FC Not Alone: Meet one of the world's first mental health football clubs

By James CroninBBC Sport
FC Not Alone team photo
The core value of FC Not Alone is to raise awareness about mental health and the wellbeing of those involved

When Matthew Legg deferred his university studies because of depression, a phone call with his cousin Ian McKenzie helped to change his life.

Inspired by the power of football to engage people emotionally, the two cousins founded FC Not Alone, one of the world's first mental health football clubs.

Their journey so far has taken them from five-a-side tournaments to meeting royalty at Wembley, all part of their mission to get more men talking about their mental health through football.

'Men are emotional on matchdays'

Members of the FC Not Alone squad share a joke wearing their kit
FC Not Alone designed their own kit, which displays the logo of the mental health charity CALM

As Legg, 23, looks back on his most difficult days, he remembers how "there were times when I thought I was near giving up in my fight to recover".

This is not uncommon for young men. Suicide is the biggest killer of men under the age of 45. Every week, 125 people in the UK take their own lives, 75% of whom are male.

Reflecting on his state of mind during that period in 2017, Matthew says football and friendship were the things that made him feel better.

"The depression was taking over every part of my psyche and life, and there were constant problems to tackle," he said.

"Football was massive. I had stopped playing out of shame, lack of energy and embarrassment.

"But I did play with Ian, and it showed that all was not lost. Each time I played, I gained a glimmer of hope that I could tackle this problem, and I began to enjoy it again.

"These small glimpses of enjoyment, something that had left my life for so long, were so important to inspire me to keep fighting and try to beat my depression and gave me belief that I could do so."

Football has a growing role to play in opening up the discussion around men's mental health, according to McKenzie, co-founder of the club.

"Football is the biggest conversational topic among men in the UK and in many countries over the world, and it is used as escapism," said McKenzie, 28.

"When it comes to a match day - playing or watching - you will see men being the most emotional beings they probably ever are in their life. This shows us that men are capable of having emotional connections and conversations on a daily basis."

'Using football to show everyone has struggles'

Despite awareness of these issues being raised within football - helped by the Football Association's Heads Up campaign - there is still a long way to go to normalise discussion and action around men's mental health.

"That's where we hope to help, using football to show that everyone has struggles and if you are feeling isolated, here are other people who have felt the same," said McKenzie.

"Thankfully, football was the turning point for Matt. Getting back out and playing matches around London with the Footy Addictsexternal-link community helped him immensely."

The cousins were inspired by a campaign from the mental health charity CALM (Campaign Against Living Miserably) and set out to raise funds and awareness through the game.

"Being huge football fans and with the 2018 World Cup around the corner, Matthew and I set up the team in April 2018, and then decided we would throw our own Mental Health World Cup in support of the charity," added McKenzie.

"It was a 36-team, one-day tournament, and it went better than we could have expected. Rhian Brewster [the emerging Liverpool striker now at Sheffield United] turned up and his team won. Things just took off from there."

'We are a club everyone can support'

Despite being impressed by the good work of leagues, teams and players around mental health, McKenzie and Legg felt there was room for a club dedicated solely to the issue.

Based in north west London, FC Not Alone compete in an amateur 11-a-side league against local teams. Games are held on weeknights, and balanced alongside the professional lives of their players and managers. The squad is a combination of old and new friends, and some scouted local talent, who have come together to play and support the cause.

"Mental health was not a topic I was really aware of beforehand," said Danny Taeidy, who joined the squad last season.

"Just being involved in this team has helped me understand a little more about it, and importantly the little things we can all do to help people around us.

"Yes we are playing in a local league, but this feels much bigger than just the 11-a-side team. There is a lot more that we can achieve."

McKenzie added: "What we want a 'mental health football club' to be is a platform where we create friendly footballing scenarios for people from all walks of life to enjoy, and we continue to facilitate stories surrounding mental health.

"Fundamentally, it is about becoming a useful resource for people struggling with their own mental wellbeing. We do have a dream to go far in the football pyramid, but our core value is to promote positive men's mental health."

'At Wembley with Prince William… I never thought life would take us there'

Members of the FC Not Alone club talk with the Duke of Cambridge
The Duke of Cambridge is the president of the Football Association and is involved in its Heads Up campaign

Since launching, FC Not Alone have designed and launched their first kit, set up their 11-a-side team and hosted panel discussions and events on football and mental health. Along the way, they have rubbed shoulders with some of the biggest names in British football.

"One of the highlights for us was being part of the FA's Heads Up campaign, where many celebrities, footballers and role models spoke openly about their experience," McKenzie said.

"My cousin and I had the honour of meeting the Duke Of Cambridge in the dressing rooms at Wembley, and Gareth Southgate at Abbey Stadium in Cambridge.

"To see how quickly Matthew's fortunes had turned in the space of the year was a nice feeling. I never would have thought when I first reached out to speak to him during his struggles that life would take us there. That was a great moment and has inspired us to keep going."

Matthew Legg (left) and Ian McKenzie (right) with Gareth Southgate
Matthew Legg (left) and Ian McKenzie (right) met England manager Gareth Southgate as part of the work the club is doing

With mental health firmly in the public eye, in part because of the impact of coronavirus, a lot has changed since FC Not Alone was formed.

"Over the past few years since we've been active, the awareness has definitely increased," McKenzie said.

"There have been many pivotal figures who have been part of the conversation. Danny Rose, Tyson Fury, Raheem Sterling [speaking about racism and how it has affected him] have all paved the way.

"I'd like to see the big clubs continue to invest in initiatives for their players and fans but personally our focus is on facilitating more football than ever once the virus allows, so people from all walks of life can continue to enjoy the beautiful game together.

"Now more than ever I think people need to be entertained, they need something to do, they need a laugh and they need their friends."

If you, or someone you know, have been affected by any issues raised in this article, support and information is available at BBC Action Line. You can also contact the Samaritans on a free helpline 116 123, or visit the website.external-link

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