Birkbeck College FC win ULU League title

It is only natural that Sport Management students will be keen on watching and playing football. But the Sport Management and the Business of Football class of 2012/2013 will take a bag full of memories with them, wherever they now go, from a particularly successful year. The class was the main force behind the establishment of a football team for the college, who participated in a league organised by the University of London Students’ Union (ULU).

The team, named Birkbeck College FC, managed to not only be a participant, but also to win the 8-teams league title. To put it into perspective, while the College did not have a football team the previous season, in 2010/2011 the college’s team only managed to finish 7th.

Birkbeck College FC finished the season with a staggering eleven wins out of 13 games, scoring 53 goals in the process while only a misfortune prevented them from going all the way to win the ULU Cup as well.

Chris Gerstle, a student at the Sport Management and the Business of Football programme, was the team’s head coach for the season, and he was more than happy to share the story of a beautiful year.

How did it all start?

“In the beginning of the year, we got in touch with Rob Park, from the Birkbek College Students’ Union. The thing is, every year you have to start from scratch because previous year’s students leave. So Rob helped us spread the word among Birkbeck’s students that we are looking to form a team. Around 30 people signed up, post and under-graduates, which meant that we had to arrange some trials – to select the ultimate squad.”

In the last couple of years Chris has been practicing his coaching, particularly with children, as part of his efforts to get a coaching badge. He was more than happy to take on the role and share his experience with his friends. “My job started well from the start, as we were holding those trials, and it was for me to decide who is in and who is not. Surprisingly enough, most of the players chosen, were form the Sport Management and the Business of Football postgraduate programme who just turned out to be not only keen on football, but actually quite good at it!”

Did you expect winning the league?

“No, we didn’t. There are some serious teams here such as UCL and SOAS. So we didn’t think we are going to win it. To be fair, it later become apparent that we were playing those colleges’ second teams, whereby their first teams played in stronger, more regional leagues.”

Birkbeck FC celebrating winning the ULU League

Being a student in the Birkbeck Sport Business Centre means that these students learn to understand key management and economic concepts from the literature on the business of sport. Now, as participants of a sporting competition, the students/football players could see the importance of these concepts in real life. “As the season went on and we kept on sweeping everybody else with fine football displays,” Chris remembers, “we started thinking, not too seriously though, about the concept of Competitive Balance, which is a central theme in our programme. And we started thinking whether if we were the league regulators, what we could do to make it more equal.”

Was it complicated being the head coach of your fellow students?

“No, not at all! Everybody was really respectful, absolutely no issues, we all become really good friends. I had to say who is playing and who is not, but people can tell who is good and who is not. If some mistakes were happening I would obviously point them out, but in a nice way because in the end of the day we are all friends. And we had a really good harmony and things just worked out naturally. My aim as a coach is to always try and keep it calm and relaxed with little one-on-one talks with the players and I think that it worked pretty well with my friends at Birkbeck FC.”

Where did you play?

“Well, it was indeed our own responsibility to find a pitch where we would train and play. It is not very easy to do so in London. So we found this pitch in White City, west-London. The pitch wasn’t in perfect condition to say the least, and was just next to a prison. It was cheap, it was available so we took it and Birkbeck helped us with the payment.

What was so special about the team?

“I think that the most interesting thing about this whole story is our team. We had an Italian and a guy from Bermuda up front, two Brazilians as holding midfielders, a Russian and a Mexican as wingers, a French-German pairing as centre backs, an American and a Korean as full-backs and a Chinese at the goal. As a bonus, as a creative midfield we had a Serbian whose father is currently Spanish side Valencia FC manager from the Spanish Primera División. We had a Latvian, a Korean. And myself, I am Japanese American and Australian!

“So it was a very international team, most of the players were from the Sport Management course. I think that 12 or 13 people from the playing squad were from the programme. That led to a really good bond, and we all became really good friends.”

Post-match reaction after winning University of East Anglia 9-3
Footage taken by: Maxim Gaydovsky


Who was the team’s best player?

