Elaine’s best supporting role

The team behind the team plays an especially important part in Homeless World Cup events, supporting players in their many challenges off and on the pitch. We caught up with one lady amply qualified for that role in the shape of Elaine Roden, cheering ‘her’ Northern Ireland women on from the side-lines at the recent Four Nation Challenge in Edinburgh. 

“I didn’t think I would get involved in football again but Street Soccer Northern Ireland is different.”

“A long time ago I played a bit of football myself then I had a bit of a break from the game then worked as a counsellor. I came to help with the ladies team and this all came together – the football side and the mental health side,” Elaine says. That description somewhat underplays the fact that she’s an ex Northern Ireland internationalist, from the ages of 14 to 24, who also turned out for one of the country’s top women’s sides, Crusaders, in the Women’s Champions League!

“I got injured and had a bit of a break from the game for seven or eight years then trained as a coach before I studied to be a counsellor and went into working for Women’s Aid,” she elaborates. “When this opportunity came – I’m the support worker for the ladies – it fitted in well with my background of football and working in mental health.  

“I didn’t think I would get involved in football again but Street Soccer Northern Ireland is different – I get to meet the girls, have a coffee with them, take them to play mini golf, talk things over with them rather than just straight coaching.”  

Having just joined the set-up at the start of 2021, the restrictions of a lockdown while getting to know the players was the first challenge to be overcome. 

It’s not just on the pitch where Elaine has noticed a positive difference.

“Whenever it was allowed we went out on walks, in small groups,” Elaine explains, “then the times where you weren’t allowed to meet at all we kept in contact through Zoom, chats, quizzes and other things to keep people engaged – we even had a bake-off, things that involved a wee bit of competition. We tried to touch base with the players once a week and bring in anyone who needed extra support in between times. 

“We’ve been back training as a group from around the Easter holidays and specifically for this tournament for the last month with our own Homeless World Cup set-up and helping the girls learn the rules. We have a Belfast project and a Derry project, and a learning disability project too, so the teams have all been able to compete against one another. 

“Then since the summer we’ve had two tournaments, in addition to training on a Tuesday night and a Thursday night. We try to play teams like women who have retired from the game, or beginners, just to keep things ticking over.” 

The clock was ticking at some speed over the weekend of this tournament, as the Northern Ireland ladies were displaying extremely silky skills and finding the back of the net on an impressive number of occasions. But it’s not just on the pitch where Elaine has noticed a positive difference. 

“It’s their first time away with us and I’ve seen a huge change in the girls just since we got here,” she says. “They’re all like a family now, it’s really good seeing the bonds that have been built between the girls, especially with such a big age range – the youngest is 20 and the oldest in her 40s. 

“The fact they get to pull on the shirt and represent Northern Ireland has made them all so proud. When they get their Northern Ireland tracksuit and the flags they’re just so proud.  

“The fact they get to pull on the shirt and represent Northern Ireland has made them all so proud.” Credit: Edinburgh Photographic

“Also the women’s and the men’s team didn’t really know each other so even just travelling on the boat and a long bus trip has made that bond – it’s really good when the women score and you look over and see the guys cheering for us and vice versa.  

The Northern Ireland women carried that pride all the way into the event final – where they were just edged by England – and danced their way through the closing ceremony, intent on looking to the future. 

“After we get home from this tournament, the Northern Ireland ladies are playing against Latvia at a world cup qualifier and we managed to get our players tickets for that,” adds Elaine. “So the girls will all wear their gear and go support them. The most capped NI ladies, Julie Nelson, is an ambassador for Street Soccer Northern Ireland so it’s good for the girls to be able to support her, and she comes to support them.” 

As a huge cheer momentarily drowns out the Princes Street traffic – emanating from the local spectators applauding the latest goal – Elaine beams.

“To be here in the city centre with all the people who are watching, people seeing you in your tracksuit, stopping and asking what you’re doing and being so interested, and meeting the other teams around the hostel, they’re all so friendly – it’s all so positive. Just brilliant.” 

Words: Isobel Irvine
Photos: Edinburgh Photographic/Elaine Roden