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The stories of female heroism hidden inside a foodbank

The women I meet at the foodbank are some of the strongest people I know.

We often hear about “foodbank users” in the news – thousands of mothers, fathers, sons and daughters bundled together into one hasty group, where they are all the more easy to shame, blame or quietly ignore. But the women we meet at the foodbank aren’t defined by the visit they make to us, once or twice, when life is very difficult. They are so much more than that. They are some of the strongest people I know.

They are women like Sasha, a self-employed mum who escaped domestic violence. She chose freedom and safety in a refuge but left behind a degree of financial security, and her home. “You change how you think about yourself and for a long time you listen to ‘you’re stupid’, and you start to believe,” says Sasha, “But now it's different.” 

Sasha, like most of our guests, was shocked to discover she needed a foodbank: “All your life you have a normal life, and don’t think about it. You help people; you don’t need people to help you. But then things go wrong – and it's not bad that you come here and take something that is being offered to help.”

Then there’s Rose. Her husband left and her landlady evicted her. Homeless, she turned to the council for help, but ended up in three places in three months – two bed and breakfasts and then temporary accommodation. Their new temporary home is three miles from her four-year-old daughter’s primary school and – in line with council policy – the accommodation has simple cooking facilities but no fridge, freezer or washing machine.

With no money to buy a second-hand fridge, and increased travel costs to take her daughter to school, Rose somehow juggled buying fresh food daily while being on a tight budget. Then she was told a benefit was stopping because her child was turning five. “But,” she says, “God gave me my daughter and I am happy for that.”

And we should also mention Emma, who single-handedly defeated the army of cockroaches that greeted her when she was rehoused, and who brought her child back to primary school via two buses and a train on time for a year. Plus Maya, who fled domestic violence and has been living, cooking and sleeping with her toddler in one room for two years while sharing a bathroom with four other homeless families. She researches free activities to find her son space to run and grow, learns new skills so she is ready to work when her son goes to school, and provides vital emotional support to the new mums around her.

“You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them,” wrote Maya Angelou. This is what we see in the women who visit us. You are not reduced by the hardship you currently face, or by the voices that say “supply-driven foodbanks”, “work always pays”, “shirker”.

We know the truth. That you are immensely strong, resourceful, capable of walking forward even when the load you are carrying is so heavy. You are significant. And today, you were courageous enough to ask for a little bit of help. It’s an honour to be here with you.

Sarah Chapman is a volunteer and trustee at Wandsworth Foodbank. All names have been changed. 

Photo: Getty
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Michael Carrick is the “Geordie Pirlo” that England misunderstood

The Manchester United legend’s retirement announcement should leave Three Lions fans wondering what if?

That it came in the months leading up to a World Cup arguably added an exclamation point to the announcement of Michael Carrick’s impending retirement. The Manchester United midfielder, who is expected to take up a coaching role with the club afterwards, will hang up his boots at the end of the season. And United boss Jose Mourinho’s keenness to keep Carrick at Old Trafford in some capacity only serves to emphasise how highly he rates the 36-year-old.

But Carrick’s curtain call in May will be caveated by one striking anomaly on an otherwise imperious CV: his international career. Although at club level Carrick has excelled – winning every top tier honour a player based in England possibly can – he looks set to retire with just 34 caps for his country, and just one of those was earned at a major tournament.

This, in part, is down to the quality of competition he has faced. Indeed, much of the conversation around England’s midfield in the early to mid-noughties centred on finding a system that could accommodate both box-to-box dynamos Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard.

As time went on, however, focus shifted towards trequartistas, advanced playmakers and those with more mobile, harrying playing styles. And the likes of Jack Wilshere, Ross Barkley, Jordan Henderson and Dele Alli were brought into the frame more frequently than Carrick, whose deep-lying capabilities were not utilised to their full potential. That nearly 65 per cent of Carrick’s England caps have come in friendlies shows how undervalued he was. 

In fairness, Carrick does not embody similar characteristics to many of his England midfield contemporaries, including a laudable lack of ego. He is not blessed with lung-busting pace, nor is he enough of a ball-winner to shield a back four solo. Yet his passing and distribution satisfy world-class criteria, with a range only matched, as far as England internationals go, by his former United team-mate Paul Scholes, who was also misused when playing for his country.

Rather, the player Carrick resembles most isn’t English at all; it’s Andrea Pirlo, minus the free-kicks. When comparisons between the mild-mannered Geordie and Italian football’s coolest customer first emerged, they were dismissed in some quarters as hyperbole. Yet watching Carrick confirm his retirement plans this week, perfectly bearded and reflecting on a trophy-laden 12-year spell at one of world football’s grandest institutions, the parallels have become harder to deny.

Michael Carrick at a press event ahead of Manchester United's Champions League game this week. Photo: Getty.

Where other players would have been shown the door much sooner, both Pirlo and Carrick’s efficient style of play – built on patience, possession and precision – gifted them twilights as impressive as many others’ peaks. That at 36, Carrick is still playing for a team in the top two of the top division in English football, rather than in lower-league or moneyed foreign obscurity, speaks volumes. At the same age, Pirlo started for Juventus in the Champions League final of 2015.

It is ill health, not a decline in ability, which is finally bringing Carrick’s career to a close. After saying he “felt strange” during the second-half of United’s 4-1 win over Burton Albion earlier this season, he had a cardiac ablation procedure to treat an irregular heart rhythm. He has since been limited to just three more appearances this term, of which United won two. 

And just how key to United’s success Carrick has been since his £18m signing from Tottenham in 2006 cannot be overstated. He was United’s sole signing that summer, yielding only modest excitement, and there were some Red Devils fans displeased with then manager Sir Alex Ferguson’s decision to assign Carrick the number 16 jersey previously worn by departed captain Roy Keane. Less than a year later, though, United won their first league title in four years. The following season, United won the league and Champions League double, with Carrick playing 49 times across all competitions.

Failing to regularly deploy Carrick in his favoured role – one that is nominally defensive in its position at the base of midfield, but also creative in providing through-balls to the players ahead – must be considered one of the most criminal oversights of successive England managers’ tenures. Unfortunately, Carrick’s heart condition means that current boss Gareth Southgate is unlikely to be able to make amends this summer.

By pressing space, rather than players, Carrick compensates for his lack of speed by marking passing channels and intercepting. He is forever watching the game around him and his unwillingness to commit passes prematurely and lose possession is as valuable an asset as when he does spot an opening.

Ultimately, while Carrick can have few regrets about his illustrious career, England fans and management alike can have plenty. Via West Ham, Spurs and United, the Wallsend-born émigré has earned his billing as one of the most gifted midfielders of his generation, but he’d never let on.

Rohan Banerjee is a Special Projects Writer at the New Statesman. He co-hosts the No Country For Brown Men podcast.