Awards

FWA Student Football Writers of the Year – winners announced.

Tom Chambers, Reshma Rao and Aayush Majumdar are this year’s winners of our Student awards.

We are pleased to announce the winners of the FWA Student Football Writer of the Year awards.

Tom Chambers from the University of East London is the 2024 Hugh McIlvanney Student Football Writer of the Year, Reshma Rao from University College, London, wins the Vikki Orvice Football Writer of the Year award and Aayush Majumdar of St Mary’s University is this year’s winner of the Unheard Voices Student Football Writer of the Year award, sponsored by Kick It Out.

Sam France and Theo Gardner were second and third in the Hugh McIlvanney award, Laura Howard and Juliet Nottingham came in behind Reshma for the Vikki Orvice award for female writers, while Jack Silbertson and Emile Nuh made up second and third in the Unheard Voices category.

Congratulations to them and to all those who made our shortlists.  https://footballwriters.co.uk/editorial/fwa-student-awards-shortlists-announced/

We had hundreds of entries this year, and the judges – including Jason Burt, Adam Crafton, Jacqui Oatley and Alyson Rudd – were unanimous in their belief that the submissions were as good as ever and that many were good enough to be read in a national newspaper. After carefully considering the shortlists, the judges have come up with their decisions based on three criteria: originality, insight and delivery.

The winners in each category will receive their awards at the FWA Footballer of the Year dinner on May 16. In addition, thanks to the generosity of our sponsors Football Manager, each winner will receive a cash prize of £1000. 

Below are the top three entries in each category:

2024 FWA Hugh McIlvanney Student Football Writer of the Year

Winner: Tom Chambers, University of East London

“I’ve been heroic / I’ve been criminal / I’ve been angelic / I’ve been infernal / You hate me / You love me / I’m only judged by myself.” Manchester United legend Eric Cantona is back performing in front of a crowd, re-modelled as a world-weary troubadour, and his opening lyrics are exactly as you’d expect.

A stripped-back version of the autobiographical “I’ll Make My Own Heaven,” which begins his set at London’s Bloomsbury Theatre, refers to the most infamous moment of Cantona’s footballing career: The night he kung-fu kicked a Crystal Palace fan after being sent off at Selhurst Park in 1995. An incident that earned him a nine-month ban and a 14-day prison sentence.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Cantona’s sound is an unsteady mix of Nick Cave, Serge Gainsbourg and late-era Leonard Cohen. His heavy French accent and gruff, melancholic singing voice, while pleasant on his debut EP, loses some of its consistency when heard live, but there is craftmanship in his chansons, the majority of which he wrote on his own during the pandemic.

The audience can broadly be divided into three categories: middle-aged United fan, spouse of middle-aged United fan, and child of middle-aged United fan. They could have been forgiven for being a little slow to fall under Cantona’s spell, as the show began just two hours after United were beaten 3-0 by Manchester City at Old Trafford, but the near sell-out crowd was instantly enraptured by the man they still call “The King.”

Asked why they had each paid £50 to see an ex-footballer’s attempt to break into the music world, many gave me the same answer: “It’s Eric.” There were fans who had travelled from Bristol, Southampton and Cantona’s native France to be in the presence of one of United’s – and the Premier League’s – greatest-ever players.

But Cantona has always been more than just a footballer. Despite playing his last match 26 years ago, he continues to affect people in a way other players do not. His devotees had heeded the call, snapped up the tickets and come to worship at the altar of Cantona. While some showed their reverence discreetly, others proudly wore United shirts with ‘Cantona No. 7’ on the back. One man even had a tattoo of his hero’s name on his wrist.

Of course, music is not the only artistic endeavour that Cantona has thrown himself into since his shock retirement from football in 1997. His acting talents have seen him star in more than 30 films. His performance in the Ken Loach-directed “Looking for Eric” received critical acclaim and included a scene in which postman Eric Bishop (played by Steve Evets), says to his sporting hero: “Sometimes we forget that you’re just a man.”

Cantona’s career arc really is quite remarkable. It is hard to imagine an elite footballer today making the same leap into the world of the arts. Kevin De Bruyne contemplating the pitfalls of society through the medium of interpretive dance? Unlikely. Mason Mount penning an epic lament to a life left unlived? A tantalising prospect, but unfortunately not on the cards. But there he is, the Premier League’s overseas player of the decade 1992-2002, up there on stage and midway through a headline tour, crooning to a delighted audience: “I feel like a lizard / I’ve never been a lizard / But I can imagine / Because I drink / A sex on the beach.”

Perhaps it was inevitable that Cantona would end up here. He always was the Premier League’s rock star; an extravagant free-thinker with a natural distrust of authority and a strained relationship with the law. His natural charisma really is something to behold in the intimate London theatre.

