Football for good: How St Roch's embodies the best of Glasgow's community and charity spirit

Amid his turmoil, Homeless in Glasgow author John-Paul Clark saw some of the best Glasgow has to offer

ENROLLING back at university, the thought occurred to me that I have been studying for as long as Jim Murphy. Unlike Jim, though, I have already graduated with one degree and will at least finish next year with my dignity intact.

Ten years ago I first rolled out of the schemes and up to college as an illiterate but ambitious young man. With a sabbatical or two along the way I have completed two college courses and an undergraduate degree at university. This final year is solely about finding work and the career I have strived toward.

The summer months past were basically about processing the year before and getting some semblance of normality back into my life. It’s been tough and conquering my own anxieties and insecurities off the back of the punishing homeless ordeal took time.

READ MORE: Homeless in Glasgow – the full series

I managed, though, and I'm ready to put the recent past behind me. After enrolling at university I decided to visit the charities and community groups which helped me get my flat furnished in June.

My first visit was to St Roch’s Football Club, a junior team based in Royston Road in Glasgow. The club was formed in 1920 by Canon Edward Lawton with the intention of becoming a feeder club for Celtic. The great James McGrory started his career with St Roch’s but with the advent of boys and reserve football this vision died out quickly.

The Roch continued and found their own niche, serving the locals of Royston with a junior football club steeped in community and charity. Today they are run by a small committee and various volunteers, and offer local OAPs free Christmas dinners, free football lessons for up to 60 children during the summer holidays, after-school sessions for children studying for exams with tutors coming in from Glasgow University, and organising various parties and events for the local youths.

It was this spirit of community that brought the club to my attention. One of the volunteer stalwarts within the club, Mark Lawson, had been in touch with me on Twitter offering advice and even financial help, too. 

I was reticent to accept charity but did agree that when I was on my feet I would come along to James McGrory Park, home of St Roch’s, for a day out.

St Roch’s FC

Mark sees himself as just an ordinary fan but, like almost everyone around the club, does some charity work of his own. Alongside another volunteer, Chris Reilly, they have recently taken on a role at the club organising merchandise and, within a short space of time, their efforts have led to considerable donations to the North East Foodbank and The Invisibles, a small group in Glasgow helping homeless people.

A few days after I enrolled at university I made it along to a game. Since losing my season ticket to Celtic Park, going to football of a weekend is something I have sorely missed. So, with this gaping void in my life I made my way there, excited and intrigued at what lay ahead.

James McGrory Park is a sparse little space and when I first arrived I milled around, a little unsure of my place there. However, it wasn’t long before I was being looked after. Mark fussed over me and gifted me my own season ticket, club scarf and t-shirt and began to introduce me to others.

The feeling of community was permeable and everyone, to a man, smiled and made eye contact. I hadn’t felt this sense of camaraderie since I began to follow Celtic as a child. But, unlike how I have come to view Celtic and their support, this was different.

At St Roch’s it is obvious everyone is united by community, charity and social justice. I felt immediately at home as we took our place on the sloped terraces for the first half.

Sure, at Celtic Park everyone is united on the day but what unites them is perhaps intangible and subjective to each person. At St Roch’s it is obvious everyone is united by community, charity and social justice. I felt immediately at home as we took our place on the sloped terraces for the first half beginning.

It should be noted that not everybody at St Roch's is a Celtic supporter. Fans of Motherwell and Rangers were in attendance, attracted there by the club’s idealism and sense of community.

As the teams ran out onto the pitch St Roch’s leftist credentials were obvious. The music blaring from the tannoy was an anthem created for the club by The Wakes and their strip sponsors were the homeless community action group, The Invisibles.

The game kicked off at a frantic pace and was typical blood, thunder and snotters junior football. I stood sipping on a can of lager and blethering away in my absolute element.

During the game I was introduced to many people, noticeable among them was Billy Reid from The Invisibles. They are a voluntary organisation who were created with the sole purpose of helping the invisible homeless community in Glasgow.

"In conjunction with The Invisibles 20 people were identified as being homeless/vulnerable and invited to come up to St Roch’s for a fish tea. It was such a great success.” Billy Reid

They don’t claim to offer solutions for homelessness but instead bring much needed immediate practical support with supplies like sleeping bags and clothes. The idea behind having their name on the strip came at the intervention of the supporters.

Upon hearing that the club were looking for a new commercial sponsor to buy strips the fans decided to raise the money themselves and then have The Invisibles name on the shirt instead of the commercial alternative. Everyone who donated had their name embroidered onto the jersey as a fan memento.

This wasn’t the first time St Roch’s and The Invisibles came together. A lot of the volunteers with The Invisibles, like Billy, already followed the club because of its ethos of community and charity, so the two joining forces was inevitable.

The Invisibles had decided a few years ago to start targeting the rough sleepers who gather every night at Cadogan Street but quickly began to run low on used trainers and winter clothing. Billy stepped in and approached St Roch’s to ask for help.

He said: "When I approached the committee and asked if I could make a clothing appeal on a match day they whole heartedly supported the idea. We were overwhelmed by the first appeal and the quality of the clothing donated was a great help. 

We chatted for almost an hour on homelessness, community and life in general, and the game and the day passed in an instant. As time-up approached I genuinely did not want the match to end.

"Over the last two and a half years the club and the group have had several appeals for specific items and on an almost weekly basis I find bags of suitable clothing left at the club from the players, management, committee and fans."

Billy continued: "The highlight to me and what sums up this great community club is that two years ago a committee member, Stevie Mullen, wanted to offer a Christmas lunch for some of the homeless community in Glasgow. 

"In conjunction with The Invisibles 20 people were identified as being homeless/vulnerable and invited to come up to St Roch’s for a fish tea. It was such a great success that the event was run again last year and will hopefully be an annual event."

We chatted for almost an hour on homelessness, community and life in general, and the game and the day passed in an instant. As time-up approached I genuinely did not want the match to end.

The match ended with St Roch’s as 2-1 winners and I began to bid my farewells. Plenty of folk offered to run me home, some I hadn’t even spoken to, but I decided on getting the bus and soaking up the day for a little longer.

This is the socialism that I know, the true spirit of Glasgow that you won’t see in Byres Road or Buchanan Street.

At the bus stop there were two old lads who noticed me as a newcomer and chatted away, welcoming me into the fold. One started an impressive Elvis impersonation and his snake hips belied his 70-plus years. We bantered away and got down to discussing the match as we waited on the bus.

Once the bus arrived one of the old boys sidled up next to me and tugged at my jacket sleeve, asking if I wanted to come on the bus as his companion (which gets you on the bus for free). I tried to bung him my busfair when I got on to get himself a pint but he steadfastly refused and we chatted until they got off together.

They bid farewell and probably didn’t give me a second thought but they made a mark on me. This is the socialism that I know, the true spirit of Glasgow that you won’t see in Byres Road or Buchanan Street.

I got off the bus in town and made my way home, humbled at having found new friends and a community that I am certain will become a big part of my life. St Roch’s play every second week at James McGrory Park with 2pm kick-offs. You can follow them on Twitter and on Facebook.

All are welcome and season tickets lie behind the turnstiles every week for anyone who cannot afford admission. Donations to The Invisibles can also be dropped off on matchdays.

Pictures courtesy of St Roch’s FC on Facebook

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