Photography: Liam Jones / liamjonesphotie

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The story of Liverpool Football Therapy is one forged in collective vulnerability, courage, and acceptance. As the team continue to triumph on and off the pitch, Matthew Berks explores the work behind the organisation saving lives through early intervention.

When Liverpool Football Therapy lifted the inaugural Mental Health Football Association tournament cup on 22nd May, it was difficult not to witness more than just a modest piece of silverware being lifted into the sky. Despite coasting through an unbeaten run to beat Man Marking in the final, the trophy lift was as much a celebration of the journey many had been on up to that day as it was recognition of one team’s exceptional form. As the club were crowned champions, there was a similar sense of pride and victory for the other 14 clubs hailing from across the UK who competed as one to kick the stigma surrounding mental health. Nowhere on Merseyside had ‘This Means More’ rang truer than right here on a community pitch in Huyton.

Two days before kick-off at City of Liverpool FC’s Purple Hub, Colin Dolan reported the 100th sign-up to Liverpool Football Therapy – a Community Interest Company (CIC) that uses football to improve the physical, mental and social wellbeing of adults with mental ill health. It’s a milestone that speaks to the popularity of the initiative as much as the severity of a mental health crisis that sprung it into existence. Up until the country’s first lockdown, Colin was managing approximately 40 participants in one session. He now runs three two-hour sessions every week for men and women aged between 18 and 60 and plans to expand the programme. “These are all people who regularly use the services,” he tells me over a decaffeinated latte wearing his coaching attire, with initials CD stitched into the jacket’s chest. “That number is only going to grow.”

In assembling 15 football clubs and 160 players from Birkenhead to Greenock in Scotland, the first Mental Health FA tournament appraised the role of football as a tool for mental health recovery. One of the clubs competing, the All Stars, boasted a star-studded line-up including Ian Byrne MP, The Farm’s Peter Hooton and Liverpool City Region Mayor Steve Rotheram, who, speaking in front of the Fans Supporting Foodbanks van, saw the day as an opportunity to raise the platform of football therapy.

“Kicking a football around a pitch is one of my favourite pastimes, so I’m combining the two – doing some good but probably making myself feel better in the process. Hopefully people are much more aware now that far too many young men take their lives. We need to talk about things like mental ill health.” Paul Manning, co-chairman of tournament hosts City of Liverpool FC, reinforced the mayor’s views. “A lot of it has to do with self-esteem. It’s a team game, you feel part of something instantly,” he said. “Football can mean anything to anyone, you can go on a pitch and be anyone you want to be. It’s the whole gamut of human emotions. Football is life.”

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James’ Place – one of the teams competing at the Mental Health FA’s inaugural tournament cup

On occasions when football shares conversations with mental health – of having the power to transform and improve our lives – it’s often met with surprise from some who see the sport as little more than light entertainment. In this reality, football’s parameters are contained within a set of goals and 90 minutes of playing time; it’s a game of zero-sum absolutes, with two teams competing until the spectacle ends, seeing players and fans return home to more ordinary lives.

Like any one of the other mental health teams at the tournament that day, Liverpool Football Therapy doesn’t begin and end with the blow of a whistle. Its work isn’t confined to a pitch for 90 minutes. Its players don’t suddenly return to a different life when the spectacle is over. It’s a project that, since beginning formally in 2019, has continued to provide a platform for adults affected by mental ill health, with the squad acting as an immediate peer support network on and off the pitch.

Colin Dolan, the programme’s founder and chief executive of Mental Health FA, began to write the first chapters of Liverpool Football Therapy following his own experiences with mental ill health, including bipolar and periods of mania. “I’ve suffered from mental ill health since my early 20s and have been depressed for a number of years, on and off. I have had lots of periods with suicidal thoughts and, sadly, I’ve succumbed to those thoughts on a few occasions by trying to take my life five times.”

Colin’s adolescence in Glasgow’s East End strikes at the heart of the stigma surrounding mental health: the perceived shame that prohibits seeking help, particularly in more masculine settings. “It was very much a macho environment where showing weakness was just not an option – you were bullied and abused. I certainly didn’t want to tell people how bad I was. I put [my first suicide attempt] down to just a silly mistake and no one in my family ever spoke about it. I was very much embarrassed and always hoped that no one would find out.” Finally diagnosed with bipolar in 1997, Colin had spent years unable to acknowledge and find recourse for his illness. “I had gone all those years without seeing doctors and psychiatrists. I thought I knew better than them, like most of us do at times.”

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Colin Dolan, founder of Liverpool Football Therapy and CEO of Mental Health FA

Following a move to Liverpool in 1995 that was decided by the flip of a coin, Colin continued to experience mental ill health right up to 2012 when he was voluntarily hospitalised for his own welfare. “When I came out of hospital, I went into a friend’s house in Toxteth while I waited for a house with my wife, Michelle. For about six months I was in my bedroom not wanting to come out, just getting lost.” It was here when Michelle signposted Colin to Imagine Your Goals, a mental health football programme run in partnership between Everton in The Community (EITC) and Mersey Care.

