How grassroots football is paving the way for conversations surrounding mental health

Jonathan Tomlinson



According to the FA, one in four people will experience struggles with mental health in any one year. In football there are tens of millions of people who are involved in the game, making the statistics favourable that there are millions of people currently experiencing – or have at some point experienced – issues with mental health.

Opening up about mental health struggles is something that’s been stigmatised in years gone by. It was 1939 when struggles were first recognised in the game and since then players and former players have opened up about the times that they have struggled both on and off the pitch. Despite the fact the conversation surrounding mental health has been slow at professional level, in recent years, the bravery of some of the bigger names in football has created a domino effect and players are becoming more confident than ever before when speaking up about the issues they face as professionals. 

Benito Apollonio, like so many others within football, has had experiences with mental health. Benito became aware of the issues at the age of 18, after leaving high school. He spent his formative years playing for Wrexham academy until he was 16 years old. Now 14 years on from then, his passion still lies within football - managing the Hackney-based Sunday league, the GUN FC. Football at this level has always been a catalyst for overcoming any struggles he’s faced. 

The GUN FC are a team known to every East London Sunday League fan. Known for their skills on the pitch and their team of long-standing members, the team was run throughout it’s highly notable period by former manager, Alan Bond. The club is a success story in the eyes of grassroots football and the GUN FC is a team that every London Sunday League club aims to beat.

Like many teams across the world, individuals rely heavily on grassroots football and it has been proven that both physical activity and playing football in a team can have many positive benefits for mental health. In the UK, grassroots organisations are being used as settings for the delivery of interventions that promote mental health. From raising campaigns at a professional level to promoting grassroots initiatives within local communities, more people are getting involved with the footballing community as a place to meet new people, make friends and to generally feel a sense of community and belonging.

In the professional game, the situation is much different, with mental health issues stemming from players from young ages and continuing into their adult years, it’s only in recent years that professional clubs have taken mental health on board as a serious topic of conversation. With football being a high-pressured sport and with favourable odds to suggest that one in four of the 130,000 professional footballers across the world will experience mental health issues at some stage, it’s important that clubs understand how much of an impact the pressure of football from a young age from a professional perspective has on children as they grow into adults.

Like many others playing at academy level, Benito felt the pressure of playing football week-in-week-out throughout the important years of his childhood and teenage years. “Playing 4/5 times a week at 13-16 just as your social life is exploding is difficult to deal with unless you really want it and I just didn’t. You have to be vehemently committed even at that age. It’s a lot.” For many, pressure stems from the team who’s pushing them into a career in football, whether it be the coaches or managers, but there’s no doubt that pressure mounts further from parents who believe that their child will be within the 1% who make it professionally. 

For Benito it was a similar story, “I guess the only pressure I really felt was from my Dad, I think he really thought I could make it, more so than I did anyway. I stuck it out for much, much longer than I’d have liked to for him. I wanted to be a footballer growing up like everybody else but then for me, the academy level took the fun out and I realised that it wasn’t for me. I didn’t have the mentality for it.”

When Benito made the decision to leave Wrexham at the age of 16, it was a few years on when he realised how much pressure the teenagers he had surrounded himself throughout his childhood years had put upon themselves to make it professionally. “I think for most players, it’s that situation where a player all of their life throughout their formative believes they are going to be a pro, there’s nothing else, they are the expectation of their family and friends, the talk of the town and it’s all they live for and then one day it’s gone. It’s a full rug from under the feet situation, it must be so painful, I can’t imagine that.” he explains, “On a personal level, that wasn’t the case for me but the playing for those few years, hating it; and internalising those feelings was definitely detrimental but my mental health issues are deeper routed than that.” 

For the many players who have opened up about their struggles in recent years, the reasons vary for why mental health becomes a fixture within their lives. For some, it’s the pressure of the game, but for the majority mental health is something that’s deeply unavoidable. Like Benito, who struggled with issues throughout his 20s, he used football as a way to surround himself with people just like himself who use football as a mechanism to offer support.

A keen footballer who now manages a team that adds significant value to his life, Benito took on a managerial role at the GUN FC and has made it his mission to run the club to a professional standard after playing for the club for 6 years. Playing alongside a team of lads who support each other on the field, in the changing room, at the pub or even over Whatsapp, the social aspect that comes with playing football is important to everyone. In writing his end-of-year speech to celebrate their promotion and cup win, Benito tells me that he feels comfortable talking about mental health openly within his team. A proud manager who is more than thankful for the effort his team have put in this year, he says that he’ll make them aware that they, without knowing, kept him going at times during this season. That chat you have with somebody who’s in a bit of trouble, even to just listen to that, that can save somebodies life. The Gun, like many teams, brings people together in a space where that can happen. 

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