A football club that saves lives threatened with closure

The full team ready for action

Safa Macit is Hackney FC’s version of Stephen Gerrard, I am told, with a vicious strike at his disposal and an endearing ignorance of knowing when to give up.

In 2000 he was diagnosed with severe OCD and suffered from violent mood swings, having to go in and out of hospital for treatment. Now he is one of a 20-strong football squad, all of whom are suffering or recovering from mental illness

Wins on the field have been easy to come by lately, however Safa is in no doubt about the positive results off the field as well.

“I really enjoy playing football with this team. I like  having fun with the people I play with, as I wasn’t very well before”

Safa speaks about the team very seriously, the concentration furrowed onto his brow even more pronounced by its contrast to his natural jovial demeanour.

“Before I played, I used to have really bad anger problems, and so it is important that I am part of the team. Before I didn’t believe in myself, didn’t have enough confidence, but this has changed it.”

Safa is the team’s creative midfielder, and the woman beaming next to him as he talks, is an equally creative member of the team. Janette is clearly very proud to hear Safa’s comments; she created the team and the league that they play in.

“Safa is a great example of what being part of the team can do for someone. Many of these guys were just coming out of hospital after treatment and just sitting at home drinking or smoking cannabis, and so they would never really get better, there was nothing like this for them. ”

The team was set-up along with the league they play in, almost a decade ago, by Janette Haynes, an occupational therapist. Janette is 36, and an ex-player herself, and her enthusiasm for what she has created has not waned over the years.

“I am incredibly proud of how it’s gone, it’s hard work but we are changing the way mental health is seen-helping to break down barriers, and being part of the community and having a role.

“I realised there was an interest when I was working with these guys day-in-day-out. When they played sport together, they became less anxious and more confident. When I was doing my research into mental health it became clear that there was nothing set-up for them-support wise for when they got outside treatment.”

Janette Haynes creator of Hackney FC and the PMU leagues.

Word has definitely spread. Nine years ago there were only a handful of players, but now there is a league with over fourteen teams, most with a full squad.

“Now we have weekly matches and everyone gets involved. There was nothing like this for them before. Just a simple thing like exercise and socialising wasn’t available to many, and what was in available in a close-to-normal environment was just boring to be honest”

Albert Daniel Dias, 46 suffers from schizophrenia and has been part of the team for over five years. Albert agrees with Janette that there wasn’t enough opportunities when in recovery.

“In the past I was very wary and got a lot of paranoia, always thinking people were laughing at me. I didn’t know what to do, as I was just on my own a lot and getting worse. Being part of this team has helped me with self-assurance, I am a lot more confident in myself and am able to be a lot more sociable.”

Albert, along with two other members of the team are now working towards the level one of their coaching badges, which Albert insists is just as important as the football.

“I’ve now got a national diploma, some A-Levels and am doing my coaching badge. It’ given me strength of character.”

David Smith, the team’s coach has already got his coaching badges, and is a shining example of how far the benefits of the team can go.

David joined the club, playing just once a week:  “only when the weather was nice,” but soon became an integral part of the set-up which eventually led to him becoming the team’s coach.

“I had bi-polar and basically was a manic depressive, coming out of hospital and just drinking and not going out much. Being part of the team at the start made me confident enough to say my own words and come out of my shell.

“It’s amazing to think what has happened since I joined, as my brother and me both got jobs as occupational therapist assistants and we’re now in full-time employment.

“One of the main benefits is definitely socialising. We go out once a month for dream trips, like were going bowling tomorrow and we go to the café and get some drinks and food.”

David Smith the team's coach

It is clear from just watching a bit of the training that everyone takes the football very seriously, every moment analysed afterwards, every piece of skill, rapturously received. However the results for individuals are not about just about football. Janette is keen to emphasise this.

“Its common sense. Exercise and friendship are always going to help people in these situations. Many don’t have any physical problems and so get frustrated that they cannot get involved with stuff they used to be able to do, even though their bodies can still do it.

“Many of these guys were getting worse in their illness. They were not only suffering or recovering from their conditions but also getting depressed. There was no need for it.”

The friendly match that they have at the end of training is only a minute old and Sefa is already looking lively in front of goal. It’s impossible to imagine that if the team wasn’t set-up then these energetic guys would just be sitting indoors, with their conditions getting more serious because of it.

Some of the players gearing up for a game

The continued existence of the club however is not guaranteed. Funding has been provided from the NHS for the last three years, but that is to stop in May and both Janette and David are acutely aware of the negative impact the club closing would have.

David says: “At the moment it’s not looking good. Were trying to get the players to raise ten pounds each so we can get some funds together. We usually go the café after training, and that’s an important part of the socialising but that might have to stop now.”

Janette’s shared concern is etched all over her face as she talks about the problem.

“It’s just barrier after barrier at the moment, and we are at the point now where we need funding to survive. You can see the benefits, the way they have a meaningful structure to their lives and are able to achieve the goals they set, but because it is mental health no-one will invest.

“This is an opportunity to give some of these guys the right choice; anyone can see it’s a bloody good investment. It should be in every community, the positive effects are there for everyone to see, and if not then it will be ten years of work gone. We have until May to find the money.”

This is a project that is really changing people’s lives for the better, with no gimmicks or fancy sponsors-  just through playing football, without it there is no doubt that many lives would be even harder than they already are.

To get in contact with the club about funding or for information visit their website.

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