Activism

Street Soccer Scotland founder David Duke: 'You don't get anything in life without sacrifice'

A troubled upbringing led to homelessness. But redemption came through football – and with it a chance to help others

David Duke, Street Soccer Scotland founder

David Duke was born in Govan, Glasgow in April 1980 and is the founder and CEO of Street Soccer Scotland, a non-profit social enterprise that uses football to help create positive change in the lives of socially disadvantaged adults and young people.

In 2003, while working as a Big Issue vendor and sleeping rough, he saw an advert for that year’s Homeless World Cup, held in Sweden. He started training and was picked for the Scotland team, which finished fourth in the competition. It inspired him to become more involved in coaching and four years later he led his country to Homeless World Cup victory.

On his return, he moved to Edinburgh to set up Street Soccer Scotland after receiving a £3,000 grant from a social enterprise fund for start-up businesses. In 2020, Street Soccer London started as an offshoot with the same goals. More than 22,500 players have now benefitted from the two charities. Street Soccer’s Change Centre in Dundee – opened in 2017 – is a full-time home for players and partners. It’s a welcoming space to tackle issues of mental health, homelessness, substance misuse and general loneliness and isolation.

David Duke is a global ambassador for the Homeless World Cup organisation, an ambassador for Charity Quarriers, and an advisory board member for UNICEF (Scotland). He has also been recognised by both Glasgow Caledonian University and Edinburgh’s Queen Margaret University, which awarded him an Honorary Doctorate for his work in his field. In 2018, Duke was awarded an MBE in the New Year’s Honours List.

Speaking to The Big Issue for his Letter to My Younger Self, Duke looks back on a turbulent past, but how things got much better due to the redemptive power of sport.

From 16 to 24 was probably my toughest period in my life. Mum and dad split up when I was 14. Mum moved away with her new partner, and I had to stay and look after my dad. My dad was an alcoholic. He always struggled with drink, but when my mum left he just lost purpose. At that time, there wasn’t the same support around mental health and addiction. People just got on with it, you know? 

David Duke in his under-13s team in 1992
1992: With the under-13s Harmony Row team (third from right in the back row). Image: Courtesy of David Duke

I dropped out of school around that time. It wasn’t that important to me any more. But also, if you think about someone who’s in a stable environment… they’re 16 and about to go to uni or an apprenticeship. Their pieces [sandwiches] are made for them, their bus fare’s waiting for them. They get all that support. I had to try and do it myself. The things that people take for granted actually aren’t there for a lot of people. It was hard. But at the same time, everything I’ve achieved has been due to the resilience – the ability to problem-solve and act quickly, that deeper level of emotional intelligence – that I had to have.  

At 16, all my friends were doing exams, and I was selling pirate videos. I wasn’t even allowed to sit my exams because I wasn’t in class enough. I knew getting a job having left school with no qualifications was going to be difficult. I had to take it on myself to beat the system. I had a two- or three-month window before the exam results came out when people would assume that I’d sat my exams, so I went out to find a job. I was basically going into warehouses at 16, saying, “Can I speak to the manager?”  

I got a job with Weatherseal Windows. It was a hard sell. You got dropped off on a street, and they’d say, go chap people’s doors. My job was to try and get a salesman in, so I was trying to get people to sign up for a ‘free estimate’. I was actually quite good at it. Your basic was like £75 a week but then you got £10 for every free estimate you signed up. I was earning probably £300 a week. That was good, but actually my ambition was to be a car mechanic. I was offered a job as an apprentice panel beater in a place called Swift Autos, which is a big car, van and truck rental place. It was like £48 a week, but it’s what I wanted to do. I did that for about a year and a half but at home it was getting harder and harder to find that stability to maintain it, so I ended up falling away from that. 

Afterwards I just kind of floated. I got a job at Arnold Clark working on the front desk. But my life was chaotic. One time I went to a party in Govan. I fell asleep and somebody shaved one of my eyebrows off. I was like, what am I going to do? My mate’s like, just shave the other one off. I had just shaved my hair two days before because it was summer. I looked like something from Pink Floyd: The Wall. My boss was raging. So that didn’t last long.  

