The Referee blows his whistle at 10:30am sharp for the start of yet another Sunday League game in Northampton, in the Nene Sunday League Division Four…however this is not any normal team that is playing, it’s Sands United.
Most people won’t have heard of Sands United, but they are a team made up of dads who have lost children either during pregnancy or shortly after birth.
They came together last year, to play in a charity game, but fast forward twelve months and they’re close to completing their first season in the league, and have 35 registered players throughout the squad.
Sadly, the death of a baby isn’t a rare occurrence, as every 90 minutes in the UK a baby dies shortly before, during or soon after birth. This is why each player has the name of his ‘lost angel’ emblazoned on his shirt.
Sands is the stillbirth and neonatal death charity. They operate throughout the UK, supporting anyone affected by the death of a baby, working to improve the care bereaved parents receive, and promoting research to reduce the loss of babies’ lives.
This charity and the work that Sands United have done so far is absolutely superb, and we at The Bootiful Game wanted to showcase what they are about, to to give them a platform for further exposure.
Rob Allen is the co-founder of Sands United and we caught up with him earlier this week and he has very kindly told us his story. “On the whole, the football world is male dominated but it’s not an environment where most lads would turn up to a game and go, “Alright lads? I’ve been feeling really down this week”. The natural attitude is, “Come on mate! Turn it in! Man up a bit! “No one wants to listen to that,” and that’s not even just about a child’s life. That’s day-to-day man banter. Men don’t really sit and talk about how they feel and what their thoughts are.”
“That’s on our radar too. Yes, it’s very much focused on baby loss but there are so many different avenues that baby loss comes into. There are so many things that attach into men’s mental health and conditions that baby loss puts men into, such as depression, PTSD and all those kind of things. It does filter and branch out into other areas.
“I think naturally, though, that women will talk to each other about anything and everything, from the bread being out of date to their husband sneaking off with the 19-year-old neighbour! They’re very open in the fact that they’ve got no filter with each other and they will share whatever they’re thinking and whatever they’re feeling. Men haven’t got that filter. We very much go, “No! I’m not talking about that! People will look at me funny if I talk about this kind of stuff so I’ll put that in a box and bury that box as deep as I can and leave it exactly there.”
“That’s all well and good for the short-term plan but I think for the long-term plan it’s not. It’s not healthy and it’s not something that works in the long-term plan. There’s only so much you can put in that box before that box is full. At some point the lid’s going to fall off and the box is going to overflow. It’s all going to come out in one foul swoop whereas, if you’d dealt with it in bitesize pieces as and when it came up, and you felt okay to talk about it, or you had the platform and opportunity to be able to do that, then it doesn’t have to bottle up and that box doesn’t have to be a thing that fills up then explodes. It can be opened and managed with the regular occurrences.”
Rob then opened up, “2017. Charlotte and I already had a five-year-old boy and we always said we would try for another one when he was at school. He went to school at five and that was always on the radar. We wanted to try and have a child before we got married; we got married in July 2018. We fell pregnant. The pregnancy we had with our firstborn was pretty much textbook.”
“The pregnancy we had with Niamh was also pretty much textbook apart from she was in breach position: feet first instead of head first. Other than that there were no tell-tale signs of any problems. October-time, a Sunday night, the wife hadn’t really felt a lot of movement so we popped down to hospital. We’d been to the hospital for reduced movement before. They’d hooked her up and everything was absolutely fine so on this particular day we had no cause for concern. It was a routine pop in, get put on the monitor then pop out again. It’s normally a twenty-minute journey.”
“We were four days away from Charlotte’s due date so everything was ready. Bags were all packed so I put all those in the car and we went down to the hospital. That’s where we received the news that she was no longer with us. At the time, without any warning, it really was a hammer blow. It kind of catches you from nowhere and it puts you in a very dark place.”
“We got a lot of time to spend with her. We went in on Sunday 8thand she was born on the Monday at half-eleven in the morning on the ninth. We got to stay in hospital with her until Wednesday afternoon. Luckily for us, the hospital that’s local to us in Northampton have got a dedicated room called the Snowdrop Suite, which was fundraised for and paid for by the locals through a charity for parents who are going through this kind of experience, whether it be a miscarriage, a stillbirth or a neo-natal death. They never had one before and it was on the labour ward so you can imagine how traumatising that is, when you’re sitting in a room with a child that’s no longer with you and all you can hear down the corridor are people having successful births and babies crying.”
“Credit to Sands they fought for it. They fundraised for it. They fought the hospital for the space for it and it is a godsend. I don’t know what we would have done without it. Some people get half an hour or half a day with their children whereas we got two and a half days. We were very lucky.
