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Guest Writer @KivoLee - Mental Health and Discovering My (Grass)roots.

The place I call home is Kiveton Park; a village of 6,000 people located at the southern tip of Yorkshire. A part of Rotherham borough, it has a Sheffield postcode, Worksop phone number, and the Chesterfield Canal running through, all of which combine to give Kiveton a ‘middle-of-nowhere’ feel to visitors.

Previously no more than a farming hamlet, Kiveton was transformed into a pit village in the late 19th century, with people arriving from all points of the country seeking work. My paternal ancestors were among the first to arrive, and, as was happening all over the Yorkshire coalfield, a real community began to grow around the colliery.

Kiveton Colliery in the 1930s

Football became the great escape for the working class, and by and large, in Kiveton you are either an Owl or a Blade. My dad’s love of Sheffield Wednesday was drilled into me at an early age, and on Saturday evening’s I could barely wait for him to walk through the door with a programme before bolting to the shop for a Green Un’.

An obsession with all things statistical grew, and Keith Farnsworth’s Complete Record book became my bible. The idea that a player could appear for one game and stay in the history books forever resonated with me. Like all young lads I dreamed of playing for my team, but a spate of injuries (and being crap…) put an end to those hopes, but the historical aspect remained a hobby, and after leaving school I started researching Wednesday’s early history.

While looking through old copies of local newspapers at Sheffield Central Library, I was surprised to find Kiveton’s name keep cropping up, and it soon became apparent that my little village had punched well above its weight in the footballing world. I’d known about Kiveton Park FC; I remember my dad taking me to a match at Hard Lane in 1996 that was billed as the club’s last ever. The pit had shut two years earlier and the place was a ghost town. Vandalism reared its ugly head and the club had fought a losing battle to keep going. Thankfully, the old side was re-formed three years later and I started going down to watch whenever Wednesday were away.

The Kiveton Park FC team that won six trophies in 1963

I cheered on as ‘Kivo’ won the Sheffield Association Cup in 2005 and 2006, but my first love was always Wednesday, and the idea of missing a game at Hillsborough was preposterous. Sadly, that idea would be put to the test in my early 20s, when I first started suffering with anxiety. The feeling of dread, terror and panic was like nothing I’d ever experienced before, and before long I was virtually a prisoner in my own home; too anxious to venture outside my comfort zone.

It would be a couple of years before I returned to Hillsborough, but there had been no instant cure. Trips to see therapists and counsellors became common-place as I tried to get myself back on track, but at the time mental health was still a taboo subject. Outside my closest family and friends, I couldn’t talk about it. It was embarrassing to admit I was mentally ill. I’d lie my way through conversations, doing anything to get out of anxiety-provoking situations.

Over time – a long time – I slowly got my life back together. I did things I thought I’d never do again; working, going to away games, playing football, and meeting the love of my life (in human form anyway…). In 2018, I played on the hallowed turf at Hillsborough, another ‘achievement’ that brought me great happiness, but my luck was about to run out.

Slowly but surely the anxiety that had been ‘only’ a hindrance in my life for the best part of a decade, started to impact on my life in a big way again. Playing football got harder, going to watch the Owls got harder, going to work got harder.

And then came 2020. The year we’ll all be glad to see the back of. Just as I was starting to get to grips with the downturn in my mental health, the country was put in lockdown due to the coronavirus pandemic. Long days trapped at home, with nothing to do and no-one to see. Living alone, with negative thoughts occupying the mind. I was lucky to have the help of a counsellor from the Mind charity to speak to over the phone once a week, but there wasn’t much to look forward to. Apart from football.

I started volunteering at Kiveton Park FC back in 2017, when the club upped sticks and moved from its home of over a century at Hard Lane, to the playing fields at Wales High School. The club had appealed for help, and five minutes after walking through the gates I was helping to paint an old shipping container the club had procured as a new tearoom.

Everyone involved at the club was so welcoming, willing to educate, understanding of the issues I had, and appreciative of any help I could give. It wasn’t long before I was marking the pitches, cutting the grass, mending the sewage system (maybe not the best example…), producing matchday programmes and posting updates on social media. I was still going to Hillsborough, but popping up to watch the kids at Kiveton on a Sunday afternoon gave me just as much joy. To think that me doing something as simple as marking a pitch was helping these boys and girls have the time of their lives with their friends was a brilliant feeling. In the pro game, I felt no more than a customer. At Kiveton, I could see that I was playing a part.

One of the first Kiveton games at Wales High School, in 2017

The dedication shown by the volunteers at the club – and at clubs all over the country – is incredible. So much work goes in to ensuring that players of all ages, abilities and backgrounds get a chance to play the beautiful game in a safe and enjoyable manner. My nephew recently joined the club’s excellent academy for 4-6 year olds, and seeing him pull on the red and black shirt for the first time almost brought a tear to my eye (alright it did bring a tear to my eye).

The last six months have been very trying, but grassroots football has been one aspect of life that has remained constant. During the first lockdown, I was able to get up to the ground to help maintain the pitches, which was a great escape from the mental strife that so many were going through. Finally, restrictions were eased in the summer, and the prospect of grassroots football returning gave everyone a much-needed fillip.

While professional games were played behind closed doors, with VAR deciding whether a player’s stray armpit hair was enough to rule out a goal, the grassroots game offered supporters the chance to get back in touch with the game they fell in love with. For me, having a game of football to look forward to at the end of the week was just what the doctor ordered.

Kiveton’s first team currently play in the Sheffield County Senior League Division 1, having previously been members of the Yorkshire League, Northern Counties East League and Central Midlands League. It’s a club with a lot of history, and I was very proud to represent it when the village commemorated the 100th anniversary of Armistice Day in 2018.

Going forward, the immediate aim is to reach the Premier Division, and the side has got the 2020/21 season off to a good start. Long term, plans are in place to install a 3G pitch that will be able to host football all year round; a necessity for a club that has over 250 players on its books. Clubs like Handsworth, Penistone Church and Athersley Rec have shown the way in recent years, and there’s no reason why Kiveton can’t follow in their footsteps. Of course, the season has recently been suspended while we embark on another mini-lockdown, but hopefully we’ll be back in action before long.

I wish I could finish with a happy ending, but I can’t pretend everything is fine. Mental health isn’t like that; it’s an ongoing process rather than a battle than can be overcome. Some days I’m doing well and can overcome any obstacles that come my way. On others, everything is too much and it feels like you’re stuck in a never-ending nightmare.

But I’m hopeful over the way we approach the subject of mental health going forward. The stigma surrounding it is rapidly diminishing, and I’ve recently been part of quite a few conversations regarding mental wellbeing while in a football setting, something that would have been impossible ten years ago.

So many people have re-discovered the benefits of grassroots football recently, and it’s no surprise to see so many signing petitions to enable kids to keep playing, even during a pandemic. For players, coaches, volunteers and spectators, it is a release from the daily grind, a way to meet up with friends, to keep physically active, and, as we are learning more and more, a great way to maintain good mental health.

If you are struggling with your mental wellbeing, don’t keep it to yourself! Talk to your doctor, your family, your friends. There is always a way forward, and always someone, somewhere, willing to help.

And if you are a football fan, get in touch with your local non-league club. You won’t believe how much help you can give each other.

Kiveton Park FC, 2020 Follow Lee on twitter @KivoLee

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