A group of grieving dads have formed one of Britain’s most heartbreaking football teams – with players wearing the names of their ‘lost angels’ on their shirts.
Every player is a father 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.
They have already recruited a squad of 19 and 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 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 his mother was admitted to hospital with severe pre-eclampsia.
But tragically, he 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, said: “It was very hard and very surreal. Even now it’s a struggle to put into words how you feel.
“Arthur died just before mothering Sunday last year and that day was so difficult to get through.
“After the funeral we wanted to be active and do things in his honour, to help others.
“With the shared love of their children and the beautiful game, we hope, one by one, the men in the team can learn from one another and tell their story in their own time and when they feel ready.
“We have met some wonderful people. This is the club you never want to be a part of, yet it is so supportive.
“No-one deals with grief in the same way but together we can get through anything.
“There’s a strong link in that a child dies every 90 minutes, the same length as a football game, which is a constant reminder.”
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’s already recruited 19 players and more are coming forward all the time. One player is a grandad in his forties.
“Not a day went by or goes by when Arthur’s name isn’t mentioned,” said John.
“There isn’t a great deal in Doncaster to help people who have gone through the trauma of losing a child.
“We are lucky in that we have a very supportive family and friends. But we wanted to reach out to others. Dads can sometimes be overlooked.
“I got the idea of the team when coaching Doncaster Belles U15s. My love of football came back and I wanted to get back playing. I’ve been channelling my grief into this.
“It’s early days but on our first meeting last week 13 turned up, and more have signed since then.
“Goals on Wheatley Hall Road gave us our first session for free and have offered reduced rates.”
A first charity event is to take place on Fathers’ Day, June 16 this year, with John’s squad playing an over 30s team from the Keepmoat.
Proceeds will fund kit and necessities for the team.
John says the club will play a series of friendly matches next season as he continues to build and develop the squad, which is currently made up of men with varying degrees of experience.
From the 2020/21 season, they will play in the Doncaster Sunday League, which is a competitive 11-a-side competition.
John hopes to have at least 23 players signed up by then.
Sponsors are still being sought, and any offers of help with funding would be welcomed.
John’s initiative is growing bigger at a pace, with members from across South Yorkshire.
He hopes eventually there will be a tournament of SANDS teams.
Babies’ names are to be mentioned and honoured by team members on their birthdays, and each player will bear the name of their child or grandchild on their shirt.
Sadly some players will have up to three different names on their jersey.
John and Grace have raised £800 by climbing Ben Nevis for Leeds Children’s Hospital, where Arthur was treated.
It was at the top of the mountain that John proposed to Grace, and they married in December 2018.
A charity night at their local pub raised another £1000 for Bluebell Wood Hospice, all in Arthur’s memory.
Anyone wanting more details or to join the group can contact them via their Facebook page, or by John’s own Facebook page.