitch, as the coach Sam gets them ready. Sam’s story is a blog all of it’s own. Having moved to the UK from Eritrea in 1998, not long after she was scouted by Tottenham Hotspur Ladies FC, and played for them for nearly 10 years. She brings a wealth of experience to the club, coaching men and women since the age of 15, as well a six month stint coaching in the USA.
Bobby is in a constant state of motion, doing one thing or another, at one point he is helping tap a keg of beer donated by a local brewery, and announces “the beer is ready!”
Out of the corner of my eye I notice one of the women’s team being helped off the pitch limping, and obviously in some distress, however I think this is more because she is unlikely to play, rather than the severity of the injury.
A few familiar faces appear pitch side, some of the Clapton Ultras we met at the Essex Senior League Cup Final and Peter Dudley a presenter on the local East London Radio Grass Roots Football Show, and huge supporter of all things non-league, are all here showing their support.
One Ultra in his black cap with St Pauli patch, and Clapton scarf tells me of a woman local to where he lives, who was so inspired by the recent World Cup, he had told her to get in touch with HWFC, after she made a plea on social media asking for suggestions of where she could play.
Slowly but surely fold up chairs and picnic blankets spring up pitch side, and the worry of no one turning up, is quickly dissipating.
Sam now kneels on the pitch as the rest of the women’s team in white shirts and black shorts huddle around her and take advice for the game ahead.
Today’s opposition for the men and women are the Football Beyond Borders (FBB) Warriors (Women’s team) and Wanderers (Men’s team). FBB are a “grassroots youth-led charity”, who use the almighty power of the beautiful game, to unite people, working in some of London’s most disadvantaged areas and schools. Using football coaching in a combination with mentoring and tutoring.
The FBB Warriors emerged from Women Beyond Borders, a project which began in December 2013 to support more women to begin playing regular football for the first time. Just like HWFC they also offer free women’s training, as well all participants being given the chance to gain FA Level 1 and 2 coaching qualifications. The FFB Wanderers, like the Warriors are a by-product of FBB community work, an initiative to unite “rival” areas in South London. They have partnered with Wanderers F.C. the winners of the first FA Cup. Having played a successesion of friendly’s over the last year, both the Warriors and Wanderers are joining leagues for the first time this coming season.
The Warriors warm up at one end of the pitch in exactly the same strip as the HWFC Men’s team. HWFC are doing one last huddle and in unison cry “GO WICKERS” this gets bums off seats and to the side-lines to applaud them on “Come on you Wickers”, “Come on Girls”.
Sam and Bobby walk the touchline, giving out advice in the early moments of the game. Rana the clubs Chairwoman takes up a solid central midfield position, and as a diehard Chelsea fan, it would only be proper to say she is playing the “Makélélé” role.
The first touch of the ball from the HWFC keeper, a simple save, brings the first celebration of the day.
FBB dominate the game in most parts, and it’s a resounding victory, scoring 13 goals over the course of 60 minutes, with one stand out performance in particular from a 14 year old student from South London. Tall, powerful, skilful, and with obvious natural ability, she glides across the pitch. Her hat trick goal is a fine low curling right footed shot, and if it was not for what seemed like a bit of a knock after a collision shortly after, that brought her off, I’m sure she would have gone on and scored many more.
Her history teacher from Croydon, who is present at the game, is beaming. Having recognized her and her fellow student’s enthusiasm, he personally drives them to training every week, to give them the opportunity to play, and he is quick to tell me what great students they are.
The Warriors are encouraged to play a passing game, with 3 at the back. Their manager is quick to applaud them when a slick move results in a goal, “that’s why we pass it, good work!”
Although the FBB victory is one sided, this does nothing to take away from the job of the HWFC team, who continue to be positive, heads never seem to drop, and considering the short time they have played together, show great glimpses of things to come.
The highlight for the home team is when faced by a FBB player from the penalty spot, the HWFC keeper pulls off a save to her left, the loudest cheer of the day rings out around Mabley Green.
