This year's Black History Month campaign is Action Not Words – Time For Change. London FA is showcasing the incredible work being done in the community and how they are making a difference to black footballers in London. Today, we are speaking to Kerry Phillips who is founder and director of the mental health football team Saving Souls FC. Kerry spoke about why it was important to have a club founded on discussing mental health with men and how this can break down social barriers in the community.
Can you explain a bit about your journey so far and what brought you to this point within football?
What first got me into football was my cousins, Bradley and Shaun Wright-Phillips, as they were always playing football and their dad, Ian Wright, played for Arsenal. Obviously, it was always going to be standard that I supported Arsenal! It was seeing a black man playing football and enjoying it, showing his cheeky side as well as his obvious talent. I wanted to be a striker, score goals and celebrate just the same way he did.
Unfortunately, for a long period of time, I was severely overweight. I was 31 stone at one stage, and I had to make the decision to lose the weight. I mention this as it impacted me in starting football as, besides not being fit enough to play, it also affected me even in terms of getting involved with coaching. I started doing music instead, but my love of football was always there, and I got to the point where I needed to do something within football. As a result, I made a mental health football team which allowed me to get back involved with the game and help people at the same time.
Who inspires you?
My family inspires me because I always wanted to do good for them. My inspiration is also my team, Saving Souls. My teammates, the people I work with and those who I come into contact with inspire me because they make me want to work harder to make sure that we are able to provide a space for them to express themselves through football, but also through meeting new people.
Tell us a little more about your team Saving Souls FC.
We started Saving Souls in 2021, our first birthday was on the 15th October, and it has been amazing. I don’t think we would be where we are now in under a year if it wasn’t for the support from the London FA, particularly Niamh and Conor who have always had our back and believed in our projects. We have had access to equipment from Kitlocker, opened a recreational Snickers Just Play centre, become England Football Accredited and partnered with Barclaycard. Having all of that added to what we are doing, plus the charity events and games we have done; it has been amazing. I didn’t anticipate it being this good so early on.
Why did you feel that starting a club around mental health was so important?
When COVID happened, I saw a lot of my friends and people I spoke to struggling mentally, especially men. Men have been stigmatised to not want to talk about what it is they’re going through, so I wanted to find a place where the aim was to have a men’s forum where we could all come together and talk openly about our struggles. However, I needed something that could work as an icebreaker in order for this to happen. A lot of the time, what brings men together is football. No matter what race, religion, background or culture, football can bring people together. Although there was the aftermath of the Euros last year in regard to racism, there were also men walking the streets together chanting It's Coming Home and that was a unity we haven’t seen for a while.
Football was something that could bring us together and what it has done is allowed men to find a space where they can play football for free, so they do not have to worry about being able to afford to play, and we can have a men’s forum as well. Now, it is easier for them to speak about their problems to someone at football because you see them consistently, rather than sitting in a space where you don’t know anyone and are expected to speak. Football works to break that barrier.
How does your club bring together different communities and background together?
I haven’t had any previous experience in championing equality, diversity and inclusion but I would say that I treat people how I would want to be treated. I don’t look at your race, your size, your gender or whatever it is. The club acts as a space where all abilities are welcome. Having the platform of mental health can alleviate some of the pressure that the club will be your typical Sunday league mentality, which means more people can feel included as there isn’t the pressures that if you don’t turn up to training, you won’t get played or if we don’t win, I have to take that home. As all abilities are welcome at Saving Souls, it means that all different nationalities, backgrounds and cultures come together and interact with people they may not have contact with previously. Societal barriers are removed and has resulted in us being able to shape an inclusive, diverse culture in the club.
Saving Souls won London FA Grassroots Project of the Year 2022 in its first year as a club. How did that feel and how has that impacted the club?
It was great because it shows you that you are making a difference. Saving Souls is a brotherhood and a community so when clubs like us win these awards, it says to those at the club if it wasn’t for you turning up, being inclusive and being supportive, we don’t win that project award. I can have an idea but if I have no one to execute that plan with, then the project becomes redundant. Winning Grassroots Project of the Year is a big win for so many people.
What has happened with this win as well is being partnered with the Snickers Just Play centres. An example is an American student joined our Just Play session while he was studying for a few months. This led to him then being in a tournament with the South London Grassroots League, which we won, as well as the league itself. He came all the way from America to join our awards ceremony which shows you how even if you come over from a different country, people can be included in what we are doing. This examples the brotherhood and positive light we have as a community.
As a black manager, what are your thoughts on discrimination and racism in football? How do you think the London FA Racial Equality Action Plan (REAP) can have a positive impact on black players and officials?
It is unfair and unjustified that we treat people differently because of the colour of their skin. It is not fair that we treat people differently because they do different things. It is something that we have to tackle but it will take time. We all have to want to change in order for us to make it happen. There is still a lot of racism in football, but I believe there is a lot of stuff that can be done and taught in education, in terms of ignorance rather than full on racism. I am not belittling racism in football as we know it is there, but there are elements and instances which are founded in ignorance which we can teach our fellow friends and colleagues that it is not right.
I think the London FA Racial Equality Action Plan will have a positive impact as the London FA believes in what they are doing. There are a lot of companies out there who jump on the bandwagon because it sounds right for them to do so. With this project in particular, it is not just about ticking a box, it is about how do we make a change and how do we actually help. Therefore, the project will be received more because it is organic and will actively make a change.
What are your plans for the future?
We want to get a women’s team set up and have the same premise for the women’s side. There is an assumption that women are more likely to openly talk to their friends about their issues, but that does not necessarily mean they have gotten over what they are dealing with. We need to start opening the space up for women as well, just because they are more likely to speak out than men doesn’t mean they aren’t still suffering. It has been challenging to get some women playing football so we will try something a bit different which is football orientated but looks more into the fitness element, so they don’t feel the pressure to play football.
You can find out more about Saving Souls FC on their Instagram - @savingsoulsfc
Do you have a story you would like to share during Black History Month? Let us know!