“These are all people who are diagnosed and under mental health services. It can be a long drawn out process to get on board, but I went through it. Not only did EITC change my life, they saved my life and helped me become the person that I’d always hoped to be.” Colin saw in football-led therapy a way to combine the benefits of exercise with the peer support each session would naturally provide. “Football has always been my escape from everything in life. But the Everton [programme] just seemed that bit more special compared to any football club or organisation I’d ever been to, because I was surrounded by so many people who were also on their journeys through mental ill health.” The course of Liverpool Football Therapy was set. “That’s what I decided to do – dedicate my life to helping other people, and that’s never going to change.”

Those who have had to navigate the complex world of mental health services will be familiar with the numerous barriers and bureaucratic hurdles required to access appropriate treatment. Owing to lengthy referral processes – together with the stigma around help – Colin knew there existed a number of adults who were slipping through the net. “[Getting referred] can take a long, long time, through no fault of Mersey Care or EITC – sadly neither have enough funding to push the process through quicker. So, I saw there were people who wouldn’t go to the doctors, or people who would go but wouldn’t go and see a psychiatrist. Some might see a psychiatrist but won’t take medication – they won’t go on the books of Mersey Care because they don’t want to be seen as a regular, so we have all these barriers.”

When Colin began the sessions for Liverpool Football Therapy in 2019, they were founded on the principle that early intervention can buy time. As such, he maintains a no-referral joining process to ensure the programme remains accessible to all, diagnosed or undiagnosed. “Early intervention saves lives. Someone with stress or a mild form of depression may never experience suicidal thoughts – but they could, and if we can nip it in the bud then there’s at least a better chance that it’ll never happen at all.”

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Luke McNulty

For many of the players, the programme brings purpose, responsibility and focus back into their lives. Luke McNulty joined Liverpool Football Therapy in the Summer of 2019 and lives with ADHD. “Liverpool Football Therapy has been the best thing on the planet for me. At the time I joined, I was going through a really dark patch and wanted to commit suicide every day of my life. I had no real motivation to get out of bed, so this has been an outlet for me.” With the opportunity to socialise with peers living with mental ill health, Luke acknowledges the unique space that the programme offers for opening up. “In the real world, there’s a stigma around mental health. Someone could ask you how you’re feeling and the answer you give might not be the answer you want them to hear. But in this sort of environment, you kind of know what everyone’s going through, so it’s a little bit easier to have those conversations.”

Such is the programme’s close-knit environment that players are more like family than teammates, all at varying stages of recovery. Ryan Spencer has been a player for over two years and was parachuted in as captain at the tournament following his teammate’s injury. “The opportunities I’ve had off Colin have been unbelievable. I’ve met so many new friends on it, so many good people. The majority of players are friends for life now – we’re like a family. People on the programme have all got different mental health issues, but we all stick together when one of us is down, and I think that’s the biggest part of it. Not the football side – I think because we’re like a pack.”

As head patron of the team, Colin has witnessed the familial bonds take flight beyond the pitch. “We reach out for each other all the time. You sense that feeling of belonging, of brotherhood and sisterhood. When we’ve got that bond, you know you can put your arm around anyone to help them.”

Where you’re supportive of each other on the pitch, you’re supportive off the pitch Colin Dolan, founder of Liverpool Football Therapy
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This sense of belonging is just as strong at the sidelines as it is during a game. Like any other amateur football club, Colin begins each session by having players stand against the wall for team selection before playing commences. “What happens at the side of the pitch – that’s different,” he says with a smile, as if letting me in on the programme’s best kept secret. “That’s when the banter starts, and that’s when the peer support comes in, because people will highlight stuff that’s been said in the WhatsApp group and ask if they need help. Where you’re supportive of each other on the pitch, you’re very supportive off the pitch.”

Provisional data from the Office for National Statistics reveal that in 2020, 4,902 deaths by suicide were recorded in England, with men accounting for 75 per cent at 3,674. In many of these cases, access to mental health support would have arrived too late. Jane Boland, centre manager and clinical lead at James’ Place – a Liverpool-based suicide prevention centre for men named after a young man who died by suicide – was at the tournament to cheer on the centre’s debut appearance. “James went looking for help but the help that he needed didn’t come. Our mission is to make sure that when men get to that crisis point, they can access help and that the help comes quickly.”

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Ryan Spencer

Liverpool Football Therapy’s mix of age, gender and sporting abilities allows for a much more diverse environment where support is continually bounced off one another, as opposed to institutional, top-down support structures. “They’re aware that it’s not just about football,” Jane continues, “it’s about looking after each other as well. [Support] goes both ways, because the older fellas are actually in the highest risk group, so I think perhaps sometimes the older fellas are being taught by the younger men that it’s alright to talk to each other – it’s alright to show that you’re a bit vulnerable.”

When Liverpool Football Therapy lifted the Mental Health Football Association tournament cup on 22nd May, they were showing not just the strength to confront what many have seen as a weakness, but the strength to show it’s alright to be a bit vulnerable. As he saw his footballing family lift the trophy, Colin saw something he’d known ever since his first session as a player himself all those years ago: football therapy works. “My players won’t always need me – they can do it themselves,” he concludes. “Many of them now have the confidence to become leaders and go, ‘I’ll come and sit with you’.”

Liverpool Football Therapy FC hold sessions every Tuesday at Evans Road Speke, every Wednesday at Goals Soccer Centre Netherton, and every Friday at The Purple Hub Huyton.

The Samaritans (116 123) operate a free 24-hour mental health listening service available every day of the year.

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