“Credit to the lads. It’s not an easy subject to talk about; some of the guys on the team are more open and more able to talk about the subject than others and that’s absolutely fine. I think that the voices we’ve got in the team and the bravery of the lads is testament to the fact that we’ve been able to reach as far as we have. Had it been maybe one or two people and one or two stories recycled over and over, it maybe would have lost interest. Luckily we’ve got 6-9 lads who are willing and ready to talk and to share. Once that goes out in the different media formats – whether that’s a newspaper or on radio or TV – it keeps it relevant and it keeps people reading and relatively interested.
“One of the things with which we’ve been fortunate is there’s a bigger focus on men’s mental health now. There’s a lot more campaigning for men’s mental health and a lot more men speaking up about how they feel. We’ve not so much piggybacked on but we’ve definitely stepped in and rode that with the march that’s going on at the minute. I think it’s come at a good time and because of that we’re getting a lot of exposure, which is great. We’re showing men up and down the country that you can talk about it and that people will listen and people are happy to help.
“People want to hear your story and they want to be able to tell theirs. A lot of the people that have seen or heard us, especially from the messages we get on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, there are men out there who have been waiting for something that they can attach themselves to and get their voice heard. It gives them the strength to be able to open that box and start to go back through that. We’ve been very lucky but at the same time we’ve very much respected and honoured everybody who’s wanted to tell their story. It’s a great thing.”
With the first season nearly complete for the side, we wanted to know how it first started, “I was playing locally, normal Sunday League before we lost Niamh. Afterwards I reassessed what was important at the time. Football, hobbies and socialising weren’t as important as the people inside my house. I abandoned all other things apart from that and I stopped playing for a little while.
“My old manager actually – Alan – rang me one day and said, “I’m thinking of doing something for you and the family”. We’d been involved with Sands from that point anyway so he said, “I want to do something for you, your family and the charity”. I’d known Alan for more than ten years. He came up with the idea of a charity football match. He’d booked the local Sixfields Stadium [Northampton] and they’d given us a 3,000-seat allocation, which I thought was absolutely bonkers of him but that was the vision that he had! I rode the coat-tails with him and I said, “Who are we playing?” He replied, “I don’t know. I haven’t sorted that out yet!”
“I rang Sixfields and it wasn’t booked yet so I booked it. “So you’ve booked the biggest stadium in the town for a football game and you haven’t even got any opposition yet!” I’d been going to the Sands’ support meetings, couple groups, dads groups, that sort of stuff so I said, “Leave it with me and I’ll see if I can put a team of dads together to play against you guys and I’ll play for the dads’ team”.
“That’s where the initial match and the initial idea came from. Over the course of eight weeks of putting the team together, training and getting the guys ready because some of the guys had never kicked a ball before but wanted to do it in honour of their children so we had a massive ability range. We started a WhatsApp group and the lads were all chatting in there. A lot of them had never met each other because the men’s Sands group isn’t… men and groups isn’t the done kind of thing! We’d mainly find six or seven at the dads’ group but in the end I had 17 players , 15 of which had lost children. Two were very close friends of people who had lost children. That was where the initial first team came from.
“We had that game in May 2018. It raised just under six grand, which was way beyond what I ever thought it would raise for two relatively unknown teams: one regular Sunday football team versus a team of people nobody knew. Once that game was finished we still had the WhatsApp group and the guys had made connections and made friends with like-minded people who all shared what they’d been through.
“The idea was floating about because I was due to take over as manager of my old team but, after playing with these guys, I thought I’d quite enjoyed playing with these boys and the reason that we’re playing is quite special so why don’t we start our own Sunday League team? We had eight or nine lads from the original team who said that they would play and we started building from there.
“We all met up at the pub and decided on a name, what kit we all wanted, that kind of stuff then kicked on from there! We got the team registered and started our first full season this September just gone.”
Currently in mid-table in the league, Sands United have had a good first season so far, “Not too bad now. We started off slowly with ability levels; some people had never played in a league or hadn’t played in a league format for years. We were training and the guys who were playing regularly were keen on getting the people who didn’t play up to scratch. We’re up to fourth now and we’re in a bit of a Cup run at the minute. We’ve just had our last group game. There’s one group left to go and we’re top of the league at the moment but if the other team win their game we drop to second. It’s looking good!”
And the long term plans, “In all honesty, the team was never supposed to go any further than the local charity team we set up. There are other teams trying to pop up all over the country so we’re working with Sands the charity to try to launch that as a format, as part of the charity now. They’ll take it on board as part of what Sands do, instead of it being just a one-off Northampton team. They’ve had to set up a dedicated website and email address for the volume of requests that they’ve had. They’ve had thirty-three different requests already to start a team, with probably six or eight teams in the stages of functioning.
“So that’s our long-term plan. To have a team in a different area of the country to give more men the access to like-minded people and play the beautiful game at the same time. I don’t think the format of sport matters. What matters is if you can pique a guy’s interest to get them in the same room or on the same pitch, whatever the format is, naturally they will talk. If you leave them to their own devices they’ll assume that they’re fine, they’ll tell everybody that they’re okay and they’ll either deal with it on their own in secret or they’ll bury it and try and forget about it altogether.