That being said, for a man with only four studio-recorded songs, the hour-and-a-half-long set did seem slightly extravagant. But then as with his footballing career, perhaps he knows he does his best work over 90 minutes.

Cantona saves his most famous quote for last in the show’s closer: “I Love You So Much,” an unapologetic love letter to the United faithful. “When the seagulls follow the trawler it is because they think sardines will be thrown into the sea,” he sings with a smirk, referencing his iconic press conference that followed the incident at Palace. He continues: “Then the press called me the greatest philosopher who ever lived. They were completely right.”

Our last glimpse of the man before he departs the stage is of him standing with his chest pumped out, scanning his audience, soaking up the adoration in the same way he did after chipping Sunderland goalkeeper Lionel Perez in December 1996. And almost three decades later, that is perhaps what everyone is here for; not for his music, but to bask in Cantona’s presence just one more time.

Second Place: Sam France, St Mary’s University, Twickenham

When a man is tired of the cramped cobalt seats of Wingate & Finchley’s Maurice Rebak stadium, he is surely tired of life. 

 The burly, grubby-fleeced man several seats over pulls out a worn-out notebook and confirms the spelling of Chatham Town. He grumbles, wedging in the missed letter – one of those bloody silent H’s.

Beanie planted wonkily on his brow, he explains how he scours the non-league tables looking for a potential thriller. 

Tuesday evening’s drizzle has lured him to the suburbs. Six goals later and the drab land of the groundhoppers bears its golden underlayer. The man rises and with a swift tuck of the scruffy notepad, he’s off, a half-step before me. 

Traditionalists talk of ‘The 92 Club’ founded in 1978 by Bristol Rovers fan Gordon Pearce, an exclusive group for supporters who have visited all football league grounds. The chameleonic list adjusts itself every season, yet the goal for the groundhoppers remains. 

But how exactly do you become one? Is groundhopping only for the purists?

From Maidstone United’s 2002 double and Darren Bent’s beach ball goal, to making police statements after brawls between Reigate Priory and Charlwood, Peter’s seen it all. He explains how he wouldn’t have considered his dad a groundhopper, but his own obsessive relationship with going to football grounds was shaped by their early away-days.

“My Dad bled Maidstone and so the Kent Cup Final against Whitstable Town was the first game I properly remember. Fortunately, they won, and he ended up in the pitch invasion. 

“I became completely hooked into non-league football around 2016 and honestly can’t imagine my life without it. I’ve just never looked back,” he explains, with this weekend’s trip to Lymington bringing his total to 656 grounds visited.

With just Barrow, Fleetwood Town, and Carlisle remaining out of the 92, his accession to the exclusive club feels inevitable with his footballing pilgrimage far from stalling.

 For the less stoic however, how much do the 12-hour round trips for a goalless, often soulless draw affect the love of football?

Richard Parsons has been part of the Hampton and Richmond Borough furniture since the mid-seventies, becoming the Isthmian League’s youngest ever chairman in 1976.

Now boasting the finest grasp on UK geography, most of his groundhopping came through his jaunts around the Southeast and Lancashire. However, the pricey trips around the country have become exactly that – a bit too taxing.

National League jacket folded neatly over the back of his chair, he reflects: “At some points I was hurdling level-crossings to make sure I caught the final train. This was me in my late sixties. I should be living the life of luxury!

“I’ve ticked off about 150 grounds, but I’m not sure it’s worth the hassle anymore – I can’t travel to Hartlepool or Middlesbrough without having to stay overnight.”

With the groundhopping less sustainable and retirement looming, Richard looks to settle into his navy-blue seat at the Beveree and enjoy a well-earned breather.

However, when the solitary groundhopper is frustrated by loneliness, a first date watching Gainsborough Trinity initially looks an unlikely remedy.

For Emma and Max, a visit to Northolme inspired a new style of groundhopping with the focus away from football. Before the Covid-19 lockdown Emma gave sparing attention to the major tournaments. Now however, she is one of few groundhopping women.

“I didn’t fancy spending a freezing Tuesday night under a non-league floodlight that probably turns off halfway through the game, but it’s actually a lovely way to spend time together,” she explains, laughing.

The early stages of Emma’s groundhopping journey has seen the football play second fiddle, with her attention shifted on to the burgers, the kits, and the beers.

She continues: “The first game we went to together was Gainsborough against FC United. I remember being in the car thinking ‘I can’t tell my parents where we are – they’ll be mad I haven’t called in!’”

Max has been a Gresty Road regular for decades following his beloved Crewe but has since left these tribalist days behind.

