Student cycles 2,000 miles to Euros to support Northern Irish Homeless World Cup team

A Northern Irish football fan has raised more than £3,000 to help Street Soccer NI compete in this year’s Homeless World Cup – by cycling to his home squad’s fixtures at Euro 2016.

After Wales put paid to Northern Ireland’s Euro 2016 dreams, 27-year-old medical student Stephen Collins said he hopes that the other national team can be winners in Glasgow this month.

Stephen with the NI team at their final training session

“I hope they can go one further than the Northern Irish team did in France,” he added. “I think it’s great that we’ve got a second chance. After not quite doing it in France, this is our chance to have a winning team.”

Stephen’s epic cycle – dubbed the Tour de GAWA, after the NI team’s Green and White Army of supporters – began at the gates of Northern Ireland’s ground, Windsor Park, on Saturday 28 May.

Stephen cycling through the French Alps

From there, he cycled down through Ireland to Rosslare on the south coast, where he got a ferry to Cherbourg. Once in France, he had almost 1000 miles to cycle to reach NI’s first match against Poland in Nice.

“It was pretty punishing at times,” he said. “Out of the four weeks I was out in France, between two-and-a-half and three weeks were absolutely atrocious weather. I had rain and really heavy head winds. I was fighting against that a lot of the time.”

Cycling through the rain in Lyon

Stephen cycled on through the downpour to Lyon – where Northern Ireland beat Ukraine – and finally to Paris to watch Northern Ireland take on Germany.

The route was slightly longer than planned, he says, since his sat nav refused to work in France, resulting in him getting lost “quite a few times”.

He also had to get by with his barely-remembered GCSE French.

“I stayed with a different French host every night and quite a lot of them couldn’t speak any English. We got by, just about!” he said. “I feel like my French was improving as we went along. By the end, I was able to order more elaborate pastries at the bakery.”

Stephen Collins with the Green and White Army in Nice

Throughout his cycle, Stephen was delighted to see that his crazy plan was succeeding in raising money to support Street Soccer NI.

“I read about the Homeless World Cup over the last couple of years and thought: that sounds amazing, what a brilliant idea!” he explained. “I followed the Northern Irish Homeless World Cup team as they went through the rounds last year and I wanted to support them.

“Thankfully we’ve been able to raise a hefty sum of money for them, which is just brilliant. Hopefully it will help them go to Glasgow and do really well.”

The Northern Irish squad will be one of 64 teams, representing 52 countries, competing in the Homeless World Cup in Glasgow’s George Square from 10-16 July.

As well as sending a team to the Homeless World Cup every year, Street Soccer NI runs tournaments throughout the year in Belfast and Derry/Londonderry. They also have a pilot project in Dungannon.
They support players to get and keep housing, with addiction and mental health issues, and to get back into work.

Northern Ireland's team at the Homeless World Cup in Amsterdam last year

Aidan Byrne, co-founder of Street Soccer NI said: “Street Soccer NI uses the power of football to transform the lives of people who are homeless, and to help people who have their own home to keep their home. It’s about giving people support, structure and hope for the future.”

Aidan said he was “stunned and delighted” when Stephen came to him with the idea for the Tour de GAWA.

“It’s a massive, massive boost for the work we’re doing,” he added. “It’ll have a huge impact on the lives of the guys. It’ll help us make all of our projects better and more accessible.”

Hopes are high for the Northern Irish Homeless World Cup team this year. “This year is the best team we’ve had,” said Aidan. “You never know. When you see Wales and Iceland do well in the Euros… who knows how far we can go?”

Gerard Bannon is on the Northern Irish Homeless World Cup team. He said; “This has had a big change in my life and helped kick start my life in the right direction. I’m looking forward to putting on the shirt and representing my country. My family will be very proud of me.”

Sadly, Stephen can’t be in Glasgow to cheer on Northern Ireland. Whilst he was in France he found out he’d passed his final exams, so he’ll be starting work soon as a doctor in his hometown of Coleraine.

Stephen Collins on his epic cycle

But he said he’ll be following on the Homeless World Cup website, and recruiting his fellow NI supporters to get behind the team. He believes that the Northern Irish Homeless World Cup team should take a leaf out of the Green and White Army playbook – realising that the winning is in enjoying the contest.

“My message to them is: go out and enjoy yourselves,” he added. “Don’t worry too much about the results – just give it your all. You can be sure that we will all be supporting you 100% of the way!”

Support Stephen and Street Soccer NI here: