Something to get up for

How playing soccer, believe it or not, can change your life

David Duke was 21 when his father died. “I hit rock bottom. I found it hard to spend time with my family because everyone was grieving. I cut myself off, moved to another part of Glasgow, drank too much, and stopped going to work. I lost my job, and then I lost my flat.”

He’d grown up in Govan, home of the shipyards, and Alex Ferguson. His parents had divorced when Duke was 13. Leaving school without qualifications he’d moved into jobs selling double glazing and furniture.

Homelessness was really hard. “I was really low. You have nothing to do. You wake up in the morning with no motivation. There’s nothing to be involved in, and a lot of negative influences around you.”

But that was ten years ago. Since then, Duke has turned his life around, and done the same for thousands of others – which is why he was named this week the winner of The Sunday Times Change Makers Award.

His success arises directly from his experience a decade ago. Living in a hostel, feeling sorry for himself, he soon realised that other people had much worse stories than his. And he recovered a lifelong interest in football after seeing a poster on the hostel walls that read: “Fancy a trip to Sweden to play for Scotland?”

It was promoting the Homeless World Cup, a yearly tournament founded in 2003. Duke had always played football – he captained his school team – so went along to find out more. There were two training sessions a week, he learned. “And suddenly I had something to get up for.”

He qualified for the Scotland team, which reached the semi-finals. People who might have crossed the road to avoid the homeless players were cheering them as heroes.

“Suddenly, I became a role model,” he recalls. He volunteered to coach a kids team and found that adoring boys would come to training sessions wearing the same boots as him. “It was humbling. I realised that although they might look up to people like Lionel Messi, who they see on TV, their most realistic model was someone like them. I had to look carefully at the way I was living my life.”

From then on, he stopped smoking in front of children. He also went to college to study community work, then returned to the Homeless World Cup team as manager. Scotland won the tournament in 2007, and again last year.

But a yearly tournament wasn’t enough. To spread the benefits more widely, he set up Street Soccer Scotland, in 2009, to provide regular opportunities for people from deprived and difficult backgrounds to play football throughout the week – and to become coaches and role models in their turn.

It sounds simple, but can be transformative. “Football gives you an escape. When you are on the pitch you leave everything behind. For some of these guys, the pitch is the one place they’re welcome. People come here who don’t see anybody during the week. They might have mental health issues. But as soon as they get on the pitch they’ll be calling out, ‘Well done mate,’ and that kind of thing. They’re communicating. And they’re learning to trust people. When you pass the ball to a guy you don’t know that well, you are showing trust, and that’s something some people have forgotten. They are not used to doing things as part of a team. But you can see at the end of the match, they’re sweating and smiling, and they have had a great time.”

Duke’s work has received plaudits from politicians and football professionals. Last year he was awarded an honorary PhD by Queen Mary University. (“I don’t use the title much. Sometimes, for banter, people come and ask, “Is Dr Duke in?”) Karren Brady, one of the Sunday Times judges, says she was deeply inspired by his story. “He overcame such hardship in his early personal life,” she says, “and has drawn on this to help other disadvantaged adults and young people through the power of sport and football.”

Now 31, Duke is tall, slim, with a modish haircut. He wears a double-breasted coat, smart trousers and pointed brown leather shoes when we meet at Glasgow’s Lucozade Powerleague: five-a-side football pitches, with floodlights and advertising, overlooked by tower blocks, and cars whizzing along the M8 flyover. This being Easter, the football pitches have been made available to local wains (children), so the usual hour for street football has been pushed back into the afternoon. As a result, our conversation is interrupted as Duke tells eager adult players they must come back later.

One, Graham, is in his late 30s, with a sprinkling of grey in his hair, and says he’s gutted. He can see that Duke is busy, but wants to talk about his new training regime, which involves swimming, drinking a lot of water, and eating mostly bananas. “You’ve lost a bit of weight,” Duke observes. The man asks if he can borrow Duke’s phone to make a call. “It’s not to a 0800 number is it?” Duke jokes. “Nah, Davey, it’s a land-line pal.”

Not every newcomer takes to the structured games immediately, but most adapt to it. “There was a wee lad from Edinburgh,” Duke says, “who came out of a young offenders prison. He seemed a bit hyper, and he struggled at first. He was very young. But he settled down.”

Like others before and since, that youngster enrolled on a 16-week course, Street Soccer Plus, structured (with help from a local college) to focus entirely on football and not to seem like “education”. Participants read and write match reports, write and deliver talks about their passion for football, keep log books and learn organisational skills – perhaps organising a match day and juggling fixtures. At the end, they qualify as a coach, with formal qualifications in literacy and communication.

That hyperactive youngster played for Scotland in the Homeless World Cup, landed training as a bricklayer, and was invited back into the family home. He recently got engaged. “And there are lots of stories like that,” says Duke. “We have worked with 2,500 people.”

Eighty per cent of staff and coaches are former players themselves. “And that’s a huge part of our success, because newcomers can look at a coach and say, ‘He was in the same position as me two years ago. I can do that.’”

Many who get involved first do so through a Scottish street soccer league, which involves more than 100 different community projects all over the country. On match days some 30 teams arrive at the Powerleague venues in Glasgow, Edinburgh and Dundee to play six or seven ten-minute fixtures each.

“So that’s about 350 people we have here. We have a DJ playing, for atmosphere, and inside the building we have people from various agencies set up stalls to talk to players about housing, benefits and education between games. Someone with low self esteem will sit in their house and might not come out if you put on a jobs fair. But because they’re here anyway, they are happy to see all these guys.

The owner of Powerleague has been fantastically supportive, Duke says, in providing the facilities to make this possible. Others who have helped include professional football clubs Celtic, Rangers, Hibernian and Hearts, who give Duke office space and invaluable other support. “Once, the Celtic manager, Neil Lennon, did a half time talk with our players. People who do well in the Street Soccer league might be sent to do a training session at Rangers. And Hibs give us 30 tickets for every game.”

Charities provide sponsorship, and councils have given Duke contracts to deliver education programmes. He’s enormously grateful, because this saves him from dependency on grants, which in recession has seen other projects fail, or change their focus drastically.

“Other projects work only with 16 to 19 year olds, because that’s where the government money is. But what if you are outside that age range? Where do you go then?” asks Duke, who was outside that age range himself when he needed help. “We have a player here in Glasgow who is 71. We take anyone, from 16 up.”