A life-changing game comes into play

AS the final whistle blew in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower, James Horsburgh launched himself towards the heavens, punching the air with ecstatic delight.

By The Newsroom
Thursday, 1st September 2011, 5:03 pm

His team had just won the Homeless World Cup, and the young goalie from Peffermill could hardly believe how his luck had changed.

Just two years ago he was sitting in a jail cell in Saughton, serving an 18-month sentence for assault and robbery. On release he was homeless, unemployed and had no qualifications, given that he hardly attended Trinity Academy when he was of school age.

Yet here he was, in Paris, wearing the bright yellow jersey of a Scottish goalkeeper, and his team had just beaten Mexico 4-3 in the final.

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It was a moment to savour, and the 22-year-old has been doing just that since the four-a-side tournament – which attracted 64 teams – ended on Monday.

Yesterday he was brought back to earth with a bump. “I was laid off this morning,” he shrugs. “I’m gutted. Everyone on the site where I was labouring has been told there’s no work. That’s real life though.

“The good thing is that I’ve got so much else going on in my life now that it won’t put me off track. Football has changed my life.”

If that sounds like a cliche, it is. But cliches originate in a truth. The idea that sport can take people out of their disadvantaged lives and make them different people couldn’t be more true for those who have been involved in the Homeless World Cup since it was launched in 2003.

And there can be no better example than 31-year-old David Duke. He has played for Scotland in the tournament in the past, managed the Scottish team which lifted the trophy in Copenhagen in 2007 and in the last two years has launched Street Soccer Scotland, a social enterprise programme for the homeless.

Now living in Edinburgh – and running Street Soccer Scotland from the South Stand of the Hibs’ Easter Road stadium – Duke is originally from Govan. He’d had a fairly ordinary life in one of Scotland’s most deprived areas. School was not a priority, his parents divorced, and although he showed some footballing talent – even playing for Celtic Boys Club for a while – the attractions of girls and drink overtook everything else.

But when his dad died, he went off the rails – drinking so heavily he lost his job and his rented flat and ended up homeless.

“Drinking was the in thing in Govan. It was what all my peers were doing. So it was what I turned to when I wanted to block out the grief,” he says. “I was never an alcoholic but I was drinking enough to lose things that mattered – including my family.

“I ended up staying in a hostel for young homeless people, and it was there that I saw an advert for the Homeless World Cup. I went along to the trials and got selected.

“That was 2004 and the tournament was in Gothenburg. It was an amazing experience and when I came back to Scotland there was a chance of a job to be assistant to Ally Dawson, the team coach. Three of us went for it, but I got the job.”

It was to be the start of a major turnaround in Duke’s life. He had already begun voluntary football coaching to an under-13s team, and was back in rented accommodation.

“Coaching the kids meant I had to practise what I preached. They really looked up to me, so it meant my life had to have no rubbish in it any more. I was a role model, which was an amazing feeling, and it meant I really had to change my life.”

Working with Dawson meant Duke was still involved with the Homeless World Cup – and was an assistant when the tournament was held in Edinburgh in 2005. Two years later he was manager of the squad which won.

“That was just fantastic,” he recalls. “But I thought while this is great for the eight guys who are playing, what about all the rest? That’s when I started working on the idea of Street Soccer.”

It wasn’t until 2009 that the enterprise officially took off, with the backing of Mel Young, co-founder of the cup and Big Issue magazine.

The organisation started free football sessions at five-a-side pitches for homeless people staying in hostels throughout Edinburgh. Its popularity soon saw four weekly sessions up and running.

These days there are also sessions in Dundee and Glasgow and Duke has plans to extend further north. Then there’s the Street Soccer Plus programme.

“Once they get involved, people get fitter, it gives them a focus every week, and then they can get involved with gaining SVQs and coaching badges. There’s also the Street Soccer Academy, which can take them even further into SFA coaching and more qualifications.

“This year we launched the Street Soccer National League which brings players from across Scotland together. And of course it’s now through Street Soccer that the Homeless World Cup team gets selected.

“The hardest job, though, is always trying to find team sponsors. Housing association Dunedin Canmore were our shirt sponsors this year, which was fantastic, so I’m hoping that winning will make it easier next year.”

He adds: “Football helps people when it comes to having a more stable life, being able to find work and holding down a job. The difference it has made is unbelievable. We are independently evaluated but 90 per cent of our academy people go on into jobs. I think it’s successful because they come voluntarily, no-one forces them to sign up.”

Certainly James was desperate to get involved. After hearing about the cup from a friend, he twice tried out in trials as an outfield player, but wasn’t selected. Only this year, when he trialled as a goalie, did he make the team.

“I was a goalie at school, so I guess I’ve found my rightful position,” he says. “It was amazing going to Paris. Without football I’d never have had that opportunity. I’ve also been to Germany because of the academy. I’ve been through that too, and it’s meant that I also now play football with an amateur side, Beechwood, at the Gyle.

“I did some really stupid things when I was young – going up town and getting drunk and into fights. I thought I was untouchable, then I was sent to Saughton and Polmont. It was a real shock.

“When I came out it was up to me to put my life in order but Street Soccer has really helped. I’ve got my own rented flat now and I’ve been working as a labourer . . . well, until today. Now I’ll have to find a new job.

“But winning the World Cup, playing for your country . . . it’s just fantastic. Nothing can touch it.”

Rachel McLean, 18, from the Pleasance, agrees. She took part in the women’s Homeless World Cup tournament, where Scotland finished a credible fifth – losing out to Brazil on penalties just before the quarter-finals.

The former St Augustine’s pupil lives in Barnardo’s supported accommodation after a chaotic upbringing. Her mother was a heroin addict who kept the family moving around, and eventually Rachel and her younger sister were put into the care of their grandparents. “I wasn’t getting on with them, so social work moved me into supported accommodation and that’s how I heard about Street Soccer,” she says. “I was only involved with it for 12 weeks before I was selected for the squad. Going to Paris was amazing.”

Rachel, however, is obviously a young talent. She used to captain her school football team and play for Hibs under-17s girls squad, and since her performance at the cup – including scoring against Brazil – she’s going for trials for Celtic’s women’s team. She says: “I’m now coaching a young girls team in Alnwickhill, I’m going to college to finish my Highers and then plan to go to university. I’m going to Camp America next year and I’ve also been offered a placement in Holland. I wouldn’t have done any of these things without Street Soccer.”

Rachel was also delighted her mum made it to Paris to see her play. “She’s been clean for two years and is now a drugs worker,” she says. “She’s a really inspirational woman now.

“And as far as playing for Scotland, singing the national anthem – you can’t top that.”

Duke nods. “Mind you, when I got an honorary doctorate from Queen Margaret University and saw how proud my mum was – well that almost tops it for me,” he laughs. “Not bad for a boy with no Standard Grades.”