United in grief, hope and football - dads' team returns after lockdown

A team of dads from  Sands United FC Ipswich

A team of dads from Sands United FC Ipswich - Credit: Steve Waller/ Pagepix

A team of Ipswich dads who came together in united solidarity after experiencing baby loss are now back on the football pitch.

The Sands United FC Ipswich team was started in February 2020, bringing together dads who had each lost a child - only to be hit by Covid lockdown within weeks.

But the dads stayed in touch via WhatsApp and are now meeting up at Gainsborough Sports Centre once again, after receiving a Covid "Restart" grant.

Founder Andrew Wilesmith said: “I cannot overstate how powerful it is for men to be able to get together on the pitch and share in a game of football the way we do – particularly in the light of losing a child.

"It's a club no one wants to join, but which can help people to support each other. 

Andrew Wilesmith, founder of Sands United FC Ipswich team

Andrew Wilesmith, founder of Sands United FC Ipswich team - Credit: Steve Waller/ Pagepix

"My wife and I had gone through a loss ourselves and I thought it would be a good idea to start a team, after I heard about the original Sands United club in Northamptonshire.

"We managed to get four sessions in - then Covid hit, but we all stayed in touch and even got people joining while we were not meeting."

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Some dads also choose just to join the WhatsApp group.

Since restarting after the lockdown, the club has grown to more than 20 men. Andrew said it has also been helped and supported by many other local football clubs.

Some of the bereaved dads in Sands United FC Ipswich

Some of the bereaved dads in Sands United FC Ipswich - Credit: Steve Waller/ Pagepix

"Men are not very good at talking about things like this, so it's really about using sport to bring people together," he said.

"Rather than saying, 'We have got a support group', it's saying, 'We have got a few men who have been through baby loss who are going to play some football."

He added members do not have to share their story, but just know that others are there to listen if they want to.

Members marked Baby Loss Awareness Week with a charity fundraiser which saw Ipswich Town legend Terry Butcher manage the team for the evening.

They successfully raised £1,450 for Ipswich Baby Bereavement Support Group.

The club has also raised funds for the Sands (Stillbirth and Neonatal Death charity).

Players get in action at Ipswich Sands  United FC 

Players get in action at Ipswich Sands United FC - Credit: Steve Waller/ Pagepix

Complexities around Covid safety and risk prevention made it difficult for the team to fully return, even once sports clubs were allowed. 

However, a  Suffolk Community Restart grant, worth £475, has allowed them to purchase 12 further footballs, a new set of bibs, and re-useable water bottles, all helping with safety and enabling them to restart.

Andrew said: “We were delighted to be able to approach Community Action Suffolk about the Restart grant, and were quickly approved to get more kit and balls, so that we would have less sharing of items to do, and could maintain Covid safety.”

The funds have been awarded via the Suffolk Community Restart programme, which is being led by Community Action Suffolk and is made possible through partnership working involving Suffolk County Council, East Suffolk Council, West Suffolk Council, Ipswich Borough Council and Babergh and Mid Suffolk District Councils.

Chris Abraham, Chief Executive of Community Action Suffolk, said: “The pandemic has been devastating for so many community-based organisations, and you can see from the story of Sands, that many of those groups were and are an absolute lifeline in friendship and support.

“We’re delighted that the Restart programme has enabled the fathers to be back on the pitch on a regular basis and providing each other with friendship and empathy.”

For more information about Sands United FC Ipswich, email the club.

To find out more about the Suffolk Community Restart project, visit the website.