After throwing our support behind Scottish Junior side Saint Anthony’s a year ago, AS Roma is today proud to announce that the club is adopting Hackney Wick FC on Non-League Day 2019.
Over the last 12 months, we’ve closely followed the rise of the semi-pro football club from London and have been incredibly impressed by what Hackney Wick FC founder Bobby Kasanga has already achieved in such a short space of time.
Bobby’s story is remarkable - from serving eight years in prison for gang-related crimes to building a community football club that is literally saving lives on the streets.
It’s a story we find so inspiring, we want to share it with the world.
We have a platform to lift others up and showcase incredible things being done in the football world and over the next 12 months, we’ll shine a spotlight on Hackney Wick FC and explore ways to help them continue to grow and change lives.
Who is Bobby Kasanga? Tell the Roma fans a little bit about yourself…
“I grew up in Peckham, South London. I played football as a kid and that’s all I ever really wanted to do. I played for a few semi-professional football clubs as a youth but then I got involved with the wrong crowd and I ended up in prison. I was released in 2015 and as soon as I got out, I decided to start the football club.”
Do you think you'd have avoided jail if you’d made it as a professional?
“I don’t think it was inevitable that I'd end up in jail. I think I was naïve. Everyone where I lived did their thing and I was a bit greedy as well. You'd see people bringing in extra money from illegal things and, being a semi-professional football player, you’re really not earning that much. So when people can give you extra income by doing things illegally, it just seemed like the obvious thing to do. In hindsight, you see it wasn’t worth it at all. I should have considered my football. I had just made my debut as a 20-year-old, so for me to mess that all up by going to prison was ridiculous really.”
How long after your debut did you get sent to prison?
“I got arrested a week later!”
So your coach basically had you for a single game and then he didn’t have you for eight years!
“Yeah, that’s basically it in a nutshell! I made my debut and we lost 3-1. I actually started the game as well. It all culminated when one of my friends was killed that weekend, while I was at the football, and then everything spiraled out of control from the whole situation and I ended up going to prison. After that, playing football was finished for me.”
How old were you when you went to prison?
“I was 21. I came out when I was 28, just about to turn 29.”
Did you play in prison?
“I was playing a lot in prison. That was sort of what kept me engaged in football and that’s why I started the football club upon my release. In prison, everyone behaves themselves when they want to play football or watch football. In prison, football was used as a behaviour tool. So when I as released, I knew the borough of Hackney didn’t have it’s own club. I knew it was famous for Hackney Marshes, but there is no team that actually represents that borough at a high level.
“So, I was going to start this club to actually bring the youth together and keep them engaged and also tackle these ‘postcode wars’ where some kids are scared to go to different boroughs. I thought, why not give the youths their own club that they can aspire to play for.”
It can be hard to start afresh when you come out of prison - particularly when you've served time for violent crime. How big a factor was that in deciding to set up Hackney Wick FC?
“Initially, I was into books because I had nothing to do. In prison, I was writing two novels, and I've just sold the rights to one of them to a production company to make into a TV drama series. My feeling was that I was gonna do football and I was gonna do writing when I got out.
“I didn’t want to just go and work a regular nine-to-five job because I didn’t think it was for me. There’s nothing wrong with working a nine-to-five job, but I needed to make sure that when I do it, it was with an end goal in mind. I started doing the night shift at a company called Mr Bagels to earn some money to help me set up the club. I was very honest. If you’re not honest, you are always looking over your shoulder for the day they may come and sack you when they find out who you really are. So, I was very honest about my situation. ‘Listen, I went to jail for robberies, for stealing money from banks.’
Was the goal with Hackney Wick FC to give the local community a team to be proud of or provide something to keep the boys and girls off the streets?
“For me, it was all about the youth. I realised in prison that a lot of them played football, very good football and many of them didn’t even know there was such a thing as a semi-pro team. I wanted to give them a chance. As long as the club has got enough funding to keep running itself, our thing is about giving youth a platform. You know the World Cup has 32 teams? Well, London has 32 boroughs and people are scared to go to different boroughs in case they get stabbed. I started the football club for Hackney, but I said, ‘I’m going to bring all these boroughs together for kids from ages 16 to 18 to play in a football tournament’.
"And everyone was telling me, ‘No way, you can never do that! All these kids from different areas coming together in one space, it’s never going to happen. It will be a bloodbath!’
“But we did it. We had over 300 kids come from across every single borough in London and we had scouts from everywhere. We had a Liverpool scout, a Watford scout, it was crazy. Everyone was coming up to me, ‘I’m a scout from here…’, ‘I’m a scout from there..’ About four or five boys from different teams got scouted and two of ours were scouted as well.
“For me, it’s not just football though. Football is the main thing that gets them here, but if we are realistic, how likely is it that they are all going to become professional football players? Very unlikely. But we get them down to play football and we ask them, once we’ve got them, ‘What else are you interested in?’ And we try to push them down different avenues where they can change their lives and find the platforms to help them achieve their goals and dreams.”