Both teams are clapped off, “well done Wickers” and regardless of the result the supporters are behind them. They take the opportunity to get some much needed water, there is by now a wicked heat haze on the pitch, and the man taking shade under an umbrella eating a tin of beans, has the right idea, the umbrella that is, not the beans!
“Who scored that sick goal?” said one FBB player to another.
A few changes are made to the HWFC side, the player injured in the warm up, has a smile back on her face, as she pulls on the goalie gloves, and limps on to the pitch, she appears much happier now she is getting a chance to play. The midfield enforcer, Rana, is now on the touchline, or even on a few occasions behind the goal, helping her team mates, however she can.
With not long now until the kick off for the men’s game, the team have changed and made their way to the scorched grass pitch next to the 3G. Booby has ditched the flip flops and now has his boots on.
“Keep in line with me” is Bobby’s instruction, as he starts the squad though a series of warm ups, jogging then, all in unison they leap into the air, following his lead and letting out a roar.
My attention is quickly snapped back on to the women’s match, as they have been awarded a penalty, their first real chance to get a shot on goal. Almost everyone is now standing on the edge of the pitch, sausage rolls have been tossed to the floor, and the next few moments leave people’s faces with expressions of shock and bemusement! The penalty is saved, the keeper pushes it back out into the box, and what happens next is a succession of blocks, deflections and an almighty scramble, but it just won’t go in.
Heads are in hands, people look at each other, HOW did that not go in “COME ON WICKERS!”
Goals are not hard to come by for FBB, but if anything it just spurs on the people watching to back Hackney harder and louder, and then in the final moments of the match, a real atmosphere can be felt.
A constant stream of people, make their way back and forth to the keg on the half way line, as the final whistle goes, “well done Wickers”.
Bobby is now in his full kit, and is doing interviews with our visitors from Pitch Talk, a weekly podcast, they cover all topics from the women’s game, the top flight and grass roots, who we got in touch with on Twitter, and they joined us to make a film about the occasion, for their “on the road” series.
It’s all handshakes and hugs on the pitch, and HWFC give the accolades due to the victors, “Hurray, Hurray, Hurray”.
It’s time for the Men’s team, and Bobby makes a few things clear before kick-off “mind your language, there are kids here” and “if you get riled up, don’t bite” Kenny, the HWFC manager, tall, imposing and straight talking, tells the team what he wants from them.
“I want to see you pass the ball”, “I want lots of width from the full backs”.
Kenny points to Bobby, and says in his assured tone “holding”, Bobby nods.
“In 3 seasons I guarantee you will be playing in the Essex Senior League, guaranteed” Kenny imparts some perspective and motivation on the squad. “Your football education starts today”, “Everyone who stays and plays, will get better”.
“This is a team, this is Hackney Wick FC” “Go out and f*cking enjoy yourself”.
Bobby and a few other players offer their own words of encouragement “come on boys, we can do this”.
In the early minutes of the game possession is given away cheaply, and it’s a bit of a scrappy start by both teams. Suddenly a great burst of pace from the HWFC number 11, who latches onto a great ball, and as quick as a flash is away from his marker and in front of goal, with great composure he slots it neatly past the keeper, and history is made, this fledgling club is off the mark.
Unfortunately the rest of the game does not follow suit, and HWFC are unable to really get a grip on it. The cohesion and stability that comes with playing together, is apparent in abundance, as FBB Wanders are quick to equalize from the spot, after a great ball over the top, catches the defence square, the full back is always playing catch up, he tugs the opposition and the ref gives a penalty.
FBB start to pull away from HWFC, as another through ball, catches out the defence again, and its 2 -1. A great shot from the home team, loops over the keeper, hits the cross bar, and bounces down. Was it in? Everyone looks at each other, surely it was, but the man in black waves the game on, a member of Pitch Talk starts to chant “GLT, GLT, GLT” (goal line technology)
A HWFC player almost ruins a picnic, after going full pelt for a ball, only just managing to stop in time, with his boot fractions away from the hummus.
