MIND, Mental Health and Wellbeing
An FA Cup Quest
Alex Alexandrou and Louie Alexandrou
We have written this piece as football and society have shut down to combat the spread of Covid-19. We hail all the heroic health workers and many others who are putting themselves at risk and making enormous sacrifices to treat those affected by the virus and stop the spread of this disease.
However, we would like to lift the spirits a little, make some connections with the Club’s history and help people think a little more about mental health and wellbeing. We would like to do this by taking you on a football journey that has been our unintended FA Cup Quest this season.
As many of you know, the team is sponsored by the Bedfordshire, Luton and Milton Keynes branch of MIND, the mental health charity. As Neil Barker, the Club Chairman points out – “Dunstable Town’s charity partner for the last two seasons has been MIND. We are proud of this association and delighted to be working with an organisation who are at the forefront of promoting good mental health. Support and respect given to anyone who is experiencing mental health problems is an aim which deserves our recognition”.
We are like any other fans and dream of our team winning the FA Cup, however fanciful, misguided or plain bonkers that might be. This season was no different and when Dunstable Town were drawn at home against Chipping Sodbury Town in the Extra Preliminary Round, we dared to dream of an FA Cup adventure once more. Forgetting about many previous seasons where our beloved Blues had fallen at the first hurdle.
It was a lovely Saturday afternoon in August and we came away elated as we had progressed to the next round with a 3-2 victory. For the Preliminary Round, we were again drawn at home against Shortwood United. We played on a glorious Sunday afternoon in late August against the backdrop of the England cricket team attempting to win the Third Ashes test against Australia with a record run chase set for an English team. Glorious the day proved to be as Dunstable Town came out 4-1 winners and Ben Stokes hit an unbeaten 135 as The Regiment and assorted others celebrated both victories with much gusto and not too few beers!
Onto the First Qualifying Round and another home draw, this time against Bishop’s Stortford, who only a couple of seasons before we were competing against in the Southern Premier League, in the momentous season that saw the fans rally round, take over and save the Club.
What a pulsating match it proved, Dunstable Town were dead and buried by half-time but an astonishing comeback ensured that although they were beaten 5-3 with a certain Jamie Cureton scoring for the visitors, it could well have been 5-5. We were not despondent and had enjoyed The Blues’ cup run which had been one of the best in recent seasons.
Walking home after the match, we had both enjoyed the Club’s FA Cup foray that we decided to extend our enjoyment of the greatest cup competition in the world and take in a few more rounds.
So, an FA Cup Quest of sorts was born. Unlike the traditional quest where you follow the winning team in the next round, we decided to be random in our choices. The following rounds saw us visit Kings Langley, Potters Bar Town and Haringey Borough.
Our trip to White Hart Lane to watch Haringey Borough was on the fateful day that Yeovil Town were the opponents. Before the match we had been warmly welcomed by officials of the club that has a strong Greek Cypriot influence and had cheerfully swapped anecdotes with our Yeovil counterparts. However, during the match we witnessed the scenes when, Haringey Borough players were racially abused by a minority of Yeovil fans and the team’s manager, Tom Loizou took the brave and momentous decision to take his players off, fearing for their safety, as well as mental and physical wellbeing.
These scenes left both of us shocked. Louie, being so young had thankfully up to this point, not witnessed racist or any other such abuse in his ten years of watching football at all levels. For Alex, this took him back to the dark days of the seventies and eighties when racism was an ever-present menace at many football grounds up and down the country.
Despite what we had experienced, we decided to continue our quest into the main rounds of the FA Cup and see how far we could proceed. Our first stop was at MK Dons, coinciding with the club’s Remembrance Commemoration which was dignified, respectful and well observed by all the fans. Then onto Northampton Town, whose opponents were Notts County, previous winners of this competition. The Cobblers have a historic football, military and societal hero in the form of Walter Tull, who played for them prior to signing up to serve and pay the ultimate price of sacrificing his life in the First World War.
In the Third Round, we visited Griffin Park, home to Brentford, for the last season, as the club is moving to a new ground just over a mile away in time for the commencement of the 2020-21 season. Griffin Park is a special ground as it is surrounded by terraced houses and has a pub on each corner of the stadium.
