“Football is not a matter of life or death,” legendary Liverpool manager Bill Shankly once said –“it’s much more important than that.”
His words may be exaggerated but the point stands: football is more than a game.
The social, political and economic impact it has on communities can be profound. And AFC Elford is a perfect example.
Founded 11 years ago, AFC Elford is the brainchild of Shahab Uddin, who formed the club as a platform to give youngsters in the community the chance to have fun and avoid many of the troubles which surrounded them.
“A lot of the youth from the Elford area of Harehills needed a place of recreation,” says Uddin, who now manages the team.
“Most of my brothers and friends were playing football in the streets and in Banstead park.
“Most of us wanted to play football professionally one day and at that moment I was playing semi-professional football aiming to get as far as possible.
“We had a lot of young children turning up every week to take part in training at Banstead park with us on a regular basis.
“There were a lot of people that used the park to sell or take drugs and we had to clear the pitch of used needles and dog fouling before we could start training every time.
“We initially wanted to take young people off the streets and away from the park, where a lot of drug dealing used to happen, as we didn’t feel it was a safe environment for them to play or be around.
“At that point it was our duty to get those young children away from that park as one day they may end up getting caught up with it.
“With the help from our local reverend, Councillor Alan Taylor, and my best mate Shahin Miah, and Syed Ujjol Miah, we finally entered into the Garforth Junior football league.
“It was such a success that we formed the open-age team who took part in the Leeds Sunday Alliance Football League and ever since then we have been playing together as a club, promoting young players to the senior side as a reward for the different experience and skills that they had developed.”
Despite playing an active role in energising young people in and around the community, AFC Elford have found funding hard to come by. It is a problem which many Sunday league sides face, and the reality has led to a spate of teams folding over the last few years.
On a Saturday football front, former multiple West Yorkshire League champions Bardsey sadly disappeared last year while only an 11th-hour rescue bid prolonged the future of County Sunday Cup champions Belle Isle WMC earlier this month, despite the long established Leeds side sitting third in the Leeds Combination League Jubilee Premier, renown as one of the toughest Sunday league’s not only in Leeds, but in the country.
Uddin, who also acts as treasurer at AFC Elford, admits it is only becoming tougher for clubs to survive, meaning he himself has had to scale back junior operations.
“We had to stop the junior team in 2009 due to the lack of funding and support we got from the local council and funders.
“It is very difficult for the club to be successfully maintained as the cost of running a club is getting much harder.
“Pitch fees keep going up and the local authority don’t seem to think about the problems it causes to non-league clubs around the country.
“Now we have to raise funds from playing friendly games and doing raffles and other activities.
“Most of the funding does come from the players themselves, who pay a registration fee, while we have to collect match fees for every game a player takes part in.
“But this is sometimes very hard for some players who aren’t in any employment yet, and this does mean that they will be struggling to make payments.
“We had to stop playing completely for a year due to funds and commitment, as it was getting very difficult for me to run the club, especially when I have a family with kids.
“We then started again but this time most of the players that are now playing are from the junior team, which was formed back in 2005.
“How time goes is hard to believe. These kids were 12 or 13 years old and now they are all in their 20s.
“All the lads get up on a Sunday morning to go and have a laugh and enjoy the game of football and we don’t want clubs folding, we know it is very difficult for many clubs to be sustained with the small budget of funds they receive or raise.
“We all hope that the local council will look into helping the non-league clubs in any way possible.”
Just like off the pitch, AFC Elford continue to battle on it.
The club have endured a tough start to this season, and currently sit bottom of the Leeds Combination Division Three.
After switching leagues for this season, the standard has been a tough test, but the team have shown they have enough quality to start climbing the table, and are currently only three points behind Millshaw Park Rangers Reserves, who they also have two games in hand and a much more favourable goal difference over.
Furthermore, in captain Hafizur Rahman, Uddin takes assurance from their leader and “rock at the back”, while in Barba Rohman, they possess a lethal marksman who has impressed in scoring eight goals in eight starts this term.
Having taken plenty of encouragement from reaching the final of the Sunday Alliance Football League Cup, Uddin is confident his team will improve. Moreover, focusing solely on the results would be missing the point of what the club is all about.
“It has been a frustrating season for us but this is the game of football. Anything can happen so we just keep our heads up high and give it all we can every week in week out,” Uddin adds.
“We know that the Leeds Combination is one of the toughest league so we are prepared to go all the way and try finish the season with as many points as we can get and avoid being last in the league.
“Our aim is to try and improve for next season, and hopefully we can win the division and get far as possible in cup competitions.”
Football may not be a matter of life and death, but ask those that have played for AFC Elford since they were 12, and they will tell you it is certainly more than just a game.
Headquarters: Banstead Park, Harehills
League: Leeds Combination Division Three
Chairman: Shahin Miah
Head coach: Shahab Uddin
Assistant manager: Syed Ujjol Miah
Captain: Hafizur Rahman
Top scorer: Barba Rohman
Rivals: Northern Star