Football can be visceral, territorial, furious and all encompassing, yet for some it can also be life saving; a way to connect, a way to unify, a social inclusion like no other.
So, with suicide remaining the biggest killer of men, under 45, in the UK, what can football do to help break the silence surrounding male mental health?
According to Colin Dolan, founder of the Mental Health Football Association, “Football saves lives........it saved mine without a shadow of a doubt. If it wasn’t for football, I’d be dead, or in a gutter”.
The charity Mind Kicks, formed back in 2017, also uses football to create conversation regarding male mental health with the sole aim of improving well-being. They say “It's okay to not be okay. Sometimes we all need the mental health magic sponge”
No story highlights the power of the beautiful game better than that of Sands United F.C.
You may value the retro football shirt and enjoy the reminiscence of a past spent on the terraces, or covet the latest release from your newly promoted team, but the shirts this team wear mean far more than most.
The names of the players' children, tragically lost through stillbirth or in early childhood, take pride of place, embroidered on their bright orange shirts, or on their boots. That's because Sands United F.C, is formed of men allied in that they have each sadly been touched by the unimaginable loss of a young child.
The players have found each other through the charity Sands, which supports families following Stillbirth and Neonatal Death.
Now the team play in their local, Northampton, Nene Valley Sunday league, raising awareness and providing the men with an outlet to express themselves freely with likeminded others. Members also get to mark important dates by being team captain on the date of their child’s death.
One of the team members, Leon Gavin, described to me how playing for The Tangerine Army has helped him "For those 90 minutes the team offers me a chance to escape, but also do my best in memory of my son Nolan and every lost angel out there".
As well as support for the players and awareness for the Sands charity, the men are also helping to dispel the myths that surround men’s' mental health, encouraging men to talk about their problems.
"Hopefully there's a father out there" Leon explains "seeing what we are doing and realising they're not alone."
Through a common grief, comes understanding and the team help to support each other on and off the pitch.
Rob Allen, the man who inspired the founding of the team by organising a match in honour of his daughter Niamh, reveals "No one in this team will ever tell you to ‘man up’ because we all understand you can have good and bad days. For me, the team has been my medicine”.
Playing a sport, as part of a team can, of course also help in other ways. Psychologists will tell you that team involvement is known to lift mood, give focus, reduce feelings of isolation and improve sleep quality.
It is no exaggeration therefore, to say that the team have already saved the lives of men who were left feeling suicidal in their grief "If it weren’t for Sands United, I’m not sure I’d be here" divulges Kenny Harrison.
Fellow team mate, Luke Bryans says "It’s great men are now sharing their feelings about child loss. And at least for 90 minutes every Sunday, we can focus on football”.
And what began as one has quickly multiplied. There are now Sands affiliated teams cropping up all over the country.
Sands United FC Solent has been set up to support Hampshire fathers, uncles and grandfathers in a similar way. "It's a club none of us want to be in" says Chris West "but I'm so grateful to have this club to get stuff off my chest and feel safe talking with them"
Sadly, the death of a baby is not as rare an event as you might assume. According to the Sands charity, every 90 minutes (the time taken to watch football match) a baby in the UK dies shortly before, during or soon after birth. The proliferation of teams now being set up shows just how much need there is for support for grieving fathers and their families.
"The team to me is bigger than any of us" Leon concludes "watching it grow and seeing my vision of multiple teams across the country take place so early on, shows how much of a need there is for fathers"
And his message to others out there? "Don't be afraid to get involved"
Find their just giving page here www.justgiving.com/fundraising/SandsunitedFC
Find out more about the team www.sandsunitedfc.co.uk
For the Sands website click here www.sands.org.uk
Find out more about Mind Kicks here www.mindkicks.co.uk
The Mental Health Football Association Facebook page is www.facebook.com/MentalHealthFootballAssociation/
Photo credit: Sands United