“One more minute, let’s go!”
Graham Tucker’s voice booms around the grounds of St. Catherine’s Sports Ground. Weary eyed players look towards Tucker imploring him to stop the drill. Their efforts are in vain. Tucker is a man on a mission.
The Homeless World Cup is just over one month away. If Ireland are to stand a chance, they need to be fit. Now isn’t the time for leniency. This year’s Homeless World Cup takes place over seven days in Chile. No matter how talented Ireland’s current crop of players are, the heat and volume of matches at the games means that fitness is crucial.
I watch from the sidelines, keenly aware how lucky I am to be avoiding this drill. From what I have been told Tucker himself was a box-to-box midfielder for the Irish Homeless Team in 2008. A player with an inexhaustible engine and drive to win. Now a coach, Tucker exudes fitness. Observing him is a privilege. He runs alongside players, urges them to continue on and tends to niggling injuries. He displays a passion for what he does and expects nothing less from those he trains.
As the drills continue and the difficultly rises, the players meet the challenges. Players fall from exhaustion, hamstrings seize up and old injuries flare once more. Rather than concede to exhaustion players continue to train. Hobbling through the running drills if necessary. An atmosphere of intensity fills the air.
An hour into observing the Irish Homeless Team train two things become apparent. Firstly that the team is beginning to form brotherly bonds. Sean Kavanagh, editor of the Big Issue and the man overseeing the Irish Homeless League Project, explains how in just a short number of weeks, players have formed friendships that Sean knows from experience last a lifetime.
Some of the players knew each other before selection for the team, whereas others are complete outsiders. Once boots are laced up and players step out for training, none of it matters. Players joke with, encourage and push one another. It’s hard to believe the team has only been training a month. After an hour and a half of sprints, burpees, push ups and squats, it’s even harder to believe this team won’t shock a few nations in Chile.
The second revelation I stumble across as an observer is that these men are incredibly driven. As the drills continue, I’m struggling to answer what motivates these men to turn out every Saturday, 11am to 2pm and subject themselves to such intense physical training. Players run themselves into the ground for 90 minutes under the watchful eye of Graham Tucker and once true exhaustion has been achieved the real training commences.
Players drenched in sweat are giving only a few precious minutes of recovery before the footballs emerge and it’s time to train once more. This time tactics. Corners, free kicks, penalties. Each are practised again and again to ensure each man knows his role. Patience and persistence are the keywords of the day. St. Catherine’s sports centre becomes witness to an exhibition in physical fitness and precision football all in one grueling session.
During the small respite given to the players I’m given the honour of talking to two of the men representing Ireland at Chile 2014. Dylan Sheridan speaks to me first. An alumni of St. Pat’s soccer tradition, Dylan suffered an ankle injury two years ago that ruled him out for an entire season. On the road to recovery he spoke with Tucker who encouraged Dylan and his friends to take part in the Irish Street League Project.
While many of Dylan’s friends dropped out, Dylan continued to thrive. Dylan went through trial after trial for the Irish Homeless Team. It took months, but throughout the entire period Dylan’s workrate and focus didn’t drop. He was eventually awarded with a place on the Irish Homeless World Cup Team.
Traditionally a left-midfielder in eleven-a-side side football, Dylan now plays as a striker for the Irish Homeless Team. Only twenty years old, a huge faith has been placed in Dylan. Having spoken to others about Dylan’s ability, no one has any doubts about him. The squad has been together only a few weeks but already, Dylan is part of the team.
The chance to represent Ireland is what drives the young footballer. The chance to receive a cap from the FAI drives Dylan to train every Saturday, to push himself through training and to work for Ireland. From early on, Dylan was earmarked by those officiating the Irish Homeless Team. He repaid the faith in him by consistently playing well in the Street Leagues. The chance to represent Ireland at the Homeless World Cup is a once off opportunity. People can’t play in two World Cups. One tournament, one chance, one cap. That’s it.
“Come on, pick it up!”
Tucker’s voice bellows across the training pitch reminding us the players are here to train. We return to the interview. Outside of football, Dylan is currently enrolled in a computer course but football appears to be in his future as he’s attempting to secure a place on an FAI coaching course.
