Dealing with bereavement is an issue many people face in life, but many react to it differently. That grief is no different when it involves a newborn baby with, unfortunately, around 14 dying before, during or soon after birth each day in the UK.
Based out of Writtle FC’s Paradise Road home, FC Vilomah (formerly Sands United Essex) were formed in October 2019. “The teams are a unique way for bereaved dads and other family members to come together through a shared love of sport and to find a support network where they can feel at ease talking about their grief when they're ready,” said Chairman Simon Johns.
Continuing to sum-up the club’s objectives, he added: “Players also commemorate their babies’ all too brief lives by proudly displaying their names on the kit worn for every match. Each team member also helps make a real difference by raising vital funds to help many baby loss charities support the bereaved, improve care and save lives.”
A little over two years since the creation of the first Sands team in Northamptonshire, the network of teams has continued to grow. Simon said: “With bereaved dads and others affected by pregnancy and baby loss having set-up more than 30 sides nationally, we’ve helped more bereaved families channel their grief, raise vital funds for the charity and help break the silence around baby loss.”
For Simon, the motivation to reach out and do something different was strong, and its seen the side quickly go from strength to strength: “Back in 2019, I had no idea how to help myself grieve after the loss of our daughter, Jessica. There aren’t a lot of resources out there, and very few ways to speak with other dads who have been through something similar.”
“That’s when I decided to try and bring some dads together through our shared tragedy and, honestly, I can say hand-on-heart, this is one of the main things that kept me going. It was definitely hard work at the beginning, especially trying to find other bereaved dads to play.”
“In a way, you actually don’t want to find players because for every dad available to join the club you know they have lost something so precious but we know they are out there and for us it’s about somehow letting them know we are here for them. Once we launched the idea of the club, things spiralled, and the players have all been so helpful in getting the club to where we are today.”
“A huge motivation for me is knowing that every dad and family that’s been touched by the club in one way or another has seen the benefits of being part of it and constantly reminds me of why we do it, to remember our children.”
The team made a move into regular competitive Sunday football in the 2020/21 season, joining Division Three of the Pope & Smith Chelmsford Sunday League as they looked for a new challenge. “We were full of anticipation last summer, having played a number of friendlies, and were ready to start the new season,” recalled Simon.
“However, due to Covid-19, it clearly has been a stop-start year for us which has been hard, but has also brought the club together in many other ways off the field. The support we have had from friends, family and people we didn’t even know has been nothing short of remarkable.”
“We started in 2019 with just enough players to join the Pope & Smith League for the following season, and now have around 30 dads involved. Of course, everyone wants to win matches and we always try our hardest but for us, it’s so much more than that and we don’t pick the sides purely on ability. We have had mixed results like any other team, winning games that were close and losing games we thought we should have won.”
With regular football is also the opportunity for further progress and Simon is delighted the club have been able to do just that in such a short space of time, with FA Charter Standard status (now England Football Accredited) underpinning his club’s standing, alongside this year’s commendation for Grassroots Project of the Year and Simon’s own personal winners’ award for Spirit of Grassroots Football.
Simon explained: “We worked incredibly hard to secure Charter Standard status and were over the moon to be able to work with Writtle Sports & Social Club and the fantastic facilities on offer. In such a short space of time, we transformed from a group of dads to a proper club, still run the same as day one but with a home to call our own after we decorated our changing room.”
It’s evident there’s already a special club at FC Vilomah and, as Simon explains, they’ve even made the most of the unprecedented interruptions to football: “One benefit of the various lockdowns has been allowing the club to fundraise and support more people through sport and activities.”
“We now do a lot more than just football, such as holding regular golf day events and even online quizzes so more people can be involved. The club raised more than £10,000 for charity in its first year. The target is to do the same again this year and we are constantly looking at how we can give back.”
One of the main reasons for coming away from the Sands United umbrella and re-naming the club was to be able to support more local charities and the bereavement suites at the four main Essex hospitals. The club is developing as it makes its first strides into regular football… but where does Simon see it in five years’ time?
“The main thing would be to not see the club as a bunch of dads who sit around being upset all the time,” was his instinctive response, adding: “Our club has such a positive influence on the dads who join. Looking back at the laughter, the friendships, the sharing that has taken place, it has been amazing. Just thinking about myself, and how far I have come with my grief, it has so much to do with being surrounded by people who are also living with it.”
However, as Simon details, the club’s primary objectives will remain firm: “The aim of the club is a place to be able to remember your baby, be yourself and understand you can still move forward in a positive way. It’s OK to laugh and it’s OK to cry.”
“Yes, we are all sadly in this club due to the devastating loss of a child, but it’s a club where everyone understands what you have been through and the support is there if you need it. For some, it’s a place simply to clear their mind and have some fun. We have dads and family members of all ages and who have all experienced loss at different times, some within the last year, some many years ago.”
“There really are no fitness, age or ability requirements, and every dad is welcomed. There’s no commitment to attend every training session or game and some dads simply come to training every now and then to support their own mental health.”
“Sadly, there will be many more dads who find themselves in the same position as us, and losing a child is something that stays with you your whole life. With the support of the Football Foundation, alongside the Essex County FA and all the sponsors that have supported us our continued growth means we’re adding a second team to the club in the form of a vets side.
“So, if you are over 35 and want any information, please get in touch. The long-term goal is to simply support as many families, and the charities, as we can.”
There are several charities that can support you after the loss of a baby, one of them being Sands, who offer a helpline which is free to call from landlines and mobiles on (0808) 164 3332. The helpline team are available to speak from 10:00am-3:00pm Monday to Friday and 6:00-9:00pm on Tuesday and Thursday evenings. They can also be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.