Is it true you tell the players that if they want to be rewarded by playing on the pitch, they also have to do something for the community?
“Yeah, 100%. When I started the football club, I wanted the local people to engage with us. So how do you get people to engage with you? You volunteer for your community. So the whole thing was like, ‘Let’s get out there and let the community know about us. Here we are, let us do these good deeds in helping out.’
“At the same time, the volunteering in the community is helping the young players grow. We have young people interacting with elderly people and these generations don’t generally mix unless they are your grandparents. The volunteering gives the youth a sense of responsibility and also, they get to mix with other people that they wouldn’t normally socialise with. For us it was very important: if you want to play for the football club, you have to volunteer. As we come towards Christmas, especially as it gets colder, we need to get out there and help the homeless.”
You’ve been working with Hackney Wick FC to tackle knife crime, which is a major issue for young people everywhere...
“Yeah, that is what I mentioned earlier about the tournament for the 32 boroughs. All these kids are scared to go to other boroughs because these kids must look different to them or it’s dangerous for them. I was like, ‘Come together, no matter what area you are from. London is fluid, if you are from Richmond, if you are from Hammersmith, if you are from Kensington, it doesn’t matter.’ That is what we did and we also had a job fair. We had Barclays Bank there, media companies, different organisations all offering the youth employment opportunities and work experience.
“We also had the United Against Knife Crime match, where I brought together all the celebrities, UK rappers and grime artists that get stigmatised for some of their lyrics. I put them all together under one roof and said, ‘Let’s have a football match and bring about a moment of peace.’"
You’ve got an actual deal with Nike, which can’t be common at your level of English football…
“Nike found out about my story and they reached out from the States and said, ‘Hey, look, we love what you are doing. We want to make you guys your own kit.’ So I actually invited them over, and instead of making a kit over there, I said, ‘Why don’t you come and meet some of our youth, and let’s do some workshops.'
So we did three or four workshops last summer and our kids actually designed those kits. The home kit was released in July of this year and sold out worldwide.”
It really is an incredible story. You went from prison to launching a one-team club TV show to now boasting over 15 teams…
“We have women’s teams, girls’ teams, boys’ teams… altogether we have between 17 and 20 teams. I say ‘between’ because some teams are ‘A’ teams and some are ‘B’ teams, so that counts as 2 different teams under the same age group.
"Hackney Wick FC as a club is really going from strength to strength. Last year, I won the Daily Mirror’s Pride of Sports award, which was a real surprise. Jermain Defoe presented me with the award and I got a special message from Kenny Dalglish, as I support Blackburn Rovers. This year, I actually got invited to Downing Street where I took two of our lads, who’d been doing a lot of good work, to meet the-then Prime Minister Theresa May.”
“Umm, I wanted to support Manchester United and I was about eight and my brother said, ‘No, you cannot support United, that’s my team.’ So Blackburn was second in the league, so I supported them. A year later we won the league, so I’ve stuck with them ever since.”
Do you ever stop and think, 'Not that long ago I was in prison?'
“Every day! I go back into prison a lot. I take celebrates where we play matches again the inmates and then have a bit of a talk and a workshop. So when I go back I say, ‘I was with you guys four years ago. There is no reason why, when you guys get out, you can’t make a change for yourselves as well.’ I let them know that nothing is impossible. It’s just crazy how things have turned out..”
Have you got some success stories where young lads have come out of prison or changed their lives around through Hackney Wick FC?
“One hundred per cent. About eight or nine people have been employed because I’ve contacted someone. I’ve done their reference for them and I’ve said: ‘Can you give this person a job? I know them, they’ve been to prison but they are serious about changing their life around.’
“I have them come to my football club first for a couple months, make them volunteer, kind of vet them and see how they go. Once they show me they are committed, I try to help them get a job, even if it’s working at a restaurant or as a cleaner. It’s just something that helps them put some money on the table and keep them away from crime while we start finding out what they really want to do. Maybe they eventually want to be an architect or get involved in construction but initially, we need to get them enough money to keep them going when theu come out of prison.”
At AS Roma, we looked at your club and we really wanted to tell the world about your story. We believe you are a model club and you prersonally are living proof for how football can be a tool for social good…
“It’s amazing that Roma is ‘adopting’ Hackney Wick in this way. When I first heard that Roma wanted to get in touch with me, I was like, ‘You sure this is true?’ The person who Roma contacted first, to get to me, said: ‘Yeah, this is authentic. It is AS Roma.'
"The Premier League and the BBC featured us before in their own way but you really don’t get highlighted by professional clubs in the UK. So for a team in Italy to support us and support what we are doing is really amazing for us. We intend to make the most out of this year and learn from Roma. Hopefully it can galvanise some of the bigger teams to follow the Roma model, because if Roma is doing this and helping other clubs, why don’t we do this in our own backyard?”
Follow Hackney Wick on Twitter or visit the club website.