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'I never felt such support in my life': The football club that has become a lifeline for homeless people

Homeless people from all walks of life attend regular training sessions in what has become a vital resource for players.

Philip Doyle (yellow), one of several players who feature in the documentary.
Philip Doyle (yellow), one of several players who feature in the documentary.
Image: Street Leagues

Updated Feb 27th 2020, 8:45 AM

AS THE HOMELESS crisis escalates and politicians make promises to tackle it, charities and grassroots organisations are rallying to provide supports to those who need them. 

Soup kitchens continue to be rolled out on the streets of towns and cities across the country several nights a week – a service mostly provided by charity groups who offer the service to rough sleepers and those in emergency accommodation. 

But while the soup kitchens are one lifeline to homeless people who would otherwise go hungry, another support which has been life-changing for those who – often through no fault of their own – find themselves living day-to-day without a place to call their own has been the Homeless Street Leagues. 

The volunteer-led organisation has been up and running since 2004 and aims to provide a community environment through sport for those who feel they have been excluded from society. 

A new documentary from Daniel F Holmes, debuting this month at the Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival, charts the Irish team’s journey to Oslo in 2017 for the Homeless World Cup. 

Those who took part in the tournament describe the effect it has had on them, questioning where they might have ended up if they didn’t have the support from their teammates both on and off the pitch. 

“If there was a word bigger than ‘amazing’ I would use it to describe the world cup in Oslo,” 36-year-old Philip Doyle from Kildare told TheJournal.ie. 

When you’re watching players on the telly – your heroes – you never think you could be one of those people that represents your own country on a pitch. It never dawned on me that I would be doing that someday.”

Doyle was diagnosed with ADHD and dyslexia in his teenage years, which made him feel excluded and different. The mental health issues he faced as a result, along with his own coming to terms with his sexuality as a gay man, led him to an over reliance on alcohol by the time he reached his 20s. 

He continued to live with this addiction into his 30s but when his father passed away he decided “life is too short and if I didn’t change, I would be following my father to a slab”.

“My addiction started at a young age and from around 20 years of age, I drank a lot. It was to block out things in my life, having a disability, not accepting who I am. Drink was the only way I could be normal around people,” he said. 

That spiralled out of control and I was working part-time jobs here and there but still drinking heavy with that. It was a lonely place, that’s the only way to describe it. A lonely place. 

“I didn’t want anybody in and kept a wall up around myself the whole time. I went through life trying to protect that and from letting myself out.”

By chance, and with his younger brother’s help, Philip managed to get involved with Ellistown football club in Kildare. After a period with the club, he decided to enter rehab therapy and after coming out the other side, he is now four years sober. 

He moved to Dublin when he was 32 for a fresh start, first living in a residential centre and subsequently moving from rented house to rented house while he waits to be housed by the local authority. 

21728355_1569586439784797_3096882277299321412_n A team picture of the men who play with the Homeless Street Leagues.

He joined the Homeless Street Leagues through the recommendation of a friend in the residential centre, and while he is working in retail during the week, he said he lives for the Saturday morning training session with his teammates. 

Impact

“It had a massive impact on me because it’s just amazing. When I have nothing to do or no one to talk to, I know I’ll always have soccer and it’s a big part of my life, ” he said. “It’s like a drug itself and people don’t realise how powerful or important it can be to your life.

“It kept you in control of what you were doing with yourself, and working with people – and being part of a team shows you that you can’t win as just one person, you need the whole team around you. 

“It gives you balance. If you’re working and you have your job but no other outlet, then soccer becomes your outlet, and the stress and worries all leave your body when you’re out on the field.”

Doyle told his team mates about his own sexuality and coming to terms with it while on a trip away with the group. He said he has never felt more included or accepted in the years before that. 

“I was asked by one of my teammates and it was just a straight question and I just said ‘I am [gay] and that doesn’t change who I am or what I can do on the pitch’. 

“My teammates just jumped right in beside me and I never felt so much support in my life by my own team mates and the staff. They treated me so good after that and gave me something I wanted all my life – to just be accepted as a player.”

He added: “Now I can start taking down those walls and those blocks I put up.”

The Homeless Street Leagues welcomes those from a number of different backgrounds, including recovering drug addicts, ex-offenders, homeless people, and asylum seekers. 

Philip’s story is just one of many from the men and women who are involved with the Homeless Street Leagues. The documentary Street Leagues will be debuted at Cineworld, Parnell Street on Saturday 29 February as part of the Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival, which runs until 8 March. 

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