“Obviously, we had Vlad, who is Serbian and his father is Miroslav Đukić – one of the finest players to ever have played for Valencia FC. He played with them in two Champions League finals back in 2000 and 2001 and is currently their manager. Vlad was one of the best players I have seen up close. The way he played reminded me a little bit of Zidane. He is tall but very elegant and you just can’t take the ball off his feet. So he was the most talented. But the best all-round player was Pedro, from Brazil who was also voted as the best.”

Were there any disappointing moments?

“ULU are also running a cup tournament, with a slightly wider pool of teams, which is played during a couple of months from February onwards. We were doing really well in the league, we were on the verge of winning it, so we were practically going for the double.

“The cup game was against Goldsmiths, in South London. Despite missing a couple of important players, we were still winning 4-2 at half time and due to a couple of injuries I had to come up and play. But unfortunately we ended up losing the game 7-5.

“It was kind of the most devastating game of the season because we could have gone on to win both, and we had already secured the league titled so all of a sudden it all got a bit less exciting in the end.

But this group of positive students have managed to make even a disappointing match into a pleasant memory. In that cup game, when Birkbeck FC were winning 4-3, one of the players managed to earn himself the ‘Miss of the Season’ award. “This Italian player was really good,” Chris admitted. But somehow, after going  around the keeper, and in front of a clear goal, he hit the post!”

“But that wasn’t it for that game as I managed to ‘win’ the ‘Mistake of the Season’ award,” he continues. “I played only this one game, this notorious cup game defeat. I had the ball, looked back, assuming that our defender is there. I passed the ball, only to realise that it went straight to their striker.”

“The funny thing is that I did that directly after the Italian missed the chance I told you before. So we went from a chance to go to a 5-3, a two goal cushion, to miss here and a mistake there and then it became 4-4,” Chris recalled.

What happens next?

“Obviously, and sadly, now we all go on our separate ways and the team will cease to exist. I think and hope that next year someone will step up and continue from where we stopped.

“There will always be someone from the Sport Management group who will try to organise something within the course. Personally, I think that sometimes it is just a matter of luck. We had great talented players who wanted to be involved in different capacities and roles and that does not happen every year. But I think that they should build on our experience and winning momentum and try and establish a new team for the next season. And to do that someone has to actually go to the students’ union and register a new team. Once they went through this initial step, it can be easier to go ahead and work things out. But you have to have the students initiating it in the first place.”

But just before the guys went on to kick off their career as the next sport managers, they met once more in an a end-of-the-year Awards Ceremony, naturally orgainsed by the students themselves. “It was great,” Chris recalls. “Rob [Park, from the Birkbeck Students’ Union] helped us with the venue hire. And all the playing and non-playing staff came along, as well as our fellow students and some other friends.

“We had some silly awards and some serious, football friendly awards. Pedro from Brazil won the Player of the Season award for example. It was really nice because it was like a reunion. The season ended around March and then we were all quite busy with exams and papers so it was good to meet up again, and recall the great moments of the season.”

“All the playing and non-playing staff came along” – The Awards Ceremony

Finally, Chris highlighted how positive can be the effect of establishing a football team during a Master’s, specifically in terms of the relationships developed and nurtured along the year. “I don’t know how it was with other Sport Management classes, but we properly bonded. We travelled to games together, played futsal [5-a-side indoor football], had drinks together sat in class together. We became really good friends. And it would not have happened if it hadn’t been the football, not that close anyway.

“Did it lead to better academic results? I am not sure. But you see, nothing can replace those bonds that team sports can create, you win together and you lose together, and I am sure that some of these friendships will last long after our graduation from Birkbeck. And now we have a kind of an Alumni Group on Facebook so we can all keep in touch.

“We became really good friends”, Birkbeck FC with Sean Hamil, Director of the Birkbeck Sport Business Centre

“From a course-bonding point of you it was a once in a life time experience and this year quickly developed into one to remember. When Tony and In Ki, two fellow students, organised a charity match for an earthquake affected area in China, almost everyone there supporting the cause was from our class and particularly from our football team.  The football guys played, and the girls helped administering the event.”

View all News articles