“If you can give them a platform to get together, eventually they’ll start to open up and begin to form bonds that can be lifelong and it can really lift the weight off their shoulders.”
Defender Nick Hilliker, 28, was struck by sadness nine years ago, and he takes us through his story, “In 2010 we suffered a miscarriage at eight weeks. A normal miscarriage, as they say. No questions asked; no reasons why. My wife was just suffering from some tummy pain. She was then admitted because they thought she was having an ectopic pregnancy. The next day she was going to theatre because they couldn’t see on the scan whether it was or not. The scan image wasn’t good enough so they weren’t going to take the risk.
“About ten minutes before, she was literally walking down the corridor ready to go, a lady came in from hospital and said: “I’m just going to scan you to make sure.”
“They found a heartbeat, everything was perfect, a weight off our shoulders. We thought we were in for a normal pregnancy and we were sent home, only for a couple of days later for Sarah to get more tummy pain. She started bleeding then they confirmed the miscarriage. That was at eight weeks. No reasons were given: standard miscarriage. Left us alone. We just wanted to be a mum and dad so we’d try again.
“We got to fourteen weeks on this one and we went in for a normal scan because of the complications last time. The look on the nurse’s face and I could tell straight away that there was something wrong. They actually told us we were having something that was called a molar pregnancy.
“There’s a 1 in 600 chanceof a molar pregnancy so it’s very, very rare. It’s where a cancerous or non-cancerous tumour will grow alongside the baby and the only way to stop everything – including confirmation of whether it is cancerous or anything like that – is to terminate the pregnancy immediately, which we obviously had no choice about. The next day Sarah was taken into theatre and everything was removed.
“The complicated thing with the molar pregnancy is that you need to have treatment for a year afterwards. It will give you false results, due to the level of the hormone hCG (human chorionic gonadotrophin). If you were to take a pregnancy test you would get the blue line saying you were pregnant when actually there’s nothing there. It can take a long, long time and if your results don’t go down then you have to have a form of chemotherapy, like everyone else with cancer.
“It’s only done in three hospitals in the UK: Dundee, London Charing Cross and Sheffield. It’s a good two and a half hours away for us in Northampton anyway. Luckily she didn’t have to have the chemotherapy but we still had to have the tests every two weeks. Throughout that my wife suffered mental health issues – depression, didn’t work – and other things that come with it such as having to find the money for everything. The support we had through family and friends was unbelievable.
“You have to wait a year to get pregnant. Me and Sarah had a night out once and we didn’t wait a year! Now we have our son Harry, who’ll be four tomorrow! So every cloud has a silver lining.
“We have a stepson, who was about four or five at the time. He wanted a brother or sister but we had to go back and tell him we’re not having a brother or sister. It was difficult but now he has that brother he wanted and they argue like normal brothers do and get in each other’s way!
“It’s funny really because it was only about three weeks ago when I looked at the timeline on Facebook and I sent a message to Sarah in the summer of 2012 saying we’ll get married in 2013 and we’ll have a baby in 2015. We got married in 2013, we had a loss in both 2013, we had a loss in 2014, then we had our baby in 2015. It’s weird how I sent that message before we knew that anything was going to happen to actually have a baby in 2015, get married and have all the bits in between it. It’s odd how life works out.
“That’s our story and the mental health that came with it. I put a lot of my feelings aside because that’s what men do and it’s one of those things where you deal with it so your partner’s alright. Now I know I shouldn’t have.”
“Exactly. It’s that cliché where I’m from a father that worked on a building site and I’ve never seen him cry. He’s a lad that goes down the pub, has a few beers. We get that “I need to be that man’s man” and that says I need to man up and just with it but actually that shouldn’t be the case. We shouldn’t need to man up and just deal with it. We should be able to hurt and grieve ourselves.
“I don’t think I grieved until I joined this football team. I found out it’s okay for me to have my time apart and have my moment. I need to have that step back, as they say, and remember my child.”
Nick then went into detail about how he got involved with Sands United and how it has helped him since the loss, “I gave it up for a couple of years and I thought what better way to do it. I struggled with things like thinking about things with my current boys. I thought I was on my own, I thought I was the only one.
“And you get that buzz of football as well. You get that ninety minutes where you forget everything because you’re concentrating on what is at hand. Your mind is empty. Your body’s free and you can just express yourself on a football pitch.
“It’s given me that someone to talk to about it and not knowing that I’m not silly. I’ve got friends outside the team. I’ve got really good friends and my best friend doesn’t have anything to do with the football team whatsoever because he hasn’t lost. I wasn’t able to speak to him about what I was feeling. To him it just sounds weird. He’s only just become a dad himself but I don’t feel I can relate the feelings I was feeling – the guilt, the anxiety – because he has not felt what we’ve been through previously.
