As the tackles fly in, no quarter is asked or given. The air
(what there is) of the indoor arena is filled with anguished cries
of “Come on!” and “Referee!” The sweating just about outweighs the
swearing. Just another typical six-a-side football tournament. And
that is exactly what it is. Only this time the teams are not only
from all over the north west of England but are made up of mental
health service users and workers.
In its third year, the annual tournament held on world mental
health day at the JJB Soccerdome, Trafford, attracted teams from
Salford, Stockport, Oldham and Blackpool.
It is organised by two voluntary sector workers: Paul Evans
(Trafford Association of Mental Health) and Paddy McIlroy (The
Bridge Project, Trafford). “Simply asking people what they wanted
to do and what they liked,” says McIlroy, “football and sports came
up again and again. We started playing our own drop-in five-a-side
once a week.”
And it developed from there. One or two teams would join in and a
competition was born. It was founded on the belief, according to
Evans, “that it isn’t about your illness or your disability – it’s
about your abilities, interests and common ground. The first year
 we had 20 teams. It was mind-blowing.”
Football can act as a turnstile for services: “There’s a lot of
people out there struggling who don’t use services – not
traditionally-based ones. A more inclusive approach to work will
help those people engage,” says Evans. One client, Michael English,
says that if it wasn’t for football he’d be sitting in the pub all
day “like I used to.” Football contacts have meant that he now
lives in a shared house, “which I’ve never done before. I’ve got
all the help I need now,” he adds.
“Mental health and physical health go hand-in-hand,” says Michael
McShane of Blackpool Mind centre. “We take part in a lot of
activities – football, badminton, swimming. We have found a big
improvement in our members’ well-being if they take part in sport.
Coming here, the camaraderie is brilliant.”
Graham Houldsworth, community mental health support team,
Blackpool, agrees: “It’s about friendships and reducing isolation,
really. Today is the fruition of effective networking,” he says.
Group therapist Mike Alleyne adds: “Whatever the results today, you
feel a part of it, you feel valued. There’s a real sense of
For some, football has also provided a channel for responsibility.
“Our drop-in scheme grew out of a social services day centre which
stopped football,” says Kevin Corran, Cromwell mental health
centre, Salford, “but there was still a need. So we helped the
clients to run it themselves – which they now do. It is also a
chance to meet up with their mates once a week.”
Football, as with most competitive team sports, can also bring
refreshingly strong social benefits. “You look at Saturday or
Sunday league football – the social side is as important as the
actually playing,” says Evans.
Crucially football provides a break for users – from services,
hassle and day-to-day grind. “As far as I’m concerned if something
enhances your day – it’s good for your mental health,” says
“I find myself as a worker looking for evaluations from
participants saying the football we organise is therapeutic or
whatever, but it’s such a screech when you have someone saying,
‘The referee was a bastard and was 10 yards behind play’. But
that’s what it meant for them,” he laughs.
As well as a regular league being set up, 15 users and workers from
Salford, Manchester and Trafford recently went over to Larne,
Northern Ireland to play a short tour.
Evans has heard that there are similar teams in Italy. The mental
health European Champions league can’t be too far away. Are you
watching, Des Lynam?
– For more information contact Paul Evans on 07960 581974
Scheme: World mental health day six-a-side football
Location: Trafford, Greater Manchester.
Staffing: Within existing resources.
Inspiration: User-led involvement
Cost: The tournament is funded through a £25 a team fee and
funding from world mental health day.