“I still love watching Crewe, but the randomness of watching teams you’ve never heard of is a completely different way of enjoying football and a great way to never ruin your weekend.

“We watched a game in Sleaford last year and ended up walking into this Oktoberfest event. For three hours before, we saw oompah bands and all sorts,” he says.

 “We nearly forgot to go to the football,” Emma chuckles.

With the art of the groundhop less one-dimensional than it originally seemed with both casuals and ultras flocking to the corners of the country, I find myself thinking about the burly, grubby-fleeced man, wondering what his story might be.

Mostly though, I pray he’s left space for the H in Witham Town.

Third place: Theo Gardner, University of Salford

In the town of Obukhiv, 30km from the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv, Chelsea superfan Nazar Cherkovskyi logs into our call from his living room.

Proudly displayed behind him is his prized possession – a poster signed by John Terry on Chelsea’s visit to the country in 2015.

The poster’s position at the focal point of the room is indicative of Cherkovskyi’s deep-rooted love for the club.

He runs his own telegram channel, relaying the latest news and transfer rumours to Chelsea’s Ukrainian fan contingent, as well as translating autobiographies written by legends of the club.

His obsession with Chelsea has also provided him with a community that has proved vital as his life has been turned upside down by the war.

‘’When we’re together, I feel I am a part of it, even though maybe I’m not,’’ he says. ‘’There is a passion that sits inside; you feel the pressure, you feel the pain, you feel the happiness, you feel everything with the club.’’

Unfortunately, the Russia-Ukraine conflict has robbed many of the Kyiv Blues’ members of this experience.

‘’We used to have a great big community watching the games, but now during the war, it has become quite hard,’’ he says.

‘’We get air alerts a lot and every time there is an air alert the pub landlords make us leave to shelter.

‘’The danger of a missile is there, so a lot of people don’t even want to go.’’

Yet a defiant group within the Kyiv Blues – including Cherkovskyi – has been undeterred by the danger and still meets to show their love for Chelsea.

‘’We understand it is dangerous. To some extent it is really dangerous to go to these meetings,’’ he admits, ‘’but if we stay at home, it’s the same danger.

‘’We don’t know where a missile could come – to a bar, or to our apartments. It is risky but living in Ukraine is risky.’’

The fear that lies within many of Kyiv Blues was stoked further by actions of two Russian soldiers, members of an adjacent Russian fan group – the Krasnodar Blues.

Cherkovskyi received word of their actions through his telegram channel, which he used to run in Russian.

‘’I wanted to provide information for a wider audience,’’ he says. ‘’Not just to Ukraine, but Russia, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan. When the war started, I broke up with this idea.

‘’Some people who knew me from the previous channel sent me a video and texted me saying ‘can you repost this video for more people to see this’?’’

The video was of two soldiers holding up a Krasnodar Blues fan banner, mocking the Kyiv Blues for sheltering from potential missile attacks in a basement, saying: ‘’Kyiv Blues is hiding in the basement, we will f*ck them in the mouth.’’

The Kyiv Blues were dismayed by the abuse to which they had been subjected by fellow Chelsea fans, and acted quickly in response.

Through the support of other Chelsea fan contingents around the world – particularly the Prague Blues – an official complaint was sent to the club.

‘’[The Prague Blues] wrote an official letter to Chelsea, and Krasnodar Blues were excluded from the list of official fan groups on the website,’’ Cherkovskyi explains.

Despite the club’s clear condemnation of the actions of the Krasnodar Blues, it had little effect upon the very real threat posed to Cherkovskyi as the Russian army was nearing Kyiv at the time.

Cherkovskyi was forced to temporarily move further west to ensure his safety, creating a distance between him and his friends within the supporters group.

‘’We still kept in touch. From the beginning of the war, we were texting each other making sure everyone was safe,’’ Cherkovskyi says.

‘’Even if something really, really bad happened and we did not have the chance to stay in Kyiv, then I’m sure we would still stay in touch. I’m sure we will meet again. Maybe we will find some other town, maybe not even in Ukraine, but we definitely will not lose each other.

‘’That would be impossible.’’

The group even went as far as to offer shelter to each other in the hardest moments of the conflict.

‘’That was the perfect moment. I felt we were all together. It’s not just an obsession with the club, it’s not just our love for Chelsea,’’ Cherkovskyi adds. ‘’We are a community who are ready to help each other in these sad moments.’’

As the Russian forces continue their attacks, the situation in Ukraine feels overwhelmingly grey.

But in the midst of this darkness, The Kyiv Blues, and the kinship the group provides for Cherkovskyi, has shone a blue light of community, solace and brotherhood.

