Belfast Telegraph

From inmate to World Cup team-mate for proud Aaron

Reformed dad in the NI panel for Homeless World Cup

Janette Kelly and Ahmed Elneel are watched by Justin McMinn of Street Soccer NI and Katherine Hill from the Department for Communities
Janette Kelly and Ahmed Elneel are watched by Justin McMinn of Street Soccer NI and Katherine Hill from the Department for Communities
The team get ready to leave for the Homeless World Cup tournament in Wales
The team get ready to leave for the Homeless World Cup tournament in Wales
Aaron Connor

By Chelsie Kealey

A new dad representing Northern Ireland in the 2019 Homeless World Cup who struggled to get his life back on track after release from prison is now aiming to get his own house.

Sixteen players from Northern Ireland are flying off to Cardiff today to take part in the tournament.

More than 500 players from more than 50 different countries will play to crowds of over 80,000 spectators and millions watching online around the world.

The Northern Ireland squad - which includes a male and female team - had an official send-off yesterday at the National Football Stadium at Windsor Park.

During their lifetime, all players have experienced homelessness or social marginalisation.

Street Soccer NI has been involved in the Homeless World Cup for the past seven years and says the impact on the previous team was fantastic.

According to Aidan Byrne from Street Soccer NI, out of the 16 participants, 12 now have access to housing, nine are accessing employment, 12 have coaching badges from the IFA and three have become volunteers for The Dame Kelly Holmes Trust.

Aaron Connor (28), who eight weeks ago became a father to son Braiden, is a defender. He previously served 18 months in prison. After his release Aaron was homeless for eight weeks and was couch surfing.

"When I got out of prison there was little or no support for me," he said. "People saw that I was in jail and automatically just assumed that I was bad news.

"I was sleeping on my mum's sofa, but I needed my own space.

"I'm now sharing a house with my sister, but when I come back I'm hoping to get a Housing Executive house."

Aaron had started playing football again in Coleraine for his local club West Bann.

His manager knew Street Soccer NI CEO Justin McMinn, and put him forward for the Northern Ireland team.

Aaron is hoping that when he returns from Cardiff he can avail of the support that the team at Street Soccer NI offer.

When Aaron returns he will have 18 weeks of one-to-one support. He will have access to employment and volunteering opportunities and support services for mental health or addiction issues.

The programme's goal is to allow participants to get into a house and for participants to take control of their own lives.

Mr McMinn said: "Over the last six years we have witnessed the impact this event has on the players with many of them breaking out of homelessness and unemployment on their return. They will come back full of motivation to make positive changes in their lives."

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