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Football helping our Homeless stars to find their feet on and off the pitch

NI boys are relishing life after battling their demons

By Graham Luney

Published 16/07/2016

Heroes: The Northern Ireland team soak up the atmosphere at the Homeless World Cup
Heroes: The Northern Ireland team soak up the atmosphere at the Homeless World Cup

Football has been called the beautiful game but it's much more than a work of art to be admired. It can remove us from the darkest of places and bring us into the light.

Clubs and international teams will chase silverware but it's difficult to escape the feeling that the players taking part in this week's Homeless World Cup in Glasgow are the biggest winners of them all.

Their background story is not one of big wages, big mansions and big egos. It's about a painful struggle to believe that they belong in this world.

We can't empathise with the players because each person knows only their own pain.

We can, however, appreciate the courage and bravery of those who have used the Street Soccer Northern Ireland organisation to bring some stability and hope into their lives.

Their success this week is not merely a sporting one. They have tackled their own personal demons and started a healing process.

The players - Gavin McGuinness, Gerard Bannon, Mark Heagney, Jim Black, Johnny Sterrett, David McConnell, Marty Methven and Darren Spiers - have shown that change is possible when kind-hearted people recognise the need to help those who struggle to help themselves.

Team NI head coach Terry Moore, manager Justin McMinn and Irish FA Director of Football Development Michael Boyd have been supporting the boys this week while the IFA, Ulster Bank, NI Housing Executive and East Belfast Mission are also proud to be involved.

It's often said that a team doesn't know when it is beaten and the lads from Northern Ireland haven't let tough times destroy them.

Lisburn man Brendan Kingsmore, who captained the team to a tournament win in Chile in 2014, was a deeply troubled teenager, lacking self-belief and a sense of direction.

"I was in and out of hostels for nine years after becoming homeless at the age of 16," admitted the 27-year-old, who is now a volunteer coach.

"My teenage years were very tough and it scars you for life.

"I would never have the opportunities I have now without football. In terms of my general health and education, I am in a much better place.

"I've come out the other side of it. I didn't know anything when I was a teenager and I didn't know what I was doing.

"A lot can happen in a big city like Belfast and if you fall in with the wrong crowd you could be in trouble.

"I've seen people off their heads on heroin in hospitals and people urinating on other people in hostels.

"It becomes part of your normal life but that's behind me now.

"I didn't feel like I belonged. I had acne as well and my confidence was very low.

"I fell out with my mum and was a troublemaker. I was lazy and uncontrollable - it was a crazy way to live but what I am experiencing now is life changing.

"I used to feel vulnerable and not part of society but now through this Street Soccer project I am proud of what we have achieved together and I'm much happier.

"The camaraderie is special and like the rest of the lads I owe the coaches and the helpers so much.

"I'm playing football with Moneyslane in the Mid-Ulster League and we have aspirations to make the Championship.

"I'm settled now with my own flat in Dunmurry and what I believe now is that anyone can change as long as they are given the right support."

Team NI captain Spiers, who is from east Belfast, has been a goal machine in Glasgow, netting 29 times.

The Sirocco Works player had to move into a hostel after being forced to leave the east of the city.

"I've been doing Street Soccer for a year and a half and everyone has been brilliant with me," said the 27-year-old.

"You can get help to gain full-time employment and a roof over your head.

"We've had great support from back home and I'm just delighted to say I have some stability back in my life.

"My goal has always been to get a job and get out of the hostel.

"I have two children and I need to be there for them.

"One of my goals appeared on the Scottish Match of the Day so I'm delighted with that."

West Belfast man Heagney turned 25 last Sunday and no one was able to wipe the smile off his face this week.

"I was in a hostel on the Cliftonville Road," he said. "I was smoking cannabis but I've been off the grass for 10 months.

"I'm doing brilliantly and my confidence is flying.

"I'm also spending time at the Skainos Centre and finding out how to put together a CV online.

"Last year I was in a hostel for seven months.

"I really want to do something with my life and I'm so grateful I have met Justin and his team.

"I'm from the Falls Road too and I might not have had this interaction with Protestants on the team. I'm glad we have come together.

"I'm going to keep doing voluntary work for a year to build my confidence up further.

"The support has been incredible and it makes us feel that we really have achieved something special. It makes us very proud. I feel like a superstar!"

McConnell, who is from Londonderry's Bogside and has suffered from substance abuse problems, added: "This is helping with all my emotions, it helps get everything out of me.

"It makes you feel accomplished at the end of the day to realise you weren't out wasting your life on drink and drugs. I'm still getting help with alcohol addiction but football has helped slowly but surely fade the impact of drugs on me."

The word 'journey' is often used to mark someone's rise to fame and fortune but it carries a very different meaning for the Northern Ireland boys in Glasgow, who emulated Michael O'Neill's Euro 2016 side by reaching the last 16 in Scotland.

Boyd has heard all the inspirational stories. He said: "By far, this is my best ever experience in football.

"These guys have been on an incredible journey and to see their lives transformed through football is very touching."

The behaviour of fans at the Euro 2016 finals in France made us proud to be Irish - whatever the shade of green - and Northern Ireland international Stuart Dallas won praise for helping a homeless man in Las Vegas.

There are times in all of our lives when we will need help, whether it's from family, friends or strangers, and the world would be a grim place without the compassion that drives the Street Soccer programme.

Belfast Telegraph

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