02 Sep 2019 in Club Features
A few weeks ago AFC Oldham’s Mental Health Football was nominated for Oldham Sports Awards Community Initiative of the Year, an impressive feat considering it is still in its first year.
It will also complete what has been an incredible 12 months for Co-Founder Andy Steel, who stood on the same Queen Elizabeth Hall stage at last year’s event.
On that occasion the AFC Oldham Ladies Manager and Joint First Team Manager won the Volunteer of the Year, for his work with the club.
Steel went onto win the Greater Manchester Sports Awards, becoming part of the Cerebral Palsy Sport Engage Program as a result.
In January he teamed up with First Team Manager, Ross Elliott, and formed Mental Health Football with the help from the Oldham Athletic Community Trust.
It was something of a passion project for Steel, as someone who has dealt with mental health issues in the past that continue to this day.
“I was originally diagnosed with medium to severe depression and anxiety nine years ago, booking and attending that doctor’s appointment is probably one of the few times I’ve actually actively had to put my health first.
I had been suffering for months, years probably, but it all came to a head one morning when I was staying at my (then) girlfriend’s house.
I won’t go in detail, but I woke up and all I had in my head was this image of me hurting myself. It was the first time I had ever imagined something as serious and graphic as that.
I knew then I had to do something, I was given time off work to give me the space to deal with my depression, but all I felt was isolation and confusion.
That isolation has always been there and still sticks around now, no matter how good my support network is.
It was only talking to someone from CP Sport that really highlighted it, she said how many people with Cerebral Palsy have mentioned feeling it.
There is always that knowledge that deep down you are not the same or comparable to your contemporaries and people closest to you, no matter what you do, you’ll always be the guy with CP.
It ends up defining you, your biggest insecurity there for the world to see, unchangeable, unfixable.
My worst moment came on the night of my birthday, thousands of miles away from home, in an empty motel room.
Having not slept for properly for weeks, with my ankle giving me horrendous pain so much so I could barely even move off the bed.
I lay there and realised that I could no longer carry on, any strength I had or hope had ebbed away. I managed to get into the bathroom and stood there, believing I was ready to end it.
All I remember is being unable to do it and thinking I was a coward, I didn’t sleep that night I just lay in bed, feeling empty and alone.
One thing I will always be thankful is how many people reached out when it was obvious I was in a bad way, especially ex-colleagues from Oldham Athletic.
It brought it back how much being part of a team, something bigger than yourself meant, how much it helped.
A few months later I joined AFC Oldham, while the depression and isolation never truly goes, I’d found a coping mechanism, in football.
This is really where MHF came from, I’d won the Oldham Sports Award for Volunteer of the Year, I’d worked hard, but what difference I had I actually made to people’s lives?
What if I could use my experiences to make a difference, even a small one? That’s when I approached Ross with an idea about a weekly game of football.
Something you would do with friends, somewhere that judgement would be left at the door and it would be just about football and camaraderie.
The idea grew, so now we run a weekly game of football for one hour. The sole focus on being having fun, where you aren’t someone with a mental health issue, you’re a footballer.
Being shortlisted for the OSA Community Initiative of the Year means more than any individual award I’ve ever won, MHF is the most important thing I will ever be a part of.
The praise is nice, but the best moment for me, is seeing a bunch of people, who in any other walk of life would be strangers, smile and laugh together, or seeing the joy on someone’s face when they score or do something good.
It isn’t about your ability, it’s about finding that joy in something, even if just for an hour.
I am so grateful to the Community Trust for supporting it, AFC Oldham for allowing us to start it and backing it, Matt Hart and Luke Richardson who got involved from day one and have helped us out, massively but most of all to Ross who took a scattered idea and helped to turn it into something that has changed lives.
Football saved my life, I have no doubt about that, I hope that MHF can help others too.”
Mental Health take place every Friday from 7pm to 8pm, at the Oldham Futsal Arena OL9 6AA, it is free to attend and is played indoor.
There are no scores, no need for a referral or sign up, just #FootballForFun