Sands United FC - The football team playing in memory of lost loved ones
Recently, we visited Sands United FC Stockport to meet some of the inspiring individuals behind the success of the team.
Founded in 2018, Sands (Stillbirth & neonatal death) United FC is a unique way for dads and other bereaved family members to come together through a shared love of sport and find a support network where they can feel at ease talking about their grief.
Sands United FC Stockport started out as a small group of individuals, but now regularly attract in excess of 15 individuals to Tuesday training sessions at Stockport Sports Village and matches on a Sunday.
Joel Kelly, Sands United FC Stockport founder, said: “I came across it through another team in Northampton and I realised that there was nothing in Stockport for men, so I took it upon myself and set the team up – it’s probably the best thing I’ve ever done.
“It’s massively important that these men know that they’ve got somewhere where they can come and be themselves.
“They aren’t playing for another Sunday League team where everyone’s judging them; everyone is their own person. At the end of the day, everyone has the same reason to be there; to remember their baby and try and move on with their life in a positive way.
“From the first session of six people to having over 20 every week is amazing. People meet each outside of football and it is just a massive community of people who came together through one sport.
“I’ve taken on and built [the session], but without all the dads and mums coming down, it’s nothing. I’m massively proud of where it’s ended up because I never expected anything like this.”
The first Sands United FC grew from grief after Charlotte and Rob Allen’s baby daughter Niamh died on 9 October 2017 at 39 weeks and 3 days.
The couple vowed to do all they could to honour their daughter’s memory and ensure her legacy lived forever on, and Rob’s love of football led to him organising a football match at Northampton Town FC in aid of Sands on 23 May 2018.
After the success of the match, the bereaved dads, uncles and brothers decided to form Sands United FC, in Northampton’s Nene Valley League.
Having originated in Northampton, there are now more than 33 Sands United teams operating across the UK, ranging from Londonderry, Northern Ireland, all the way to Dover.
Daniel Whitehouse, Sands United FC Stockport player, said: Football every Sunday is what I look forward to, and after having stillborn twins in 2015, I was looking for a team to be involved with.
“I looked up Sands United and saw there was one right near where I lived. I spoke to the manager and as soon as I came down, I felt at home and knew this was where I needed to be playing football.
“We’re a bit family now and everyone is always there for each other. It’s something to look forward to and it takes your mind off everything.”
Sadly, the death of a baby is not a rare event and every 90 minutes in the UK – the length of a football match - a baby dies shortly before, during or soon after birth.
The feelings of loneliness and isolation can be overwhelming and having other bereaved parents to talk to is vital, but dads can sometimes be overlooked or struggle to find ways of getting support that suits them.
Sands United FC allows bereaved parents and other family relatives to use their love of sport to re-establish a sense of normality in such difficult times, aiding the grieving process by providing access to a community of individuals who have been through similar experiences.
Greg Foster, Sands United FC Stockport player, said: It’s something that I’d heard of when we lost our son about 12 months ago. I’d heard there were football teams [like this], but at that stage I wasn’t thinking about football.
“My friend saw the name in a local league [a few months later] and thought it might be of interest for me. That gave me the kickstart I needed; I was ready to do something in memory of our son and get active again. I came down to training, absolutely loved it and that same night I registered for the team.
“It’s probably been the most positive influence that I’ve done over these last 12 months. We’re obviously there for our love of football, but also well aware of the reasons why we’re doing it.
“Being with people who’ve been through the same thing is the best thing you could probably do. You understand that you’re not alone and that too many people have been through the same thing.
“It’s brought part of the old me back. I’ve always loved football; when we go out on the pitch, we never forget why we’re there, but getting involved in the game and remembering that passion of sport is the perfect therapy for me.”