When Steven Kelly was asked if he would captain Scotland at this year’s Homeless World Cup in Oslo, he thought it was a wind-up.
The 37-year-old Glaswegian assumed he had done something wrong when Scotland manager Ally Dawson pulled him aside, but it was quite the opposite.
He said: “When we were doing all the training for the competition back in Scotland and he shouted me over, I thought I was in trouble. He said it would be an honour for Street Soccer Scotland if you could captain your country.
“I’ll be honest, I thought he was kidding me on, and at the same time I didn’t feel like I deserved it — as mad as that sounds.”
“A wee guy from Tollcross captaining my country in a place like this, it doesn’t get any better. Just having the opportunity to come here and play is a great, but to wear the armband is overwhelming sometimes.
“I don’t think it’ll all sink in until I get back home and I sit down and watch the games, but you only need to look at previous captains and see how much their lives have changed and it really inspires you.
“I’ve met some great people, the accommodation has been great. The people really make this kind of tournament. We’re all on the same page and all equal when you come to a place like this.
“To find myself in a place like this is quite overwhelming. It is just a once-in-a-lifetime chance, so the memories I and we’ll all take from the tournament is incredible.”
Compared with the battle with his mental health and addictions, the setting in Oslo 2017 is a world away from that of Kelly’s past.
“I started using drugs when I was around 15 or 16 years old, and back then I had no idea where drugs would take me or the downward spiral it would send me on. A lot of things happened in my family life, like both my parents passing away. After that, I’d been using drugs for the previous 13 years of my life, and it got to the point where I knew I needed help.
“When I lost my parents, I just felt alone. I’d come from a family who everybody knew, so there were always lots of people. There was a point where everyone had left and I found myself sitting alone and it felt horrible.
“I’ve got two older sisters who love and care for me, but the feeling inside me was pure loneliness. Through that and also using drugs at the same didn’t help any. The way I was living wasn’t healthy, my electricity was rigged and I didn’t answer the door, and I was just isolated from the outside world.”
The Scotland skipper believes a chance meeting with someone from his past was the turning point. He said: “I met someone who knew me years ago, and he was clean and living a different way of life and offered to help. For me, that was my chance to get out.”
“I ended up going into a rehabilitation centre and in there I managed to get clean. During my year there they took me to narcotics anonymous where I met new people, got new phone numbers. When it was my time to leave, I went into a supported accommodation and now I’m waiting on my own tenancy.
“Before I went into rehab, my life was a mess and totally chaotic. I was injecting drugs and I’d lost all hope and basically lost the desire to live. I always feared that’s how my life would end up, doing that kind of thing day in day out, and here I am sitting in Oslo representing my country — it’s bizarre.
“From the age of 16 I tried to give up drugs many times from either being in prison or going into respite centres, and I’d always get clean and go back into my old ways again.
“I didn’t realise you had to change your whole life — I didn’t understand you had to really work at it. For many years I thought It was just a case of putting the drugs or alcohol down and my life would take off. I came off drugs many times, but nothing ever changed.”
Now four-and-a-half years clean, Steven added: “I’ve always had a passion for the game and when I put drugs back down, the feeling came back tenfold. Drink and drugs suppress everything, so when you come off them it’s like a cork — all these feelings and emotions come out, and one of those was for the love of the game.
“Having the chance to pull on the Scotland strip and wear that armband is an achievement that I’ll always cherish. I don’t know what doors this will open or what opportunities will arise from it, but if I stay on this path then who knows where my life could take off to next.”
Words: David Brockett
Images: Romain Kedochim