Side-by-side and united by a common goal – to these men football’s more than just a game.
It has become a matter of life and death. A battle that lasts longer than 90 minutes, a daily fight with mental ill health.
They are all beating the blues thanks to a ground-breaking scheme at Everton FC, whose winger Aaron Lennon admitted he has been suffering depression.
The Prem giants are using football to treat mental ill health. And it’s working.
Imagine Your Goals brings together those with conditions such as depression or bipolarism. It is to be rolled out nationally to help soaring numbers of people needing support.
It provides a supportive environment and access to trained professionals, who specialise in offering mental health care, and has pulled many back from the brink of suicide.
The scheme has led to the launch of a mental health football league – the first of its kind in the UK. It has now been adopted by 15 other Premiership sides, offering the chance to play against those facing similar illnesses.
For Liverpudlian John Kelly, 35, IYG has been life-changing. He said: “I dread to think where I’d be without this scheme. It has rescued me.” John’s infectious smile belies the rocky road he has been on since a motorway crash in 2012 shattered his life.
He suffered a severe brain injury and after spending three weeks in a coma had to relearn how to walk, talk, eat and even use the loo.
His girlfriend left him and his successful career as a sales manager lay in tatters after doctors told him he would never work again.
He said: “I felt like I was a toddler again. From being quite successful in life, I had nothing. Of course it had an impact on my mental health.”
In 2013 he was referred to IYG which has helped him deal with depression as well as aiding his physical recovery.
He said: “It’s boosted my confidence, improved my communication skills, helped with my cognitive thinking and definitely saved me from depression.
“Everyone here is in the same boat and rooting for everyone else. These guys are like my brothers.”
The scheme is run by the club’s charity Everton in the Community in partnership with Mersey Care NHS Trust. It has given team members the chance to travel across the UK and even abroad to play in football tournaments.
The Everton IYG team has an impressive collection of silverware including a winners’ trophy from the European Mental Health Championship in Hamburg, Germany.
According to an independent report in the Journal of Mental Health Practice, 94 per cent of participants had an improved sense of well-being since joining IYG and 59 per cent had fewer symptoms of mental ill health.
“The project has also saved the taxpayer money by supporting 24 participants back into work – including Everton IYG’s star striker Derek Goodwin, 27, who suffered a mental breakdown in 2010.
He had arrived at hospital to be told he was no longer eligible for a speech impediment operation.
He said: “I had a voice like Joe Pasquale and got bullied for it. I’d get into fights because of it.
“It was such a huge blow to me to be told I couldn’t have the operation. I had a breakdown and had to leave my job in a petrol station.
“I stayed in my room all day, I was in a really dark place.”
But he said playing IYG football was a life saver: “I’d not be here today without it. The lads don’t judge you, they just support you.”
He is now a full-time support worker for charity Mencap. He added: “It sounds strange but having a mental breakdown was the best thing that happened to me.
“Otherwise I’d still be stuck in a job I hated and in a world where I didn’t like talking to anybody.
“Now thanks to Imagine Your Goals I’m really happy.”
Huge Everton fan Martin Smyth, 43, of Stockport, who suffers from schizophrenia, said being in a football team has got him fit and given him a new lease of life.
“Before I would wallow in my medication and my problems. What I love the most is the camaraderie between the lads.
“I felt like nobody understood me, like nobody listened or cared.
“But now I’m part of a team. It has transformed my confidence and made me feel I’m worth something.”
Martin and his team-mates received an extra boost on World Mental Health Day on Tuesday when Everton striker Oumar Niasse dropped in one of their sessions at Clock View Hospital in Walton, Liverpool. Niasse, 27, spent more than an hour laughing and joking with the participants.
The player from Senegal said: “It’s great to meet the lads. They have been through a lot in life, but when you see the smiles now and see how motivated they are, that is a real inspiration.
“You have to give them respect.”
He also said it felt good to be part of a club that really cared about its fans.
In May the club rallied round Lennon, 30, when he was detained under the Mental Health Act at the side of a road in Salford and received treatment for a stress-related illness.
He tweeted his gratitude in July after returning to training, saying: “The support I’ve had from Everton, Spurs, their fans, football fans and concerned members of the general public has been incredible.”
He added: “Anyone feeling anything out of the ordinary should seek support, it is great and good to talk.”
Everton in the Community’s Johnnie Garside said the club was passionate about tackling the stigma attached to mental ill health. He said: “If the NHS tries to put out a message that men need to talk about their emotions more, very few men will gravitate towards that.
“But if that message comes from a football club then men of a certain demographic are going to listen. As a club we want to put forward that it’s ok not to be ok.”