2024 FWA Vikki Orvice Student Football Writer of the Year

Winner: Reshma Rao, University College London

Founé Diawara was 15 years old when she was first told she could not wear her hijab during a football match.

On the 29th of June 2023, the highest administrative court in France, Le Conseil d’Etat, upheld the ruling that the French Federation’s Football (FFF) has the authority to prohibit anyone “playing, coaching or officiating on a French football pitch from wearing religious symbols”, in particular hijabs and headscarves for Muslim women.

It also prohibits “the wearing of any sign or dress ostensibly manifesting a religious affiliation.” Supporters of the amendment have argued that hijabs are a religious symbol tied to radical Islam and consequently, the ban is necessary in order to maintain secular neutrality within the nation.

The ban has led to the emergence of Les Hijabeuses, a movement founded in 2020 by a group of hijab-wearing players. They have taken legal action against the FFF’s ban, arguing that the so-called “religious neutrality” clashes with their freedom to worship. As a result, they believe that the ban has led to an “increase in Islamophobic discourse”, which is already extremely prevalent in France.

Since facing discrimination on the pitch, Diawara has become co-president of Les Hijabeuses, a football community where female members are free to wear their hijabs to play. The movement began with an Instagram video outlining the FFF’s ban to increase awareness of the issue. Les Hijabeuses’s Instagram account now has 32.6k followers, and they have created an environment where hijab-wearers feel safe playing the sport they all love.

France is aiming to achieve “laicité”, a term which loosely translates to secularism. This originally referred to separating the church from the state but more recently, it signifies the state’s neutrality to all religions.

The 2021 anti-separatism bill aimed to foster this secular system, but it does single out the Muslim population: “prohibition in the public space of any conspicuous religious sign by minors and of any dress or clothing which would signify inferiority of women over men.” There have not been any known instances of prohibiting players from wearing Christian crosses or a Jewish Star of David, for example, in jewellery.

Therefore, France is now the only European country to exclude hijabis from playing in most competitive domestic sports. However, regarding the upcoming Paris Olympics this summer, the law states that in international competitions, foreign players who wear headscarves are permitted to play in France. So essentially, the FFF are only excluding their own players from participation.

The Federation has not only demonstrated its disdain for Islam through banning hijabs; they also opposed a brief pause in a match to allow the players to break their fast for Ramadan.

Les Hijabeueses’ other co-president, Bouchra Chaib, believes that the group’s aim is to be a place where all women “whatever they believe or whatever they wear or whatever their background, can play freely without being stigmatised and without having to mentally prepare themselves to go into battle- because this is what it feels like.” For her, playing with the Hijabeueses is “like playing with sisters”. 

Karthoum Dembelé, another member, has been playing football since she was six years old and has always done so wearing a hijab. She says, “I find it sad because we are forced to choose every time, between our hijab and what we love, between our dignity and just wanting to play a sport.”

Islamophobia is not solely an issue facing French sport, but the French population as a whole. The reality is that 6 in every 10 people in France support the prohibition of hijabs in general. This is mainly due to the fact that France has experienced numerous extreme terrorist attacks over the years, and Muslims have been associated with negative and dangerous attributes. A 2019 study revealed that 44.6% of the French population considered Muslims a threat to national identity.

Les Hijabeuses led a significant protest at the FFF headquarters in July 2023. They have also written numerous letters to the FFF President, Noel Le Graet, calling for inclusivity for Muslim women in football, but to no avail.

It may seem like this only impacts a small minority of people, but the religious aspect aside, this is a women’s issue. The FFF banning hijabs is another attempt by powerful institutions to control women’s bodies, and there was a lack of conversation about the wider topic during the 2023 Women’s World Cup and since. Ultimately, the ban is reducing opportunities for women to play sport.

Diawara calls for change in France, “we’re just here because we love football, like anyone else. It’s just about the game.”

Second Place: Laura Howard, St Mary’s University Twickenham

Another three o’clock kick-off in the National League South, a Saturday like any other. Except this time Ruaridh Donaldson would drive home wondering whether he ever wants to play football again.

Late on in the match, Donaldson’s Hampton & Richmond FC were defending a corner against hosts Tonbridge Angels when he heard a shout.

The terraces of non-league grounds often ring with chants proclaiming one team or another ‘are massive everywhere they go’, but this was different.

“A fan picked me out, he was maybe three or four metres away from me, and he used a homophobic slur right in my face. It was absolutely abhorrent. It was really shocking,” reflects Donaldson.

“On the drive home from that game, I phoned my partner and my brother. I was really struggling with whether I should continue playing football. It was as impactful as that. I was really, really shocked by the overt nature of it.

