A FORMER Sunderland player and a vicar are using football to reach out to communities.

The Rev Pouya Heidari, himself an ex Iranian professional footballer, approached the Archbishops Council to suggest forming Church of England Clergy Football Teams. A men's squad of 18 vicars has been drawn from across the country and a women's squad is being developed.

Rev Heidari captains the Archbishop of Canterbury’s men’s team and, through a mutual friend, has recruited former Sunderland fullback and Faith in Football advocate Maurice Hepworth as coach.

Rev Heidari said: “Football was always a passion of mine and throughout my training for ordination I have been thinking how this journey of discipleship grows different bits of your life and for many people sports, and especially football, is one of the big ones.

“Clearly all involved are passionate about football and how it can be used for outreach into their various communities– it’s all very exciting.

“Our immediate focus is playing in friendlies and tournaments in this country against teams from different faith of groups, religious communities and secular clubs, not just Christian teams. Some of them may be semi-professional or even professional. Currently, we are scheduled to play in the National Christian football festival that is happening in Wales in July 2020. We are also exploring tournaments further afield with the Catholics in Rome and with the Lutherans in Germany but we will have to see what happens. For now, we are really excited about where this is going to take us.”

Mr Hepworth played for Sunderland from 1969 to 1976 and was part of the FA Cup-winning squad in 1973 before injury cut his playing career in the UK short. He went to South Africa for five years and was part of the multicultural coming together of the Black and White Leagues to form one professional league and so has seen the power of football in healing rifts and getting people working together.

He has been coaching for 35 years and as a Christian uses football to instil the values of sports and faith in the work he does with youth coaching and with team-building with adult and corporate clients.

Mr Hepworth said: “I first got involved in Christian football many years ago when I set up a team in the Northeast Christian League and within three years we had won the league, the cup and taken three or four players to faith in Jesus. So when this opportunity to spread that work wider came up I jumped at the opportunity as I want to focus on Christian value being demonstrated through sport.

“When Pouya and I sat down to talk about it we agreed that there is something special about the game. There's something special about how they affect people's emotions, their thinking and how they come together in communities and we felt that this was an amazing opportunity to take what we do in this team and have that taken into communities across the country by the individual members of the team.”

Both are very clear that they share the passion for football that is so prevalent in the North East but are not affiliated with any team.

Mr Hepworth said: “People may see loving Jesus as a weakness, they see vulnerability as a weakness, we want to say to them express yourself, be who you are on that football pitch - yes there are values that you live by but you can be who you really want to be.”

Rev Heidari added: “The perception that society, especially the secular world has on ordained ministers is often wrong. We want to challenge those perceptions and send a message that shows we are a bunch of friendly people who love Sports, Love Jesus and Love to have fun just like Jesus did with his friends at a wedding in Cana. So if people come along and play against us and through doing that a conversation starts about faith and about Jesus that's great as well.

“So what Maurice and I really believe in apart from the values that football can instil, is that sense of community and faith. Gathering around exploring friendships and being friends because friendship, in the end, is what matters for the journey that we follow as disciples of Christ.”

Bishop of Durham, the Rt Revd Paul Butler, said: “Many football clubs were founded by local churches. My own predecessor Bishop Lightfoot founded The Two Blues of Bishop Auckland. So I am delighted Pouya has led this initiative. I hope it will inspire many to engage in football, sport more generally, and to help people recognise that faith and football/sport can go together.”