Sands United give it all for the angels on their chests.
Sands United are a team of pub league footballers that includes a converted rugby player and a goalie who, before this season, hadn’t slipped on his gloves for 15 years. According to the club’s website, Sands currently sit bottom of division 4 of the Nene Sunday League in Northampton.
Still, founder Robert Allen is confident of better things to come. “Because of the players next to us and the names on our chests, with that mindset and mentality I’m sure come May we will be up there in the league,” he says.
What gives Robert confidence is not the footballing ability of his teammates, but the fact that every player has come through something far harder than a tricky league position. Sands United players have all experienced the loss of a child, either as dads or as immediate members of the family.
Worlds torn apart
Robert’s heartbreaking story is not, unfortunately, unique. On a Sunday night in October last year, the worlds of this expectant father and his partner (now wife) Charlotte fell in. Robert takes up the story:
“On the Sunday night, my wife had noticed reduced movements. This had happened before so no cause for concern, but we called the hospital and they asked us to go in for a check. This was where our world collapsed, and we received the news that our baby was no longer with us.
“The next day, Monday, we gave birth to a beautiful baby girl. We named her Niamh Joy Allen. We managed to spend two and a half days following her birth in a special room at the hospital called the Snowdrop Suite, where we had the chance to make as many memories as possible.”
Robert has nothing but praise for hospital staff, who also introduced the couple to Sands, the stillbirth and neonatal death charity. Over the next few months Robert and Charlotte attended Sands’ events and met other couples who had been through similar tragedies.
Robert says: “During this time my old football manager Alan called me with an idea to stage a charity football match to raise money for Sands and as a way of showing support for me and my family. As I had been going to the group meetings and the dads’ meetings I suggested that I put together a team of dads who had lost a child to play against my old team, the Eastern Eagles.”
The charity match was played in May and raised £6000 for Sands. It was planned as a one-off, but the team had forged a strong bond. Training sessions and the team’s WhatsApp group had become a source of support for dads coming to terms with bereavement. Sands United had become more than a football team.
“Following the success of the game, and the popularity of the group and the bond we had forged, I suggested starting a Sunday league team with the same players,” Robert says. “This idea was welcomed by most of the players so we set about forming what is now Sands United FC, and entered into our first ever league in September.”
The togetherness and bond of the team, through an unspoken understanding of each other, is a very powerful thing.
Is football an effective way for men to channel grief? Robert believes it is not so much the game itself (though there’s nothing like sport to help you get lost in the moment), but the excuse it gives the dads to come together, in an environment where their grief and loss is accepted and understood. Robert says that, while stillbirth is a difficult conversation for men and women, men find it particularly difficult to open up and often pressure themselves to stay strong and put others first.
“With football or sport in general it’s easier to entice men to get together, compared with, say, a group meeting. The evidence is that the fathers’ group that Sands hosts normally attracts around 5-7 men, but the football team currently has 29 players registered.
“The togetherness and bond of the team, through an unspoken understanding of each other, is a very powerful thing. We also try to create an environment where, when the time is right, players are able to share their thoughts and feelings without ridicule or judgement. They are able to feel supported or gain advice at the tap of a button or pitchside or at training.”
Every player plays with the name of his angel on his shirt, a powerful statement of love and pride.
“One of the things we are aiming to change is to share the truth that dads feel loss too and it’s ok not to be ok, that you can talk and share your pain and there is people out there waiting to listen, and more often than not, share back.”
The club continues to raise funds for the charity, through donations, the generosity of other teams and referees, and more planned charity matches and events. Local business John Henry Sports supplies all the team’s custom kits and has also provided a club shop, with all proceeds being handed to Sands at the end of the season.
So it’s fair to say that, after the mud and thunder of an average Sunday league football match, in this case at least the result really doesn’t matter too much. For Sands United three points would be useful, but piercing the dark with support, companionship and understanding is a triumph of World Cup winning proportions.
You can donate to Sands on the charity’s website