How Hackney Wick FC became a safe haven from gangs and knife crime

“At first I don’t think anyone trusted or believed me,” Bobby Kasanga remembers of the scheme he put into action six weeks after his release from prison in 2015. He had spent eight years inside for armed robbery and, as that time passed, the next step he needed to take became clearer.

“Getting into crime was my fault,” he says. “But look at factors like a lack of opportunities, inequalities, household income, peer pressure, the people you hang out with, and how those things can have an influence. I thought: ‘You know what, I could start something.’”

Hackney Wick FC was born although it is evident, as Kasanga lists the dizzying number of initiatives in which the club is involved, that the name tells only part of the story. “I knew you can’t just be a football club: we had to be more than that,” Kasanga says. “The main thing for us is bringing a whole community together.”

It intrigued Kasanga, a promising non-league footballer in his youth who was raised in Peckham but found himself in Hackney after his prison term ended, that a vibrant London borough of almost 280,000 residents was so short of established clubs. He wanted to create an institution of which the area could be proud: one that used the gateway of football to provide opportunities and empowerment whose significance extended far beyond sport. First of all, though, he needed to get 11 players on a pitch.

“If I’m honest it sounded like a long shot,” says Simon Siriboe, who was alerted by mutual friends to a Facebook plea Kasanga had made for players and resources. “We met up and he was talking about forming a semi-professional club. I was thinking: ‘He’s just come out of prison, it’s going to be hard for him.’ But I could see his vision, so I agreed to play. I’ve seen a lot of people say they’re going to start something and never follow through, but I realised he was really passionate and deserved a chance.”

Siriboe became Hackney Wick’s first player and was one of only two to heed Kasanga’s initial overtures. In those early days, fielding a full XI would constitute an achievement. But Kasanga had bigger long-term plans and was prepared to work unstintingly. “I was broke and working night shifts in a bagel factory in Hackney Wick to feed myself and provide for the football team,” he says. “I’d literally go door-knocking with a yellow bucket, explaining I had been in prison and asking if people would support our new team. Some would just close the door. Others would leave it open, go upstairs and find some money.”

Kasanga’s efforts to find backing began to yield far greater fruit. Within two years, Hackney Wick had merged with the local club London Bari and, just as Kasanga had intended, turned semi‑professional. With the help of a local property developer, he was able to concentrate his full‑time efforts on expanding their operation. Nowadays their first team play in the Eastern Counties League Division One South, the 10th tier, along with sides such as Ipswich Wanderers and Harwich & Parkeston. They have designs on promotion and much more – Kasanga has no intention of setting limits on their on-pitch progress. He speaks most proudly, though, of the wider influence the club has been able to exert.

One of the conditions upon joining Hackney Wick is that, without exception, a player must commit at least two hours a month to volunteering for local good causes. “It’s a fundamental part of the club,” Kasanga says. “If an organisation tells us they need help, I’ll put it on our group chat and ask for two or three people to step up. We’ve helped at schools, hospices, women’s charities, gardening centres, half‑marathons, so many things. If you join our club you also have to be an ambassador for other causes. Anyone can say, ‘I want to start a football team today’, but you have to engage with the local community and earn their support.”

The benefits are twofold. Kasanga sees volunteering as a way of keeping players themselves out of potential trouble; giving them a face in the local area and helping them to forge connections that may otherwise have seemed off limits. The club wants to be a haven from the pitfalls that can lead people astray, such as knife crime and gang culture.

To that end, nobody is turned away. “If a player came to us and we said: ‘You’re not good enough,’ and then they went back to the streets and something happens, that would live on our conscience,” he says. Hackney Wick run around 20 teams from under-sevens upwards. There is a second men’s XI and a successful women’s team. More than 70 adults and 160 youths are actively engaged through the club’s programmes, which also include educational workshops.

In 2019 Kasanga devised the 32 Borough Cup, which aims to foster togetherness among London’s boroughs and dilute postcode rivalries. It was supported by BT Sport, which ran workshops to highlight opportunities within broadcasting. Other companies have also been present at events Kasanga and Hackney Wick have organised, with a number of players finding employment as a result.

Siriboe, who no longer plays for Hackney Wick but remains involved in their projects, found work through the club too. “A couple of years after we started I was looking for a job and had just done my coaching badges so Bobby said: ‘Why don’t you start coaching our under-nines?’ and paid me,” he says. “He’s done a lot for me, and so many other players.”

This month the club launched a new home shirt featuring a map of Hackney, in collaboration with the locally born rapper Unknown T and club sponsor Gaffer magazine. Kasanga knows music and fashion can be key to engaging youngsters with football, particularly at levels below the Premier League. “Once a musician begins wearing our kit, people want to know what this team is about,” he says.

The crowning point in Hackney Wick’s development would be the construction of a stadium and community centre. Hackney is the only London borough without a ground of semi-professional standard and, with space at a premium, efforts to source a site are yet to pay off. For now the first team share a ground with Witham Town, around 35 miles away in Essex, but Kasanga has set a £1m target to build a venue by 2025.

That would ensure he can unite an entire borough on its own turf. “Everyone in Hackney can support this team,” he says. “Sometimes I look back at my playing days before I went to prison and think: ‘I could have been a pro if I’d really kicked on.’ But then I’d never have had the mindset to start a club like this one. This is so much more satisfying.”

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