Norwich brothers launch community-centred football club
- Credit: Matt Colley
It started out with two brothers having a chat while walking the dog in the park, but it could end in the Premier League.
Ewan Martin and Joe Mazzei toyed with the idea of starting a football team during the first lockdown, and figured they had nothing to lose. Within a few months, their regular sessions in Waterloo Park have turned into a much broader community-focused organisation that’s becoming a central part of the neighbourhood.
“I guess we didn’t set out with the intention of creating something so community-focused and charitable,” admits Ewan, as we sip coffee on the last day before lockdown. “We just thought it’d be a cool idea to try and start a football team that played in the park.”
As brothers, Joe and Ewan were united by their mutual love of football and music. When Joe moved to London they grew apart somewhat, but since he moved back to Norwich two years ago they’ve become closer than ever.
“I think while Joe was in London, he also lost a bit of his passion for football,” Ewan says. “He stopped following the game and lost the desire to play too. But when Joe suggested we could actually start our own football team, I was delighted to see he had regained his passion for the game and the idea quickly gained traction. We put out a post on our local community Facebook group, and it gathered momentum really quickly.”
One of the first people to respond to their shout-out was Charli Crowe. Charli was eager to get involved, along with her partner Matt Bailey, who is a qualified football coach and referee. “Matt had been diagnosed with depression during the first lockdown,” Charli says, “and I also struggle with various mental and physical health issues. I’m unable to work because of them, and Matt is now my full-time carer. I’ve beaten breast cancer, and I suffer from degenerative disc disease and arthritis, as well as PTSD, dissociative disorder, depression and anxiety. I’m still so full of energy, though, and I believe I have a great deal to offer to the community. I have lots of experience in events and administration, and I have time on my hands (despite having three daughters to care for!). Matt and I agreed that it’d be a great idea to get involved and try to do something positive both for ourselves and to bring local people together.”
The first session took place in Waterloo Park on August 28, with 11 people present, but the momentum soon began to build.
“As soon as Charli got involved, things stepped up a gear,” Ewan recalls. “She’s a force of nature! She’s so full of positivity and ideas, and she’s brilliant at the organisation and administrative side of things.” The newly formed committee, which grew to include a media officer, a personal trainer and another two qualified football coaches, decided to approach Friends of Waterloo Park and Norwich City Council for their support.
The council were happy to mark out a pitch for the team on the smaller field in the park, but it’s not quite wide enough to be a full-size pitch; however, the hope is that the club will be able to move to a full-size pitch on the larger field in time for next season. A local community charity, Catton Grove Big Local, also reached out to the club to offer their support; their grant application led to the club being offered more than £1,000 in funding, which enabled them to purchase full-size goals and nets for the council to install.
When asked about the potential future growth of the club, Charli is bursting with ideas: “I would love it if not just players, but spectators and other community members would bring picnics or sharing platters to enjoy a huge community picnic each week. This could open up other avenues such as food and drink vans, or even potentially reopening and running the pavilion as a community-run cafe. This would make an ideal ‘club hub’, fundraising events led by the football club and a committee made up of those spectators and family members.”
It’s well-established that exercise is a brilliant way to improve both mental and physical wellbeing, and the newly formed club started to take on a real nurturing role. As the sessions grew in size and scope, the fledgling club identified its mission statement as “to bring together the local community in weekly, friendly sessions that incorporate keeping fit, meeting local people, battling mental health issues such as loneliness and, of course, playing football”.
Ewan, who works as a support worker in Sprowston, soon realised the profoundly positive impression that the sessions were making on many of the attendees. “As I said, we didn’t set out with the idea of creating a club with such a focus on mental health and wellbeing, but as it has evolved, we’ve been really humbled by the positivity of our players. For a lot of them, the sessions have given them a rare and much-needed opportunity to interact with others and get some exercise, and we’re all really proud to be able to promote Waterloo United as a safe and supportive haven for anyone in the community who is experiencing mental or physical difficulties.”
Some of the committee members are planning to undertake Mental Health First Aid training with local organisation The 12th Man, which seeks to offer training and raise awareness of mental health issues in traditionally male-dominated communities and interest groups.
“We have under-16s, girls and women who attend the sessions,” says Charli, “and we’d love to be able to grow enough to enter a women’s team and a youth team into local leagues too. But the fact is that 76 per cent of suicides are male, and the majority of our players are male, so the more of us that have the skills to start those difficult conversations and direct people to the right forms of support and treatment, the better.”
Waterloo United’s group sessions started again last Sunday after the second lockdown, and the sessions will continue every Sunday at 10.30am in Waterloo Park. Everyone is welcome; just make sure you arrive early enough to register your details for test-and-trace. You can also follow Waterloo United on Facebook at facebook.com/waterlooparkfootball.