“I have that connection. I have those people to go to and I know I won’t feel the same, which is weird. I can say to the group, “I’m really struggling here. I keep overthinking things”. I’ve had so much response with the guidance and advice on things: what to do, what not to do, how to move yourself forward and people to talk to where I’ve never had that before.
“It’s a case of when it comes to your anniversary you’ve got 35 lads who text you and say, “how are you feeling today? Are you alright? How are we doing?” and making sure that you’re okay.
“There are 35 lads signed on at the moment and there are people who come a long way. There’s one who lives down in Watford and one that lives in Surrey… I would have thought they’d have joined a team close to them but they weren’t about at that time. Obviously we can’t all play on a match day so that creates the rivalry of who wants that first place spot. That’s the manager’s problem, not mine!”
The Sands United group is expanding all the time, with several football teams registered throughout the country, “I know there are Kent, Leicester and Warwickshire Sands. I know there are about 29-30 teams interested in starting a team up around the country, which is mad to think we were just one little team in Northampton who then went on to be 29 teams. It shows how much of a need it is for dads to have that bond, whether it’s in football or whether it’s in pool, cricket, rugby or anything. It doesn’t really matter. It’s just getting everyone together to have that chat.
“It’s that friends and family environment so you just have that moment when I can take my kids and my wife to football on Sunday and all the other kids are there to play with. An example now is it’s my son’s birthday tomorrow and the players will come round tonight. We’re going to have dinner and a chat. He’s been through a loss and he’s had a moment. I found him through the football team. That bond that we’ve grown as friends has turned into a family bond and that’s nice.
“It’s just getting the boys together and having a chat. When they first get together they might not start spieling out emotions but in six or seven weeks they might. It’s all about getting them together and get them doing something that they all love, whether it be cricket, pool, badminton… just get them together, to have that group, to have that connection, to have a chat.
“There’s quite an interesting fact that one baby dies every ninety minutes, which is the length of a football match and it’s what we link ourselves with quite heavily. So every ninety minutes we play on a Sunday unfortunately there’s another loss. Hopefully we can reach out to that family and help them with their loss. That’s what we look at. Whether it will lead into other things like cricket and what not is another question. Hopefully it does. What Rob and the guys started in a pub in Northampton is just unbelievable and it’s a massive credit to them.
“The wives get involved a lot and you would think they wouldn’t get too much involved in the football side of it. You turn up on a Sunday morning and you see them all on the sidelines watching. They do a little bit behind the scenes that no one sees.
“Rob’s wife and my wife are currently doing a charity match on 25 May, where we’re playing against some ex-professionals and local celebrities to raise money for the end of the season. Charlotte and Sarah, who are mine and Rob’s wives, have just taken that on and they’re running with it; they’re doing all the organising of that. They get together outside of the football. Half of the girls go to bingo on a Tuesday night and that’s theirway of getting together and communicating and supporting each other. Whether that a group dancing or going to bingo on a Tuesday night, they’ve got theirconnection now which is really nice to see. And so do the kids.
“It’s amazing how many people have a loss but you don’t realise. Me and Sarah went into our local football club, Northampton Town, because we wanted to see if we could get players holding up a Sands shirt. That’s all we wanted: some football players holding up a Sands shirt so we could put it on Facebook. Within half an hour I gad the captain of Northampton Town ring me and said, “I love this. My wife had a loss back in …. My sister had a loss back in ….” That connection there, which I didn’t even realise, is just mad. Now he’s on board with some charity things and it’s just escalated out of all proportion, how it’s gone from just a small team to something so massive now. For the lads to speak up with their story.
“The Family Fun Day is not just to raise money for Sands but it’s a thank you to all the lads for being brave and telling their story and getting it out there and starting what we have started. They’re going to be surprised when the names are pulled out of the hat. They’re standing in the tunnel and they’re standing next to one of them! To top it off, we’ll hopefully raise a lot of money for Sands, which is a goal of ours anyway.
“It’s going to be affordable for everybody; the kids are free. It’s a kids’ club so get the kids in and let them have fun. When it’s your anniversary of your loss, you are captain of the team and we have a balloon release or a minute’s silence, a minute’s applause. It’s a couple of the lads’ anniversaries on that day so that will be nice. You’ll be able to see whatever it is they want to do for the team.
“Get involved! Whether that’s your wife’s moment to have her balloon released or have her moment as she wishes, then we can incorporate that as well.
Family Fun Day plus a football match: Sands United vs. Special XI
Saturday 25 May at Kettering Town F.C.
Adults £12 on the day
A huge thank you to Rob and Nick for giving up their time to talk to us at TBG, and a massive thank you to Ellie Dalglish for her excellent transcribing skills.