“For someone who is not LGBTQ+, but is an ally, it had an enormous impact on me. Going through that process, it was not really taken seriously by the FA or by the referee on the day.”

It was a moment that galvanised Donaldson’s support of the LGBTQ+ community. He now wears rainbow laces in every match in support of Stonewall’s campaign.

“I felt it was critical to show overt support for the [Rainbow Laces] campaign. If that has a positive impact on one person who’s come to watch me over the last two years, I’d be happy,” says Donaldson.

While a minor act, solidarity like this is all too rare in a sport that has no out professionals currently playing in the top four divisions of English men’s football.

The former Scottish League One player is taking action you might not expect of your stereotypical male footballer, but then Donaldson is not like a stereotypical footballer at all.

As well as being Hampton & Richmond’s top scorer for the past two seasons, the Scottish left-winger embodies this identity in politics too, as a self-proclaimed socialist, vegan and advocate of Scottish independence.

Donaldson can often be found on the coach to away games watching documentaries on geopolitics in the South China Sea.  

In fact, he admits he would much rather be reading a book on feminism than engaging in pre-match chat about the latest Love Island development.

Such political awareness has contributed to a unique understanding of the issues at stake when it comes to LGBTQ+ rights in men’s football.

“There’s institutionalised homophobia and institutionalised sexism within male football. Rather than the specific changing rooms cultivating homophobia, I think that the structure means that people don’t feel as though they are empowered to come out,” Donaldson explains.

“The culture has been one of silence. That silence is maintaining the status quo. Unless you are actively vocal in your support of political campaigns, then you are not going to influence positive change.

“Instead, you’re going to entrench the existing position and the existing position is wrong. I don’t want there to be no out male professional footballers at the top level.”

It is a seemingly bleak assessment of a game that clearly remains lagging behind when it comes to sexual diversity. Yet Donaldson believes there is a willingness from individuals to learn and accept.

“I feel that in most changing rooms that I’ve been in, should an individual come out as gay, then that decision in itself would be widely supported,” he reassures.

“You’d be surprised by the extent to which we have political-based conversations in the football changing room. Whether it’s on the bus down to Torquay or whatever, the guys are interested.

“More and more footballers are understanding their role in society and the opportunity that they have to positively influence change.”

As a politically active and visible ally, Donaldson often acts as a gateway for his teammates to take their first forays into politics.

“If they see me reading a particular book, they might ask me about it. Often guys will just pose broad questions at me and try and understand what my viewpoint on that is,” he says.

“There have been core issues that everyone in the country has been exposed to and involved in. Everyone is experiencing the cost-of-living crisis, so that is felt acutely by people in the football changing room.

“Some guys will glaze over, for sure, but you know which ones to engage with. I choose my moments wisely,” he says with a wry smile.

Instead of quitting football, Donaldson has channelled his own experiences into becoming a better ally from inside the changing room.

Football in the National League South is all the better for it. In a system of institutionalised homophobia, we need more Ruaridh Donaldsons willing to speak out.

Third Place: Juliet Nottingham, University of Derby

When Luis Rubiales produced the infamous image of the biggest Women’s World Cup final, I was huddled with three dozen music festival volunteers in a tent, squinting to see shapes on a small screen scratched by the sun’s rays. It was the middle of nowhere, the signal threadbare.

I learned all the rest after I first saw the forced kiss, when the heart stilled and sunk. I learned he had grabbed his crotch in the stands, that he had held Athenea Del Castillo’s thighs as she was thrown over his shoulder, and that he had given Olga Carmona an overfamiliar peck on the cheek, all a few days later.

At the start of that summer, a friend met me as I scrolled the latest football news. She asked me to sum up what was going on. I looked at the headlines. One major club had jotted down domestic abuse charities as ‘hostile’ whilst trying to fix the public image of a player charged with rape. Another: players were racing to defend a colleague who had faced multiple charges of rape and sexual assault. 

I said to change the subject. I had never felt such shame for loving this sport before.

“One day you think things are changing, then the next day you’re dragged back to 10 years ago,” one journalist told me. I had gone in search of women in the football industry to find out if anyone shared this silent frustration. “The overriding emotion is exasperation, that we’re still fighting these battles.”

In one of Chandan Fraser’s photographs of women’s liberation movements, a woman in the 1970s holds aloft a sign saying “Equal pay is not enough. We want the moon.”

If female bodies in male-dominated spaces are political acts, a female body in football, perhaps one of the last pillars of masculinity in our society, undoubtedly exists in a political field.

Michel Foucault argued power relations then have an immediate hold on that body: “They invest it, train it,” he wrote. “Force it to perform ceremonies.”

What if those ceremonies aren’t safe from male misbehaviour?

