FROM small acorns do mighty oaks grow…
When Clem Turner had a chance meeting with two young refugees he used to coach football in Ipswich, little did he realise what it would lead to.
The outcome was the formation of Unity FC – a real United Nations football team who currently have players from 16 different countries on their books.
Unity FC joined the Macron SIL at the start of the 2020-21 season and were sitting in sixth place in Division Three when the season was suspended due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The club, who are based at Inspire Suffolk in Lindbergh Road, Ipswich, have 37 players registered and are planning to expand next season, adding both a Reserve and Under-18 side.
Clem, who is approaching his 65th birthday, arrived in England from his native Jamaica to join his parents in 1967 aged just ten, and lived in Ipswich until the age of 17 when he left for the bright lights of London, before returning to Suffolk in 1995.
He attended the former Tower Ramparts School in Ipswich, along with old school friend Paul Davis, who with Clem is Unity’s joint first-team manager.
Clem explained that he set up a health and wellbeing charity, the Caribbean & African Community Health Support Forum (CACHSF), to address the health issues that affects the Caribbean and African community disproportionality, after suffering a stroke in 2006.
Unity FC was created under the umbrella of CACHSF after that chance meeting in January 2019 with the two refugees he previously coached.
He takes up the story: “I used to be employed by Suffolk Refugee Support (SRS) as a sports and wellbeing co-ordinator a few hours a week, from 2012 to 2018.
“Unfortunately, SRS did not share my vision for the talented young footballers that I was seeing attending my coaching session each week.
“When I bumped into those two lads in town, I said, ‘what are you guys doing?’ and they said they weren’t doing anything since I had taken their football away, which I knew I hadn’t, and that they were lost without it.
“What they were referring to is prior to leaving SRS, I managed Ransomes Sports Reserves for a couple seasons, and I used to take a few of the boys over there to play in the Reserve side. But the vision has always been to get these lads playing together in a league of some kind.
“I promised the two lads that I would start coaching them again in my spare time if enough of them turned up to some sessions in Christchurch Park in Ipswich, and we had between 20 and 30 guys came along for the first couple sessions and then more.
“I approached Suffolk FA to see if they could help in any way and they offered help and support through the Just Play project.
“I then contacted Paul and another friend of mine, Alex Browne, to see if they wanted to get involved, and the three of us started on this long but very rewarding journey to where we are now.
“We managed to secure some funding from Ipswich Borough Council (Area Committees) to assist us with venue higher/training facilities.
“I was invited along to do a presentation at the Ipswich & Suffolk Rotary Club, who have very kindly sponsored tracksuits for the boys, and we even had a few training sessions at Portman Road on Ipswich Town’s 3G pitch.
“We were accepted into the SIL for the current season and started quite well, winning three of our first four games, before losing the next four in a row to some of the more established clubs like Bramford United and Kesgrave Kestrels.
“We then picked up in our last two league games before lockdown, and this season has certainly been a learning curve for us so far.
“We have so many different nationalities and most of the players, who are aged between 17 and 28, had never played in an organised team before, so this is a new experience for them.”
The squad currently comprises players from 16 different nations as follows: Afghanistan, Albania, England, Eritrea, Ethiopia, France, Guinea, Iraq, Jamaica, Libya, Morocco, Poland, Portugal, Sierra Leone, Sudan and Syria.
Clem stated that it does not matter where you are from, what race, colour or creed you are or whether you hold religious beliefs or not, sport and football in general is the glue that bonds people together. It is football that has united so many people from so many different countries, hence the name, Unity FC.
Geoff Claxton and Daniel Gullineau joined the coaching team at the start of pre-season, while Ipswich-born ex-professional footballer Louie Donowa, who had a spell with his home-town club in 1989-90, did some pre-season sessions with the boys.
Leroy Edwards is the club chairman, who although he lives in Ilford travels to watch all the home matches.
Clem continued: “We have a five-year plan. We started this season with one team; however, we aim to add both a Reserve and Under-18 team for the 2021-22 season and then hopefully grow from there.
“We don’t know if, and when, the current season will start again, but we have a plan in place to implement what we want to do, and we have already put a couple of young players through to do their Level 1 coaching course with Suffolk FA, with the intention of getting a few more young people taking their coaching badges.
“It has been a great experience so far since joining the league, and although myself and Paul have been involved in coaching football for years, we have taken players who have never played at this level before and are turning them into a team.
“Some of them have had to travel to away matches, which they have never done before, and learn to be disciplined to turn up for matches on time.
“They have done really well, and we are proud of the progress they have made so far. Although we are sixth in the league, if we do re-start, we are hoping to finish in a lot higher position than we are now. We have come a long way in a short space of time, but we still have far to go.”
Unity FC have received assistance from Hopkins Homes, who have sponsored the club’s main first-team kit, while Ipswich Town and Sunbelt Rentals have donated new kits for them to use as the club expands. They have also received support from Suffolk Community Foundation.
Clem said Ipswich School have also been “absolutely fantastic” by providing their mini-bus for those away matches where transport is required.
Ipswich Councillor Liz Harsant, who invited Clem to present to the Rotary Club, subsequently arranged for him to meet Ipswich MP Tom Hunt, who has taken an interest in Unity FC and attended a couple of matches.
He also recently made reference to the CACHSF charity and the team during Prime Minister’s Question Time in the House of Commons.
If anyone is interested in joining Unity FC or finding out more about the club, please contact Clem Turner on 07507 255251 or via email firstname.lastname@example.org