A group of grieving dads who formed Britain’s most heartbreaking football team played their first match on Father’s Day – and won 5-1.
Every player is someone who has lost a child or grandchild and the group play to support each other through their grief, both on and off the pitch.
The club named Sands United FC Doncaster was set up by John Drury, 27, after his baby son, Arthur died in his arms in February last year at just a few hours old.
Eighteen players have been recruited and the team has just been accepted to play in the Doncaster Sunday League.
Matches will be particularly poignant as every 90 minutes in the UK a baby dies shortly before, during or soon after birth.
This is why each player will have the name of his ‘lost angel’ emblazoned on his shirt underneath the club crest.
Linked to the charity, SANDS – stillbirth and neonatal death society – the aim is “to give men that platform to speak up and not bottle up their grief any more”.
John and his wife, Grace, 21, knew that Arthur faced problems, including a heart defect from December 2017, but believed it would be operable.
Arthur was born at 33 weeks after Grace was admitted to hospital with severe pre-eclampsia.
But tragically, the baby boy suffered a cardiac arrest at just five hours old and, despite the best efforts of the medical team to keep his heart going, his parents were asked to say goodbye.
John, from Carcroft near Doncaster, South Yorks., who plays centre forward, became a dad for the second time after Grace gave birth to their daughter, Theodora nine weeks ago.
He arranged the first charity game on Sunday (16/06) as a team fundraiser – and hopes to have raised around £1,000.
But the emotional day was left hanging in the balance for a time after John was forced off in the first half with shin splints.
Thanks to rolling substitutions, John started the second half and scored the third goal in a 5-1 drubbing of a local over 30s team and fittingly kissed a badge in honour of Arthur.
He said: “I had my heart set on it, it wasn’t a pretty goal but I will take it. I can’t remember a great deal about it.
“My first attempt hit the crossbar, it bounced back, the keeper fumbled it and it fell to my feet so I had a tap in, in the end.
“I just kissed the badge and then my hand where I have Arthur’s name tattooed.
“A lot of guys got overwhelmed when they scored, whatever happened, happened. Plus, you didn’t want to be too disrespectful to the other team.
“You could tell it was the first time we had played together but everyone enjoyed themselves, from the fans to the players on the pitch for both sides.
“We had a guy there who thought he was playing for the other team, we pulled out the kit that had been bought to play for us as a one-off and he was reduced to tears because he had his granddaughter’s name on the shirt.
“The guys had never seen the kits before today, so they all saw their angels names under their badge, with it being Father’s Day it added that extra bit of emotion to it all.
“It was a really good game and played mainly in the right spirits, there were a few altercations when challenges were flying in but that’s what happens in football.”
John was given a guard of honour by teammates and the opposing side after bringing together the group of unique dads.
He has told how much more emotional it was to play the match on Father’s Day.
“You could just see the morning’s people had, had. Some of the players had said they hadn’t slept very well the night before,” added John.
“It’s very different for everyone because we are all at different stages of grief.
“I woke up yesterday morning and my wife brought my Father’s Day card up. There was a message in there she had written from Arthur and Theadora.
“It said: We hope you have the wonderful Father’s Day that you deserve so much.
“We could not be more proud of you nor could we have asked for a better daddy. We will be watching you today and will always be with you, whether that’s in your arms or in your heart.
“We love you so, so much and will do forever and always. Your babies Arthur and Theodora.
“I am just glad I had my moment before football just at home with Grace and Theodora. I could compose myself at football and concentrate.”
John came up with the idea of forming a football team to help him deal with the death of his son and to reach out to other dads.
He began recruiting and now has a team of 18 players which includes a 21-year-old and granddad in his forties.
The team will play in the Doncaster Sunday League, which is a competitive 11-a-side competition, for the 2019/2020 season.