Our visit was significant not only for the fact that we had visited this iconic ground but also because it coincided with the launch of the Football Association’s Heads Up campaign. As the FA states – “While the conversation around mental health has grown significantly in recent years, mental health problems remain one of the biggest issues in society today. Suicide is the biggest killer of men under the age of 45 and its time this changed. We can all take simple actions to look after our mental health and it only takes a minute to get started, whether that be looking after your own wellbeing or reaching out to support a friend or family member”. We all did take out a minute to contemplate our mental wellbeing as the match kicked-off at 3.01pm rather than the traditional 3.00pm start time. The FA has teamed up with NHS’s Every Mind Matters as well as with its charity partners MIND, CALM and Sporting Chance to offer advice, guidance and resources. So if you feel you or someone you know can take advantage of this initiative, please visit http://www.thefa.com/about-football-association/heads-up .
Millwall was our next port of call and it was Louie’s first visit to the New Den. Two things struck us about our visit, Firstly, we observed the significant community work the club is engaged with. Secondly, the atmosphere, which has been described as hostile but we would argue is noisy and passionate, with the fans get right behind their team in such a way that cannot be experienced elsewhere.
So we reached the Fifth Round and managed to get tickets for the match between West Bromwich Albion and Newcastle United. Both teams have a proud history in this competition with both having won it on a number of occasions.
Prior to the match, which the Magpies won 3-2 despite a late comeback by the Baggies, we were interviewed by the Midlands-based Switch Radio about our quest and its links to mental health and wellbeing (which you can listen to in full at: https://www.switchradio.co.uk/listenagainpopout.asp?laid=5871).
We highlighted the work of the Jeff Astle Foundation and the recent FA directive that there is to be no heading in training in the foundation phase (for primary school children) and a graduated approach to heading training for children in the development phase in the Under-12 to Under-16 age groups. More information on this important development can be found at: http://www.thefa.com/news/2020/feb/24/updated-heading-guidance-announcement-240220
Managing to get tickets for this match was fortuitous, as there is a significant link between Dunstable Town and WBA in the form of the late Jeff Astle, the England international who played in the 1970 World Cup and for both teams. He won the League Cup and FA Cup with WBA. In 1974, he was persuaded by the enigmatic Barry Fry, who was then manager of The Blues to sign for the club. It was the season that he played in friendly matches alongside George Best, scored 34 league goals and helped Dunstable Town get promoted to the Premier Division of the Southern League.
Jeff Astle tragically died in 2002 aged just 59 and the findings that were made in the post mortem, raised serious concerns for the game of football and sport in general. The Jeff Astle Foundation which was founded by Jeff’s daughter Dawn, has campaigned tirelessly to get answers as to why Jeff, died from a type of dementia more commonly known as ‘Boxers Brain’, resulting in the FA and PFA, after sixteen years, commissioning research into the links between dementia and football.
The results were staggering as the study showed that footballers were 3.5 times more likely to die from dementia; five times more likely to die from Alzheimer’s Disease; four times more likely to die from Motor Neurone Disease; and twice as likely to die from Parkinson’s Disease, than the general non-footballing public.
Jeff’s’ family wanted to create a lasting legacy for Jeff, as well as past, current and future players by establishing a charity in his name - The Jeff Astle Foundation. The Foundation has the following three principle aims – Support, Education and Independent Research. You can read more about the principles and the work the Foundation does at: http://www.thejeffastlefoundation.co.uk/
We have spoken to Dawn Astle about our quest and aim to highlight issues in relation to mental health and wellbeing. Dawn wanted to give this message to the Club and its fans:
“My family and I are so pleased Alex and Louie have chosen to highlight the work of the Jeff Astle Foundation during their FA Cup Quest. I know Dad thoroughly enjoyed his time at Dunstable Town, and although I was only seven years old, I have lovely memories of living in the area and watching Dad playing on a Saturday afternoon…
…I was particularly pleased to see the team is now sponsored by the local branch of MIND.
Like dementia, mental health is one of the greatest enemies of humanity. Every year, one in four of us will experience a mental health problem. But hundreds of thousands of people are still struggling, and no-one should have to face a mental health problem alone. The brain, like the body is prone to disease and disorder and we must end the stigma attached to such problems. Education and much needed support are so vital”.
The next leg of our quest would have taken us to Bramall Lane for the Quarter-Final tie between Sheffield United and Arsenal and yet another Dunstable Town connection. This time in the form of the former mercurial England international Tony Currie, who made his name with The Blades and after finishing playing professional football made a few appearances for The Blues.
We hope to continue our quest but if not, so be it, as we want our local community and society to be safe and healthy, with the battle against Covid-19 to be fought hard and ultimately won. That will be the most precious victory for all of us.
Louie with his Dunstable Town scarf in front of the Jeff Astle Gates at The Hawthorns