West Belfast should feel like the worst place in Northern Ireland. Eleven of its nineteen districts make it into the top 10% for social and economic deprivation in the country, whilst the rates of crime, suicide and teenage pregnancy all soar above the national average. Living here means dying younger, earning less and suffering more.
West Belfast, however, is also the birthplace of Féile an Phobail, an annual festival hosting luminaries such as Seamus Heaney and Ardal O’Hanlon. It is the home of Conway Mill, too, a five-storey Victorian factory that’s been re-purposed into a community hub that heaves with cafés and education centres.
Like the city itself, this area has a history of flourishing in spite of adversity.
It was in this spirit that two men decided to start a football club in 2010. Joseph McCall and Damian Lindsay are both from St.James’, a working class neighbourhood built just yards from where Celtic Park once stood on the Donegall Road.
“St.James’ was going through a very rough time back then” McCall remembers for an interview with Tifo Football.
“The area is on an interface between Catholics and Protestants, and back then there was continuous rioting. There were multiple paramilitary shootings in the area as well as drug and alcohol abuse. It was falling apart”.
With their community crumbling and nobody doing anything about it, the men decided to take action.
“Young people were standing on street corners and elderly people weren’t leaving their houses, so we thought we’d tackle it through sport”.
The result was St. James’ Swifts, a football club whose main aim was to prevent anti-social behaviour by keeping young people off the streets.
“Football seemed the best option because lots of the youngsters had a background in the sport, either in wanting to play or having done so before” McCall says.
Things started small. Initially, the Swifts began as a 7-a-side team, taking part in a local league with matches convened every Friday night.
Success on the all-weather pitches, however, meant that word and interest soon began to spread. After just a few months, the club had enough players to apply for the Belfast and District Football League. They were accepted. Training morphed from what had been a rag-tag kickabout on Tuesday nights, to twice-weekly sessions before an 11-a-side game on Saturday.
For a while, it seemed like they were growing too fast. McCall, combining his role as the club’s co-founder and treasurer with a place in central midfield, had no choice but to leave the training to Lindsay. It was too much for one man to handle, but finding a manager was proving an exceptionally difficult task.
“When we tried to recruit coaches, no one would give up their time as the area had got itself a bad reputation” McCall admits.
“Even when we finally got someone in, a paramilitary group came onto our training pitch and shot at one of our players. The coach never came back”.
After building the team from the ground up, however, McCall and Lindsay weren’t about to be intimidated.
“We kept the club going. Slowly, some of the older men from the area decided to get involved”.
Joe Rooney and Hugh Strong were just some of the locals who began pitching in, organising the logistics and coaching. David McCartney, a former St.James’ resident and local businessman who had relocated to Essex, heard about the club and wanted to get involved.
“He’d seen the chance to change the face of the community and return it to the great area it once was” says McCall.
“He paid for our kits, our pitch rental costs and all of our training equipment”.
Even the Irish Football Association mucked in, arranging for the club’s coaches to be put through the necessary courses and advising on how to deliver on its aim of reaching the Irish Premiership.
Walking through the community eight years ago you would’ve seen people standing drinking on street corners, graffiti on the walls. Now, you see them kicking footballs, you see positive murals and art promoting mental health and the stars of the area. Joseph McCall, co-founder of St James' Swifts
What once seemed like a pipe dream is beginning to feel like an inevitability. After a series of promotions, the Swifts find themselves jostling for top spot in the Ballymena and Provincial Intermediate League, the equivalent of the 4th division in Northern Ireland.
“Of course, our goal would be to take the team to the top” McCall says.
“For a club that started just 8 years ago, it’s a bit of a fairy tale. But I honestly believe that, with the community now fully behind us, we have the chance to do it”.
“For some people, this club means absolutely everything” he continues.
“Walking through the community eight years ago you would’ve seen people standing drinking on street corners, graffiti on the walls. Now, you see them kicking footballs, you see positive murals and art promoting mental health and the stars of the area”.
Having started with just seven players, the club can now boast in excess of three hundred. It has nineteen teams in total, ranging from the Under 6’s all the way to to the generously-titled ‘Men Over 40’. There are five dedicated female teams, as well as a side for those with disabilities. At times, it feels more like a movement than a football club.
“We open our doors to all members of the community; all types of religions, genders and backgrounds. We want to break barriers and to create friendships between different groups”.
Despite its growing popularity, however, the Swifts still rely heavily on the efforts of their founders.
“Without Damian and David and the club committee, this would never work” says McCall.
“Everyone plays their part, no matter how big or small. The supporters too, who turn up every single week to cheer on our first team. They are what pushes everyone on to the best of their ability”.
That camaraderie and passion might help explain the Swifts’ ongoing relationship with Billiericay Town. The Essex club, which boasts former Premier League stars such as Paul Konchesky and Jermaine Pennant, is also sponsored by McCartney’s contracting business.
“Glen Tamplin, the Billericay owner, fell in love with the club and its ethos” says McCall.
So much so, that a partnership between the two teams was announced last Summer. As part of the arrangement, three of the Swifts’ teams travelled to England for a series of friendlies, raising cash and awareness for local suicide prevention charities.
“With the suicide rate in the area rising, both club owners decided they could help tackle it by creating a strong link between the two clubs” McCall adds.
“We’re just hoping to raise as much awareness as possible around it”.
At just 24-years-old and with a full-time job in the Health Service, it’s a wonder that McCall even has the time to help the Swifts grow. When asked if he would recommend starting a football club, however, he is effusive.
“Definitely get involved” he says.
“If creating a local team can change one young person’s life and give them a chance through sport, then go for it. Too many people don’t like to see others better themselves, but we ignore that. Times have changed, Belfast is changing. People from all across the community are uniting to fight problems like sectarianism and suicide in the right way. What better method than to do it something as enjoyable as football”.
What about the future – where does McCall see the club in ten years’ time?
“With the backing we have and at the speed we are growing, I’d love to see us fighting it out in the Irish Premiership. If we can continue to at that pace and bring the youth through, then the sky is the limit”.
A decade ago, this small club in West Belfast didn’t even exist. Thanks to the remarkable efforts of a determined community, however, they could be rubbing shoulders with Linfield and Glentoran in next to no time. More importantly, they’ve given their area something to be proud of. For St James’ Swifts, it seems, the only way is up.