David Duke with players at the 2009 Homeless World Cup
2009: Scottish coach Duke speaks to the players at the Homeless World Cup in Milan. Image: Massimo Di Nonno/Getty

That’s when my father passed away. Dad had lost the house, the family home we grew up in, so he’d moved in with his dad and I’d moved in with my sister. I hadn’t really heard from him. One day I got a phone call saying, “Can you come to the house?” I said: “Just tell me what it is.” “Oh, your dad’s dead.” 

Probably for the first six to nine months, I carried on as if it never happened. I was clearly traumatised and hurt but trying to block it out. I was working in a bar and I was staying after, having drinks, going out all the time. That’s when the homelessness journey started. Because I was drinking, I wasn’t turning up for work. Because I wasn’t getting up for work, I ended up losing my job. Then I couldn’t afford to pay the rent, so I was evicted. I outstayed my welcome with friends, to the point where I’d run out of places to stay for the night. And then that’s it, you’ve nowhere to go.  

I got put into all the big council hostels for about a year. It was wild. There were no support workers. You just had a tiny wee room with a single bed in it, and that was it. You had to share your toilet, share your showers. No cooking facilities. There was a TV room, which was like Beirut. I was a young guy and I just had to hide myself away in a room, until I got in the young person’s supported accommodation project with Quarriers. 

At Quarriers, you got your own living space, your own cooking facilities, your own washroom. You had a support worker, somebody you could talk to. Somebody who could make a plan, start looking at housing applications with you. That’s when I came across the Big Issue poster advertising the football tournament, which then led to [former Rangers defender] Ally Dawson picking me to play for Scotland [at the Homeless World Cup]. 

After the Homeless World Cup, the Big Issue Foundation supported me to go back to education to be a community worker. The Big Issue was my first full-time job after experiencing homelessness – that gave me sustainability and responsibility and everything that led to Street Soccer.

Brendan Rodgers, David Duke and Sir Alex Ferguson
2017: With Celtic manager Brendan Rodgers and Sir Alex Ferguson. Image: Jeff Holmes/Shutterstock

The Homeless World Cup was great for the players who went there. But, actually, the build-up to it was probably even more valuable, because it gave me purpose. I’d find role models in the coaches and teammates. When you’re living in hostels, it can become easy to get into negative routines. It gave me some positive direction. Street Soccer was always about scaling that impact. If it worked for me, how can it work for more people? The idea was to have somewhere people can go every day where they can be part of a team and access support. Foolishly, I never really prioritised my personal life for the last 15 years because of Street Soccer. It’s only now that I’m starting to see, I’m getting old. I need to think about me. I’ve just started seeing a lassie, actually. 

I think my younger self would be proud of where I am. You look at the future for somebody who grew up in poverty, left school with no qualifications. Statistically, I shouldn’t be doing what I’m doing. People say I should really celebrate what I’ve achieved. I never really think about it. One of our values in Street Soccer is that we look to the future, because often people are held back by their past. How can we help create the future?  

My advice to my younger self would be: how you’re feeling now will pass. The next few years are going to be tough, but it’ll work out. I think everything’s about maintaining hope. You don’t get anything in life without having to sacrifice things. So I think, for me, it’s like: just hold on, remain hopeful, keep yourself safe, keep yourself right. It will work in the end. 

My mum and my dad have gone now, but my mum got to see a lot of the good stuff. Mum was here when I got my first honorary doctorate. When I was younger, my mum worried about what people were saying about me because I was in a bad place. But she got to see the other side of it. She saw the newspaper interviews and me on the telly. That stuff made her proud, before sadly she passed. So, if I could have one conversation with someone who’s no longer in my life, it’d probably be my dad. Based on what I know now – having worked with people who have got a lot of mental health and alcohol problems – I’d like to see if I could help him. 

Read more about Street Soccer at streetsoccerscotland.org 

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income. To support our work buy a copy!

If you cannot reach your local vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member.

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