The Grassroots Post is in Sussex to meet Sands United FC; a team united by grief that have grown to become one of the most important grassroots clubs in the country.
Words by David Hillier. Images by Ashley Laurence. League: Sussex Sunday Football League
Sands United emerged from the shadow of grief after founder Rob Allen’s daughter Niamh was stillborn in 2017. Vowing to honour her memory, Rob organised a charity match at Northampton FC’s ground on the 23rd of May 2018 with proceeds going to Sands, the UK bereavement charity.
Following the game, Rob set up a team for bereaved male relatives of stillborn children to play in Northampton’s Nene Valley League. Two seasons later, buoyed by wide media coverage including a spot in the BBC One documentary Football, Prince William and Our Mental Health, there are now thirty Sands teams across the UK.
The Grassroots Post attended a pre-season friendly of their Brighton & Hove squad unsure of what to expect – 2,958 stillbirths were recorded in the UK during 2018 with The Lancet blaming these untimely deaths for an “epidemic of grief”. Different studies have suggested that men can feel that their own grief is marginalised in comparison to the mothers and are liable to resort to compensatory behaviours like alcohol use.
Sands United – a support group
Whatever football you play – 11s, 5s, 6s, futsal, youth, vets – a WhatsApp group is now part of the team’s architecture. It’s where a perpetually optimistic manager can post directions and pleas for forgotten subs, plus the odd opposition scouting report. More often than not, these groups become a haven of football chat, fantasy league predictions, occasional NSFW memes and a safe space to dig out your striker for giving an injury-time penalty the full Baggio-in-Pasadena treatment.
Sands United are no different and have a fizzing football banter group that acts as mobile pub and changing room. Uniquely they also have two more – one for male support and a PAL (Pregnancy After Loss) group where team members who are expecting what the club call ‘rainbow babies’ – a child after a stillborn – can talk about their experiences without fear of triggering other team members.
“The support group exists to help men with their mental health,” says manager Andy Lindley, thirty-nine, on the blowy Waterfall sports ground just outside of Brighton, as a herd of cows ignore us from the hill above. “Obviously within that there will be grief and bereavement.” Thirty out of the forty-nine men in the current Brighton & Hove squad are fathers to a stillborn child. Although numbers are now so big that Andy is limiting members to men affected by baby loss, anyone has been welcome to join the squad until now. The kicker? They must be fully aware and sensitive to the team’s raison d’être.
“We’re a support network first and foremost – football is the conduit. It allows us to have that boyish banter and toilet humour, then instantly switch to being supportive,” he says, qualifying that the WhatsApp groups are not run by professionals or a therapy substitute.
“Men are very solution-focused but it’s not necessarily about getting a solution – it’s letting people know they’ve been heard and that they’re not alone. Sometimes we’ll just send them the blue and orange emojis – our club colours – to let people know they’ve been heard.”
Andy has the bearish physique that the uncouth might term cuddly. Multi-coloured tattoos line his limbs, with a huge Robocop in an ace of spades decorating almost the entirety of a lower left leg that is comfortably twice the circumference of your reporter’s arm. We’re in the court of toxic stereotypes here, but it’s hard not to register surprise when a man of this stature talks with such emotional candour.
This seems especially true when discussing ‘angelversaries’. These are the death anniversaries of the players’ children and, in the period leading to these difficult dates, men will be offered extra support. With the father’s blessing they might dedicate a match to that child and beforehand hold a minute’s silence which the opposition team is invited to take part in.
“It’s not a religious thing,” Andy says, in reference to denoting their children as angels. “It’s that we like to think our babies are up there looking after us like angels do. We’ve had tears in that minute’s silence before.”
We talk to Tim Holt, fifty, the vice-captain who has returned gleaming from Cyprus and bears resemblance to a non-threatening Craig Bellamy. He gave up football when he was thirty after snapping his ACL but has been caning the Joe Wicks workouts during lockdown to ensure he’s as fit as possible for the season ahead (it tells: during the game he is zipping, Bellamy-esque, around men at least a decade younger than him).
His son Caspar died in 2009 whilst many in the team are at the start of their journey. “I’m eleven years down the road so I feel like a bit of a father figure,” he says. “Guys post on the support group and I’m brutally honest with them. I don’t give advice because everyone is different but I tell them what I’ve done. It’s a vehicle for people to help each other but no one will pester anyone, asking you to open up.”
The result is a team spirit probably unlike your average grassroots team: “The bond with everyone is so strong, and not just with the bereaved fathers. The non-bereaved are just as supportive,” he says, before bounding off to join the warm-up.
Tim isn’t the oldest player in the squad: that honour goes to Darren Silverson, fifty-five. He’s nicknamed Grandad but the moniker is more than an affectionate dig – his son and son-in-law are both Sands United players after losing children. Like everyone, their names are stitched onto his team jersey. Eva-Rose and Baby Smith. It is a simple yet profound way of reminding everyone why they’re here and, perhaps more importantly, demystifying these terribly sad deaths that often remain undiscussed outside of family walls.
Like Tim, he says that the team’s been trying really hard in pre-season after coming second from bottom last year. He also espouses their togetherness: “The camaraderie is immense – the team spirit. The banter,” he tells us before being called away to join the game in the second half.
There are so many players that two games take place simultaneously between Sands United and The View, who are described as their buddy club.
They’ve played one full season yet team membership has grown from zero to forty-nine men, and watching it bloom throughout has been manager Andy’s wife, Leah, thirty-nine. She tells The Grassroots Post that the wives and partners have their own WhatsApp support group and that there’s a humming family community around the team.
She credits Sands with having a transformative impact on Andy, who had difficulty coping after the death of their son Dexter. He didn’t tell people the true amount of children they’d had, preferring to say two (the number now) rather than three to save an awkward conversation. “We talk about Dexter freely now,” she says, wearing a jacket with ‘Playing For Dexter’ sewn on the back. “It’s broken the silence.”
The two games wrap up (The View win both: 12-1 and 5-0) and an ominously autumnal wind wheezes across the park. Grins and laughs abound despite the weighty defeats and they could be any team in the land, albeit with a uniting difference.
“They have all the banter and everything, but everyone just really gets on and is considerate of other people’s feelings,” Leah tells us.
“There’s people on the team we’ll be friends with for life. It’s sad that it’s taken tragedy to get here but we’re grateful that we’ve got each other.”