“(Spain) won the World Cup Final and he still feels that he has a right to make it his moment,” a journalist said. “I think women around the world kind of went ‘ahh, yep. Been there.’ They’ve experienced something like that.”

“How systemic and normalised does this behaviour have to be for someone to think it’s okay to do on this huge stage knowing millions are watching?” another said. “It’s horrifying.

“There’s a degree of ‘yes, now you get it. Something must be done now everyone has seen this. It was the biggest stage there is.

“The scope and nature of this problem were being unearthed in a way nobody could deny. This was a problem that has been covered up, ignored, or glossed over for years.”

Women’s football is punctuated by watershed moments in an epoch where online conversational volume and value are confused.

The women’s game has been packaged in the media as a medium for female empowerment, rising on the back of second-wave activism like the women’s liberation movements in the ‘70s. Propelled by the 1999 US side’s World Cup success, girl-power imagery was unavoidably linked with American women’s football. Whether acknowledged, verbalised, or claimed, feminism inevitably ran in the water when women’s football flooded Europe 20 years later,

Yet if fans in the ‘90s were preached that anything was possible through football, it is no surprise the media landscape may look disillusioned when, 20 years on, such freedom seems yet to be fulfilled.

“There’s this lineage from the ‘90s directly to today,” an academic told me. “I still think we see second-wave and post-feminist narratives of empowerment and individual triumph.

“But we’ve seen growing attention around systemic and structural inequalities. Both are happening at the same time; there’s a range of feminist ideas circulating.”

In a post-#MeToo culture of fractured feminist activism, superficial and substantial successes are muddled. Watershed moments seem to trickle down to fickle, rather than fundamental, change.

On Rubiales, an academic said, “I think we expected that to be a watershed moment.

“It’s so easy to buy into that idea because we want there to be. It’s easy to get sucked into this collective emotion we create around women’s football and believe things will be different.

“It’s only in hindsight we see evidence that moments we called big ‘breakthroughs’ were only partially effective in creating lasting change.

“From the final, I’m not sure we’ve seen a ton of change in the systems and practices that generated this moment in the first place. I don’t know if women playing football globally are any safer now than they were.”

The narratives of progress have been exploited and underachieved by those who perpetuate them. The moon still eludes.

FWA/Kick It Out Unheard Voices Student Football Writer of the Year

Winner: Aayush Majumdar, St Mary’s University Twickenham

In the autumn of 2022, a group of men who barely knew one another but only had each other in a foreign land came together in Carlisle. Hailing from varied countries and cultures, they faced a language barrier in their new home but found a common language that broke all barriers – football. From humble beginnings on a self-crafted pitch at the back of a hotel to becoming the UK’s first asylum seeker team to be registered with a county FA, Hilltop United FC’s journey transcends sport.

Before its closure last December as part of the UK government’s new policy on asylum seekers, Carlisle’s Milton Hilltop Hotel housed asylum seekers. Already vulnerable, asylum seekers are unable to work to sustain themselves and face extreme uncertainty regarding the future. But those at the Hilltop Hotel were fortunate to meet Chris Middleton, a volunteer at Carlisle Refugee Action Group (CRAG) tasked with wellbeing work at the hotel and making the residents feel a sense of belonging within the local community. At least as welcome as an asylum seeker could feel.

During his interactions with them, many expressed a strong desire to play football. With no avenues to play in existing teams owing to their residential status, they formed their own team. The players took it upon themselves to prepare a pitch, manually turning a big patch of tall grass at the back of the hotel into playable conditions.

“The African gentlemen said they could do it better than the threshing machines,” Middleton, who went on to become the team’s manager, recollects.

By spring, many new members arrived in Carlisle while many were suddenly forced to leave and migrate elsewhere, as is often the case with asylum seekers. Even some who stayed in Carlisle were moved out of the hotel into private accommodation. Almost 50 players from 10 different nationalities came through the team’s ranks and were helped by kit donations from the local community. Many of them had never played football before but saw the sport as a ray of hope.

Remembering the toughest of times, Middleton adds, “They had no interest in anything even with the sun shining on them. They were lifeless. Through football, they could pick themselves up.”

Little did they know that through football, they would also go down in history. With support from Carlisle United and particularly the club’s EDI officer, Nigel Davidson, the team was registered with the Cumberland FA as Hilltop United FC, the first-ever instance of an asylum seeker team’s affiliation to a county FA. They played their first official game against Border City Greens, a club providing support around mental health and weight loss.

To do it all in Carlisle, where over 97 percent of the population is white, further highlights the significance of Hilltop United. Davidson and others invested in the team’s welfare did not publicise their first few games due to a fear of discrimination.