This is a man who breathes football, be it watching Manchester United or playing with his friends. The Homeless World Cup is one magical step along his journey. Dylan exemplifies much of what the Homeless World Cup tries to provide, namely unique opportunities for those with a love of the game.
The Irish Homeless Football Project spans the entire country and attracts players of all ages, sizes and creeds. Following my interview with Dylan, James Trayner, agrees to talk with me. One of the older members of the squad, and the self proclaimed ‘daddy’ of the team, James has been involved with the Irish Street Leagues for over a year, but was aware of the project very early on.
The Leagues were a noticeable influence in James’ area and the attraction of getting involved was irresistible. It was not until recently however that James took the plunge into street football. In 2013 James spent a year between the posts in the Irish Street Leagues before being called up for Irish trials. Month after month of trial games ensued before he got the news. He had been selected for the team. After speaking to James for five minutes, it’s clear why.
Firstly he provides something that is coveted in the modern game, be it astro or grass. He’s versatile. While comfortable in goals, James can function outfield. The Phil Jagielka comparison is one I couldn’t resist making. James, humbly plays it off.
Secondly its clear James is passionate about this project. James lively talks of the mental and physical aspects of the Irish Street Project. He’s given hours of his life to ensuring he’s an asset on the field. Outside of training, heresearches the Homeless World Cup, studying games, tactics and formations. For him it’s part of his role.
During training James also gives more than is required. Last week saw James’ muscles give out during a running drill. Despite running himself into the ground, he continued on. His love of pushing mental boundaries has found the perfect home here with the team. He’s surrounded by like minded athletes. When I ask him about the toughness of the training, he responds stoically.
“Graham’s tough and that’s what we want.”
In his quest to be ready for Chile James trains outside the confines of St. Catherines. His exercise routine is simultaneously admirable and shocking. Running forty minutes, rowing for ten to twenty minutes, an hour with weights, finished off by forty to sixty lengths in a pool. That’s a typical workout. James jokes he does it to catch up with the younger members of the squad. Something tells me it’s them who are catching up with him.
I’m struck by the fact that it’s not the jersey, nor the chance to go to Chile, that motivates James. His motivation is simple and infectious. What brings James back to St. Catherine’s every Saturday is the opportunity to play football with friends. It’s the joy in doing that keeps James involved. Something I find hard not to admire.
Off the pitch and outside the gym, James is a web technician, a profession he greatly enjoys, if only to tease his friends. He recently helped out a nephew with a website and unable to resist the opportunity to have fun, James put up embarrassing family photos of his nephew on his website at different intervals. It’s hard not to laugh. Driven on the pitch and a joker off it. James fits in well here.
After two hours my time to observe the team must end. As I travel home it’s difficult not to reflect on what I found. I came to St. Catherines ignorant of the on the ground realities of the Irish Homeless World Cup team. I was met with great kindness and had the privilege to encounter a group of men with a passion for sport.
Each man has a different back story, each has a different motivation and each has a different role. On the field the magic of sport weaves this group of athletes into one unit, one team, one heartbeat.
The Homeless World Cup in Chile is just over one month away. Ireland will be well represented but more importantly friendships will be formed that will last a lifetime. To paraphrase Graham Tucker, a simple ball can change the world.
When I look at these men, I’m not looking at ‘the homeless’, I’m looking at athletes, I’m looking at soon-to-be Irish sporting heroes. My trip to St. Catherine’s reconfirmed my conviction that the work of everyone from Sean Kavanagh to the players on the pitch is not only worth it, but that it is transformative.
With the Homeless World Cup just over a month away, we at Pundit Arena will be closely following and supporting our Boys in Green. Stay tuned for more.
Conor Heffernan, Pundit Arena.
Like all social organizations in Ireland, the Irish Street Leagues Project works tirelessly every year to raise the funds necessary to continue. Each year the Project gets roughly €30,000 from the FAI and Department of Children and Youth Affairs. but has to find €50,000 by itself. The fundraising team faces difficulties every year in finding this figure but so far has managed to do so.
Sean is adamant that the real hard work behind the Irish Street Project is finding the money necessary to continue. Times are tough. The past two years have seen the team go without a sponsor. Donations, no matter how big or small are greatly appreciated by Sean, the Players and everyone else involved.
If you would like to contribute to the great work being done by the Irish Street League, you can do so through the link below:
Further Information About The Irish Street League can be found at: