Hackney Wick FC – a football club with a difference

A former gangster talks about the football club he founded which gives back to the community

HANDING out water at a half marathon, singing in a choir, and working with the Women’s Institute. These are not the ordinary occupations of a football club, but then Hackney Wick FC is no ordinary football club. Its motto? ‘Our Borough, Our Club’.

“I started the club back in April of last year,” explains its founder Bobby Kasanga, 29, (pictured above). Once a promising footballer himself, that future disappeared overnight when he was sent to prison for gang-related offences. His eight years behind bars changed him radically. 

“I missed some of the most important years of my daughter growing up,” he says. Adding: “I realised that life wasn’t about ego. It was about bettering yourself, your family and your community.”

So after his release last year, he decided to do something for that community. Having lived in Hackney for 13 years, he felt the borough was missing only one thing: a football club. 

“I wanted to start a club that was all about the community, and could give back to it,” he explains. Hackney Wick FC was therefore set up with the founding principle that all the players sign up to volunteering in the local community, for two hours every month.

Hackney Wick FC started with just a men’s team. They played their first match at Mabley Green against Britain’s first gay football club, Stonewall FC and successes followed rapidly. Hackney MP Diane Abbott became the club’s Honorary President, and the Lauriston Pub, in Victoria Park, the team’s sponsor. 

It was in pursuit of their volunteering commitments, however, that the club made one of its biggest changes. Bobby says: “We gave some free training to the Hackney Women’s Institute and we all enjoyed it so much that it turned into free training sessions for women every fortnight and then a women’s team.”

On a cold and wet Monday evening, a group of women run across Mabley Green’s floodlit pitch. Behind them hangs the Hackney Wick FC bunting made in the club’s colours by Hackney Women’s Institute.

“I joined when it first started last summer,” says Holly Jones, 28, the left-wing midfielder. Adding: “I think this made me much more open to trying new things. I was really keen to start football, but would have been nervous about starting at a team that was really well established. Here, everyone is really friendly and welcoming. Bobby’s been a real inspiration. 

“This is about more than just football. It’s about a whole community movement, which I think is pretty exciting. We’ve done stuff with local homeless shelters and training to help coach disabled people. I’ve donated clothes and I’m keen to get more involved with volunteering.”

The coach, Sam Bereket, gathers the players together, encouraging them and giving them feedback on their technique. Sam came to the UK from Eritrea in 1998. Soon after, she was spotted by Tottenham Hotspur Ladies FC, where she played for almost a decade.

“Normally, we train on Mondays for an hour,” she explains. Adding; “We do a warm up, a bit of fitness and some footwork before ending with a game. I’ve been here since the beginning and they’re showing massive improvement. 

“It’s part of building a community, you know? They all work together and they’re all friends. Some members are quite new, for some it’s the first session. Anyone is more than welcome to join.”

“The first time they played, they lost 13-nil,” laughs Bobby, watching the training. Adding: “But then, they played the same team again and it was only 2-1, so that’s a huge improvement. ”

Bobby is currently looking for more local organisations where the club members can volunteer this year. The men’s team, meanwhile, goes from strength to strength. He says: “We won our last match against Paddington Elite FC 4-3. It was our first ever league win, so the lads were really happy and relieved. The Lauriston even gave us free drinks after the game.”

It’s an achievement that Anna Lock, 29-year-old goalkeeper in the women’s team, is keen to match. She says: “I had never played football when I joined and really wanted to learn. It’s a really good workout, we’re learning lots of new skills and hopefully we’re going to start winning!

"But volunteering is almost as big a part of being in the club. It feels good to give something back to the community.”

Hackney Wick FC is always looking for more people to join the team as well as organisations the players can volunteer for.