“We had instances of people asking, ‘Why do they get to play football when I have to go work?’ Well if they could work, I’m sure they would,” Davidson says. “They’re sat in their hotel twiddling their thumbs dealing with mental health issues, but football has been a catalyst to keep them sane in an 18-month period where they could have completely lost the plot.”

Despite the numerous challenges, the players kept playing and thriving through football. Thriving together.

“Football keeps us busy as we’re not allowed to work at the moment. With football, we’re healthy, happy, we make friends, meet each other,” Adil Abdul Ali, a Hilltop player, says.

But just when many of them finally felt settled in, in late 2023 the UK government decided to relocate people from hotels across the country. Again, in the blink of an eye, Carlisle lost many of its new residents to other cities and Hilltop United lost a large number of players.

Hilltop United were lucky to retain 14 of its original squad, which has since grown to 16. Currently, they play five-a-side friendly tournaments in Carlisle and outside, in conjunction with Border City Greens. The Cumberland Council has helped them secure a better ground to play on regularly. Going forward, the team aims to maintain its own identity and Middleton confirms the endeavour to compete in a professional league come the new season.

Meanwhile, many who were forced to leave Carlisle have since been unable to play football. They miss the support created by Middleton, Davidson, and their respective colleagues. Most importantly, they miss the sense of belonging they felt in Carlisle.

“Football is the international language. That’s a common theme about humanity I guess,” Davidson says.

Let’s hope the example of Hilltop United FC inspires others to wield that special power of football and sport and change lives for the better.

Second Place: Jack Silbertson, East Sussex College, Lewes

My heart is racing as I step out of Seven Sisters station, shoulder-to-shoulder with thousands of fans, as I attempt to hold in my excitement of seeing my first ever live Tottenham Hotspur match. It may only be a straightforward cup tie against Championship side Nottingham Forest, but 9 year old me had been counting down the days until I could see my heroes in the flesh. As I walk down the street, I hear screams full of passion from people claiming to be part of the ‘yid army’. I turn to my mum to ask what that word people are chanting means, to which she simply says ‘it’s a bad word, just ignore it.’ Over the 9 years I have gone to watch my team play since, there has not been a word I have heard more in the Tottenham area on matchdays, than ‘yid’ – and I struggle to see that trend changing anytime soon.

This feeling of discomfort that my mum felt towards the word, is a feeling shared by a significant amount of Jewish (and non-Jewish) Spurs fans, who have to feign oblivion whenever they hear thousands of people chanting that word at a match. They want to contribute to the atmosphere, they want to support their team at the top of their voices, but not using that word. 

It’s important to acknowledge the reason the ‘y word’ is chanted, and that the vast majority of fans chanting it are doing so with good intentions. After hearing the word in an anti-semitic context shouted at them during the 1970s by rival fans, many Spurs fans felt the need to reclaim it, and demonstrate pride in the Jewish affiliation that Tottenham Hotspur are well-known to have. So began the ‘Yid Army’. Many Tottenham fans now sing about being a yid, about players being ‘yiddos’ and even referencing the fact that ‘they tried to stop us’. At first glance, this all seems like a positive, a way of changing the perspective on a negative word and showing solidarity with the Jewish community; perhaps comparable with people of colour who choose to use the n-word. The key difference between these two instances, though, is that most people singing about their pride ‘being a yid’, are not Jewish. 

From a Tottenham Hotspur Supporters Trust poll in 2022, 52% of Jewish Spurs fans disagree with the use of the word. The use of the y-word may be acceptable if this was not the case, but how can non-Jewish fans claim to be showing solidarity with Jews, if that ‘solidarity’ is taken with offence? When speaking to a Jewish Tottenham fan on the issue, they said how ‘I don’t feel people say it maliciously, but I still feel uncomfortable with it being used, as I feel most people using the word don’t really think about the meaning behind it’. This consideration is crucial, as many of my friends have used the word and, when I have asked them to explain the meaning, they assumed it was purely to do with being a Spurs fan – having no knowledge whatsoever surrounding the link to Judaisim it has. A similar issue is when I see children chanting it at games. I find it unlikely that parents have sat their children down to explain the backstory to the word, to explain that ‘yid’ is actually an offensive term for a Jewish person, and why Spurs fans sing it. Should people really be singing that word if they do not know the gravity of it?

I had the privilege of speaking to Rabbi Efune on the issue, where I discovered his thoughts to be surprisingly understanding of the situation. He mentioned how he understands that ‘the word in this context is a sign of endearment. Spurs fans singing it at the players they love, perhaps makes it more of a positive than a negative.’ However, he did question the validity of Spurs fans singing the word: ‘What’s strange is if you were to conduct a poll among Tottenham, Arsenal and Chelsea fans in 2024, I doubt there would be much difference in the amount of Jewish fans each club has, making it questionable whether Spurs can even be seen as a Jewish club anymore’.