3 – 1 is how the half ends, and once again the teams leave the pitch to a warm reception, “Heads up Wickers”.
My previous description of Kenny is more than apparent in his half time team talk. The players sit down, sharing and guzzling from a huge bottle of water, one player who starts to talk is quickly put in his place, “you want to come up here and do this for me?”
“We are getting overrun” he was not wrong the midfield was bypassed on a few occasions.
“Discipline’s not good enough” if it wasn’t for a particularly lax ref, the first half would have been a succession of free kicks, and positional discipline had allowed FBB to effectively score the same goal twice.
Kenny gets progressively louder and louder, ramping up the volume with each point he makes.
“You really have got to take control. You’re 6’4, but you’re chasing” pointing at one of the central midfielders.
“Stop trying to force the pass”
He is at his absolute loudest as he finishes, “Come on boys, heads up!”
I’m on the opposite side of the pitch for the second half, standing with the players. The clubs Vice Chairman Declan Perkins, an ex-professional himself who represented Peterborough Utd, Southend Utd and Dulwich Hamlet FC and Ireland at U21, who has now followed in the age old tradition of footballers becoming pub landlords. When I ask him of his opinion he emphasises the need for “time”, it’s easy to forget how little time this team has been a team.
A fourth goal from FBB results in Kenny pointing his finger at three or four players “warm up, warm up, warm up, warm up” and they pick themselves up of the floor, and groan off in sprints ready to get substituted on. This Sven Goran Erikson’esq move of multiple subs is for him a chance to see who he has, and what they can do, rather than perhaps playing his strongest 11, and getting the victory.
The 5th and final goal is a half volley from outside the box, from a diminutive player who has been a thorn in the side of HWFC the whole game. In one gasp of “oh my God”, the scorer wheels away to the right, his team mates chasing him down, it does not matter what team you play for, what team you support, a screamer is a screamer.
Towards the end of the game, Bobby and Kenny’s request for discipline, goes out the window, as a combination of bruised egos and frustrations, results in a bit of hand bags, and there are a few moments of confusion as Kenny walks on the pitch, and some players start to walk off, it’s not clear if the game is over or Kenny is bringing it to a premature end, but it’s soon over as quick as it begun, and the game plays on for a few more minutes, and on the final whistle everyone shakes hands.
Ice boxes start to close, picnic blankets are folded up and put away, camping chairs are folded up, the man with the Jack Russell and the portable radio, keeping one ear on the Ashes, starts to make his way home.
Pitch Talk’s camera is looming, and we are both gawping at the microphone, it’s our time to do an interview, and I’m anxious and unsure where to look. Tom look’s effortlessly Summery in his shades and flat cap, I’m worried if my sun burnt face will be a distraction to any potential viewers. Any concerns about being on camera are put at ease instantly, as the presenters Gerald, Liam and Gavin, discuss the day’s events, more Parkinson than Paxman.
It’s Rana’s turn on camera, as my one burnt shin, and Toms flat cap go in search of a much needed pint, after an exhausting day in the sun.
After having had a chance to reflect, I think I can say we are blown away by the turn out and support, no one wants to go to a party, and have no one turn up, so it was incredibly invigorating and morale boosting, that all our hard work had paid off, that people have identified with what we are doing, and want to be a part of it.
The day was never solely about the football, yes of course we would all be lying if we said we had not wanted both HWFC teams to win, but putting things in perspective, today was a great achievement, and there were some very positive things to be gleaned from both games. The whole event was a showcase, a chance to show the community what and who we are, and from the feedback we all got, people want to be involved, which is so exciting.
Pre-season matches are coming thick and fast, as the team prepare for the coming season, we hope we have planted a few seeds, in a few heads, so on that first home game, there will be a few people standing pitch side shouting “COME ON YOU WICKERS!”
You can also give them a like on facebook here