Faces. A circle is formed. I look around. Faces. The people are largely strangers. I search the faces for a welcome, a sign of acceptance. I find it. The faces are different but they speak of strength and resilience without the burden of words.
There is the clack of studs on the floor as boots are put on. The pre-match talk is unusual. It speaks of fear and bravery. It mentions achievement and perceived failure. It talks of wounds beyond the recuperative skills of magic sponge or licensed physiotherapist. But there is healing. It can be felt. This is Time To Tackle on a Friday night in the dome outside St Mirren Stadium where two dozen people have gathered to share their experience without judgment. And to play a game of football.
The night is a game of two halves. The first comes in the dressing room where Aaron Connolly and his wife, Siobhán, stand at the entrance to the showers, greet everyone warmly and offer tea, coffee and biscuits. The night holds a deeply personal significance. They have lived the trials of struggling with mental health. Aaron was taken to hospital in 2019 after an attempt to take his own life. Siobhan has always been by his side.
“It was during that hospital stay, while reflecting on my life, seeking answers to the problems I faced, that I realized the importance football had played in keeping me safe for many years,” he says. The couple decided to try to make a difference. A five-a-side pitch was booked and Time to Tackle was born.
“Exercise is a powerful tool to help people cope with mental health issues but it was always our intention to create something a little different,” Aaron says. “We’re bringing people together to play football and to talk before or afterwards. It was our aim – and remains our aim to this day – to provide a welcoming, safe, non-judgmental environment for people to escape and talk about the pressures of life. ”
The idea grew into 12 different groups before the pandemic hit and activities were scaled back. Two groups now meet: one on the south side of Glasgow on a Wednesday, the other in Paisley on a Friday night. This is where Connolly opens the meeting with a frank assessment of his life. It is in turn moving, funny and inspiring
The players – men and women, from teenagers to the middle aged – are asked if they want to contribute. The three main topics are: how they are feeling, what they are looking forward to and what has been the peak of the week.
It is a sacred place. There is laughter and interaction but there is a decorum. No one has to speak. No contribution is considered too trivial or too serious. It would of course be blasphemous to defile this sanctuary by detailing speaker or spoken word but the meeting has a powerful effect. When everyone who wants to speak has done so, the clack of studs sends out another message. It is game time. The players troop out to battle under the dome.
This is the second half. Aaron shapes shots and forms passes while occasionally heading for the sideline for some recovery and further explanation.
He has been open about his continuing mental health issues and points out that when people say he has been good for the group he replies that other people have been good for him.
Time To Tackle has received extensive media coverage and Aaron knows this is vital to continue the work. He has sponsored from Network Rail, has won awards from the SFA and presented the work to Prince William. More importantly, he has brought the program to other people. He lists the aims with a precision born of repetition and the experience of knowing what works for him and others.
“First we want to tackle and reduce existing stigmas within mental health,” he says. “Second, we want to create support networks and friendships to tackle loneliness. We want participants to enjoy playing sport or exercising without judgment and be able to hold meaningful conversations in a safe environment. ”
The final whistle blows. The players gather by the side of the pitch. Further conversations are undertaken. Connections are made. Two newcomers are given details of how to stay in touch. They seem keen to come back.
One talks of extreme nervousness but is gently praised by another player for his bravery. “It’s hard to come in and meet strangers,” another player tells him. Another says he once sat in the car for some time before deciding to walk into his first meeting.
The faces are flushed with the effects of exercise. They also seem infused with something else. Have two hours on the pitch and in the dressing room given relief, happiness, even hope? They have for me.