It is true that the word is mostly said with good intentions, and thankfully I have never come across blatant anti-semitism at a football match. However, one cannot justify using a word of solidarity with a community, if that community finds it offensive. Given how even Tottenham fans acknowledge, ‘they tried to stop us’, then it may be time to be respectful of that request.

Third Place: Emile Nuh, St Mary’s University Twickenham

On 12th March 2024 17-year-old Wilfried Nathan Douala, the youngest player in Cameroon’s 2023 Africa Cup Of Nations (AFCON 2023) squad, was suspended by the Cameroon Football Federation (Fecafoot) for age and identity fraud. Doula was suspended alongside 61 other players from Cameroon’s domestic league, but being the highest profile, he faced the brunt of the criticism.

Identity fraud scandals have plagued Cameroonian football for years. In June 2022, the Fecafoot ethics committee investigated 44 players from eight domestic clubs for identity fraud. In January 2023, 31 players called up to represent Cameroon’s under-17s in the UNIFFAC Cup – a tournament contested by the under-17s sides of the Central African Football Federations’ Union, were disqualified for failing ‘age tests.’

Fecafoot president Samuel Eto’o, who aimed to crack down on identity fraud scandals when elected president in December 2021, faced similar scepticism over his age during his career. In February 2014, in what he later called a ‘funny conversation’, Chelsea manager José Mourinho said: “The problem with Chelsea is I lack a striker. I have Eto’o but he is 32, maybe 35, who knows?”

However, the ambiguity around people’s ages in Cameroon is not limited exclusively to just footballers. My father Daniel Nuh is also unaware of his exact birthday. To his knowledge he was born in 1963, most likely in March or possibly even February, despite his official documents stating he was born on 16th March 1965.

Mr Nuh says, “The whole idea of people’s birthdays in Cameroon not being well documented was due to families not going to hospitals to give birth. When my mother was due to give birth to me, she couldn’t reach Belo maternity so had to deliver me on the way.

“My neighbour who was with her wrote my birthdate down on a piece of paper. But when I grew older and went to officially register my birth the paper had been lost; it wasn’t in great condition to start with.

“Then when I went secondary school, I had to be at least 12 to enter Form 1 (Year Seven), but I was 14 at the time. So, they changed my birthyear from 1963 to 1965. Many Cameroonians change their ages to get an education, because unlike here education isn’t free out there so you attend school only when you can afford to.”

However, education does not guarantee an advanced quality of life for Cameroonians. Entrepreneurship is discouraged, jobs are scarce and economic relocation is attained through nepotism. A country with a population of just over 30 million people, has a total labour force of just 11.5 million people. The lay man can deduce that only one in every three Cameroonians have a recognised profession.

The most affluent members of Cameroonian society are politicians and ministers. Therefore, supporting government regimes for economic relocation are favourable tactics, and identity fraud is heavily utilised to do this.

Take the first president of Cameroon, Ahmadou Ahidjo. An uneducated and illiterate man who rose to become head of state and reigned for 22 years. When Ahidjo assumed the presidency on 1st January 1960 it signified immense change. That change brought opportunity for his supporters as he faced fierce rebellious opposition from the Union of the Peoples of Cameroon (UPC) party.

Mr Nuh says, “Back when we gained independence in 1960, to become a government minister you couldn’t be over the age of 35. Cameroon wanted to be seen as a young and progressive new nation, so many people used double identities to gain positions of power.

“That’s why you see many people in parliament today who can barely walk. Most of them are in their 90s and have held positions of power for half a century by changing their ages to get into government. They’re all a lot older than Wikipedia will tell you.”

In countless circumstances Cameroonians have had to leverage any means they can to advance their quality of life. Doula should not be ostracised whether he was indeed born on 15th May 2006 or not. Eto’o can’t be expected to overhaul the entire phenomenon of identity fraud within Cameroonian football, as the issue spans far greater than football.

The nation is still dealing with an ongoing Anglophone-Francophone civil war that has seen over 2.2 million people displaced from the countries’ far north regions, several of my family members included. There are 43.6% of Cameroonians who are classed as multidimensional poor, and a further 17.6% vulnerable to multidimensional poverty.

If my father did not alter his age back in 1977, he may have never been able to immigrate to the UK. Meaning I could be in Cameroon right now subscripted to fight in the civil war caught up in crossfire. Identity fraud in Cameroon is not a football issue, it is a means of societal survival.

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