An Ode to Cambridge United and Opening Up on Mental Health

by Connor O’Reilly

What a weird time we are living in. It’s early April, all of British media is going crazy over the death of Prince Phillip, the whole of Cambridge is going crazy over the retro away kit masterclass produced by Gareth Daniels and the U’s are still in the promotion places despite a big defeat by Exeter. Everyone is on cloud nine and I mean why wouldn’t we be? We are playing some of the best football we’ve seen in years, Wes Hoolahan is wearing a Cambridge shirt and it’s not a dream, we have the South Stand named after a Scouse striker who’s broken a record not many people believed would be broken, at least this season, and well, with 5 games left we are second, 5 points ahead of the chasing playoff pack (arguably 6 if you include the 15-goal advantage we have over Tranmere in 4th). But deep down, only we can say whether we are truly okay, genuinely happy. Last week the football world was shaken to hear the sudden, tragic, passing of Yeovil Town captain Lee Collins at the young age of 32.

It truly shocked the world and again led to ask the question whether enough is being done to help footballers who are suffering in silence. Today, as a fan, I’m going to open up about my personal battle with mental health and how the club has inadvertently helped me through my battle through mental health, and what can be done in general to fight the battle against mental health.

I’ve been watching Cambridge United since October 2014, the majority of my teenage years, through the stress of exams, breakups, low confidence, and normal shit that occurs during those years. It’s not fun. But throughout that time, I’ve always had United. I remember when I was at one of my lowest stages where I was feeling awful, lonely, depressed and just mentally drained. I decided last minute to jump on a train to Cambridge ended up on the NRE just before 2pm ready for a game against Accrington Stanley. I was at the front of the stand as Will Norris was coming out for pregame training and came over to chat to some fans. We had a small convo and I then grabbed a photo with him. Its something as small as that which can really help change a mood. And then of course the game itself was special. Leon Legge’s goal, THAT Mingoia volley, and then the absolute clusterfuck that was the final 5 minutes of added time, seeing Will save two penalties to ensure that (somehow) we came away with three points. That game really improved my general mood and for the 2 odd hours spent at the stadium, I didn’t worry about any issues I had with life and I was only focused on the game, on the result. You see, something beautiful about football that I realised is that for 90 precious minutes on a Saturday, nothing else matters. You’re in a crowd of people who are all going through their own troubles or joys. You could be surrounded by 20 people and each one will be going through their own things in life, from a potential promotion at work to a death to someone close to them, from a breakup to a first date. Everyone goes through there own story and for at least 90 minutes on a Saturday, it just doesn’t matter. You’re all together cheering on the U’s, hearing the debates on why this ref is doing awful, celebrating together, and it’s simply perfect. Cambridge United has always been there for me when I’ve needed it subconsciously and has really helped me through some really tough times.

Then this so-called pandemic hit. Live football was completely shut down, socialising at the pub was substituted for Zoom calls and as a U’s fan living in East Herts, life was more or less put on pause. Within about one week of everyone’s favourite comedian Boris Johnson shutting everything down, and with fear of the unknown of the Covid-19 virus still strong in everyone’s minds, Cambridge United announced the #HereForU’s scheme, which was at the start a phone service for people to call into the club whether it was just for a chat, for any advice or for some support during this difficult time. The club made meals for the elderly in the local community with everyone from the club including Bonner and players alike taking time out to help the community, making sure everyone was doing as good as they can be during this awful time. United then gained media attention with lining up alongside Heads Up, the mental health charity set up by HRH Prince William followed by the official announcement of becoming the first “Mental Health Friendly” football club. The work that the club have undertaken under the leadership of Mather, Daniels, Strang and co has been nothing but phenomenal in this area. The new season starts with the anticipation of getting back to the Abbey and becoming the first club in the UK to host fans back in a stadium for the Checkatrade
trophy (or Pizza Trophy, or whatever they call that competition now) clash between us and Fulham U-23, which was a massive boost for everyone’s mental health. Just getting out again, seeing friendly faces at the Abbey, being back at that second home, it was perfection. Then the next day, the Carlisle test event was postponed. Then everything in general started getting worse. My mental health and anxiety decided to take an absolute nosedive and now it’s November. The only things over the recent months that kept me going was playing footy (some of the best form I’ve ever had) with the amazing Abbey United lads, seeing Cambridge United win game after game, and working with a great team. But slowly with the next lockdown arriving, everything went to shit. For once, I couldn’t just go to Cambridge to watch the U’s as that was illegal now (that felt weird writing that) and I was lost. The things keeping me going had gone. I was lost. So, I spoke out to the doctors. I went for help. I was horrified, tearful to admit getting help but looking back it’s the best thing I have ever done. I had therapy, I had convos with some great friends at the club, I had the Abbey United guys have my back and keep me going and even had the U’s back for 4 games, and as little as that was, it was genuinely beautiful. Since then I’ve learnt a lot about myself and my personal anxieties and depression, and how to cope. I even learnt that even though I cannot watch games, I cannot properly meet my heroes, Cambridge United have my back, they are always there for me whenever I need the support, even if I cannot be in Cambridge. You look at the work they have done, the work former players have done, I mean look at the fantastic work Liam Hughes is doing for mental health, the way Leon Legge is using his stature and platform to talk about Epilepsy in football and even our very own Australian Wizard Jack Iredale talking about how Diabetes has affected him in football. I know fully well the results are speaking for themselves right now, and the mood around everyone at the club is phenomenal due to these results, but with whatever happens over the next few weeks, just remember the fantastic work that the club have done and be proud of that. I genuinely don’t know where I’d be if it wasn’t for Cambridge United.

Lee Collins tragic death has brought up the conservation for what needs to be done to help players, to help everyone with mental health. The first thing people need to realise is that however scary it may be, its okay to not be okay. Bottling up mental health and your emotions doesn’t make you more of a man, trust me. Speaking out to a doctor, teacher, boss at work isn’t going to give you a bad image, they are there to support you. There is always someone there who cares and loves you, even if you are at your worst and believe that no one is there for you. Of course everyone who deals with mental health has their own way of coping with it, but mental health is never something that you should deal with in silence. We’re in a world where Mental Health needs to be normalised, and
something that isn’t seen as a weakness.

This has been a long read, but I just want to thank the Club for being there for me and countless others who have suffered and used the Club as a release. Promise my next article will be jollier but I will reiterate something as my ending. It’s okay to not be okay.

If you’re suffering with any struggles related to mental health please reach out and speak to someone. The club have worked with CALM’s Head’s Up campaign and they can be reached at headstogether.org.uk and Mind also do great work at mind.org

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