Football and the armed forces: two unlikely allies

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For the truly committed fans, football is a religion that unites communities and nations.

However for people like Devon James, football has been a means of survival.

For four-years Devon served in the First Battalion Yorkshire Regiment, which at first does not seem to relate to football whatsoever.

However the 25-year-old explains that football was one of the major parts of his career.

He said: “One of the main reasons I wanted to join was because I knew that there were opportunities to showcase your abilities in sport, which is what I set my sights on.”

Devon at his passing out parade after completing his training.

When I arrive at his father’s home, it is clear that Devon is a celebrated son.

Photographs of his military career sit side by side with football trophies, decorating every window ledge and mantlepiece in sight.

Born in Bradford, West Yorkshire, Devon explains to me how a Yorkshireman living down the road from Leeds United ended up being a Manchester United fan.

“My dad grew up in Jamaica, so he’s a cricket man and doesn’t really support a team, however a woman who worked at my grandparents fish and chip shop was a United fan and she gave me my first football top.

From then on I began to support them, Rio Ferdinand was my idol growing up.”

For Devon, of Cutler Heights Lane, Bradford, football has been a part of his life for over ten-years, and at one point he wanted to play professionally.

He smiles, clearly nostalgic, as he recalls his childhood dreams: “When you grow up watching football and you enjoy playing it, I think every boy wants to be a football player.”

However, Devon had an aim that would draw him away from Yorkshire to across the globe when he was accepted into the army at infantry level.

He said: “I could have applied for numerous jobs, but infantry was my aim, I knew if I was going to do it I wanted to be on the front line.”

From the resilience in his voice, I can tell that the Yorkshireman is a determined person, and I am not surprised when he tells me that it only took him a few days to secure a first-team position in his battalion squad.

At 19-years-old Devon found himself preparing for the semi-finals of the Army Cup, the military’s prestigious version of the FA Cup.

However, his team were forced to pull out after they were deployed to Afghanistan.

It was here that the Devon faced some of his most difficult times.

He suffered a gunshot wound to the back which was fortunately not life-threatening thanks to his body armour, whilst eight men from his battalion did not return home.

Devon and members of his squad in Afghanistan at a memorial for members of their battalion who lost their lives.

One of the ways the squad got through their experience was the promise of football waiting on the other side.

“When you come back of course it’s great but you also you have deal with the fact that some people did not.

“For instances like ours, when a tour ends those in a sporting team are able to have a break abroad.”

For Devon’s battalion football team, America was calling.

The medal Devon received for completing the tour of Afghanistan.

In order to travel across the pond, his regiment held fundraisers for the trip selling wristbands all over the UK.

“We went to San Diego, Los Angeles and Las Vegas – it was an amazing experience.

“We had a training session with LA Galaxy’s first team coaches and in every city we played against a local team.”

For the squad the trip was an escape.

He said: “In those 90-minutes you don’t think about anything else, it all gets put on the back burner and nothing else matters.

You’re doing something you love not only with your friends, but people you risk your life for.”

Not long after this his team strengthened, and in 2012 were winners of the England Football Foundation Charity Cup.

The competition raises money for different charities and comprises of 16-teams being managed by legendary names in the game, competing in a round-robin tournament.

“We were the only military team invited so it was an honour to be there.

Former Blackburn Rovers player Tony Gale was our manager and he was great to work with, winning was the icing on the cake.”

In 2015, after four compulsory years of service, Devon decided it was time to leave the army.

He said: “I enjoyed my time in the forces and I was able to achieve the goals I set out for myself before I joined, but I knew it was time to move on to a new career.”

Weeks before he left the military, Devon’s squad won the Infantry Cup, a competition involving every infantry army team in the UK.

He said: “Achieving something like that and being able to end on a high note was the perfect ending.”

Devon with the Infantry Cup trophy 2015.

Fast-forward to 2018 and Devon, who now works as an engineer, admits that football is still a permanent fixture in his life.

Whilst injuries have stalled his career, he is currently on the rebound.

After a successful season at amateur club Horbury Town, he will now join Garforth Town FC, who play semi-professional in the Northern Counties East League Premier Division.

Devon also plays for A.F.C Wibsey and after being named clubman of the year, he will be their captain next season.

It is clear that Devon wants to play as much football as he can, for as long as he can, and he laughs at the idea of ever hanging up his boots.

He has a love of football and an appreciation that runs deep, it is a sport he will always be grateful for.

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