Wednesday 06 February 2019, 15:20

The grieving fathers finding solace in football

  • Sands United set up for dads who’ve lost children to stillbirth or miscarriage

  • The team helps its players deal with feelings of loss, grief and isolation

  • Founder and captain Rob Allen tells about the impact it has had

Ninety minutes. It’s a chunk of time that, as an enthusiastic amateur footballer, Rob Allen once associated only with the game he loves.

Not anymore. Now the Englishman will tell you that, in the time it takes a football match to run its course, and in the UK alone, another baby will die shortly before, during or soon after birth. That shocking statistic has held personal significance to him ever since 9 October 2017, a date forever etched in his memory.

“My wife and I were expecting our second child, which was due a few days later,” he explained. “But she didn’t feel any movement, so we popped down to the hospital to get it checked out and ended up receiving the news that our daughter was no longer with us. Your whole life flips in that moment.”

As he struggled to come to terms with this devastating loss, Allen stepped back from his Sunday league football team and stopped playing the game altogether. But then, in January of 2018, the side’s manager paid him a visit. “He told me that the team had organised a fundraising match for the charity, and just to support me and my family really.”

Allen’s former team-mates had been thinking big, and even booked Sixfields, the 8,000-seater stadium of local Football League side Northampton Town. There was just one problem: they didn’t have any opposition. “That got me thinking,” Rob recalled. “I’d been going to a few group meetings with Sands (a UK-based stillbirth and neonatal death charity) – there was one every two months for dads – and I thought, ‘Surely there are enough dads at these to make up a team’.

“I ended up pulling together a group of 17 guys, played for the dads’ team and the whole thing was a great success. We raised just over £6,000 and, although it was meant to be a one-off, we found that friendships and real connections had been made. We'd also competed well in the game itself, so I asked them on the WhatsApp group we’d set up: ‘Why don’t we start our own Sunday league team?’”

From those almost accidental beginnings, and while still midway through their first season, Sands United FC now has a squad of 35 players. Each wears a shirt with the name of his lost baby embroidered on the chest, and every one of those men has found solace in the kind of community and camaraderie that football specialises in.

As Allen said: “When you lose a child, so often the first question you’re asked is, ‘How’s your wife doing?' No-one really considers men and that’s because it’s been drilled into us that men aren’t really meant to share our feelings when loss or grief affects us – or that we’re ‘weaker’ if we do. The truth is that we’re stronger by coming together and being honest about things, and this team has been a big part of that for the guys involved.

“We talk a lot, having all gone through similar experiences, and our WhatsApp group - which was meant to be just for training updates and the like – has turned into almost a support group at times.

“Everyone’s different, of course. Some people just want to come and play football with guys who know how they’re feeling, but not talk about it. And that’s absolutely fine. I always say that we’re a football team that offers support – not a support group that offers football.

“Personally, the team came about at just the right time for me. Having been at those group meetings, you know that there are other ways grief can easily find an outlet – gambling, drugs, alcohol or just plain anger. I feel football saved me from all that and gave me something positive to focus on.”

Reflecting now on that simple WhatsApp message, Allen admits he could never have envisaged Sands United’s impact on the men involved. But if he has been pleasantly surprised by the team’s success story, he has been utterly amazed at the way in which that story has spread.

Video crews and interview requests from major news outlets have become almost commonplace, and in December the club – then still just a few months old – was named Team of the Year at the national Pride of Sports awards. “It’s all gone a bit bonkers,” Allen admits with a smile.

As for the next chapter in the Sands United story, that is currently being written – and involves taking the team’s message far beyond their Northampton base.

“I’ve been in London this week for meetings with Sands, who want to incorporate our work in the charity and start up teams all over the country,” he explained. “We often get private messages on Facebook saying, ‘I wish there was a team near me’, so it definitely makes sense to have this kind of support as widely available as possible.

“Hopefully it can spread out beyond the UK too because child loss obviously affects people right across the world. Football is a universal language, and I’m sure it can help others the way it has helped us.”