A NEW football team founded to help dads struggling to cope with the death of a child is getting ready for its first league campaign thanks to a coronavirus fund grant.

Sands United FC Salisbury has been awarded £5,220 from Wiltshire Community Foundation’s Coronavirus Response and Recovery Fund to cover the costs of hiring a training pitch for a year.

The club, by now boasting 33 players and three non-playing members, began training together at Bulford Camp in December, although they were parted again until restrictions on sport were lifted in March.

Sands United Salisbury will become affiliated to the Wiltshire FA this summer and join the Salisbury District League in September.

The team was launched by civil servant Sam Woolford after his baby daughter Etta died at just 27 days old. 

She was born in November 2019 with multiple heart defects and, despite having open heart surgery at ten days old, was placed on life support at Bristol Children’s Hospital.

'A lot of the support groups were for mums'

Left: Emily Woolford with the couple’s son Ezra and baby Etta. Right: Sam Woolford with his daughter Etta

Left: Emily Woolford with the couple’s son Ezra and baby Etta. Right: Sam Woolford with his daughter Etta

Sam and his wife Emily had to take the decision to turn off Etta's life support on December 23 after advice from doctors.

Sam said: “We decided that she had been through enough and we decided we wanted to be in control. We were given the chance to hold her until she passed away.”

In the difficult months that followed the couple, who also have a three-year-old son, Ezra, were offered support, but Sam felt it was not really aimed at him.

“One of the things I found tough was that a lot of the support groups were for mums. They said they were for both parents but they were making collages,” he said.

“There were no blokes around because they all came for the first session and then realised it wasn’t for them and never came back.”

Baby Etta, who died aged just 27 days

Baby Etta, who died aged just 27 days

Knowing his love of sport, his wife found Sands United Solent, one of a number of teams around the country running under the banner of the bereavement charity.

But he decided the team’s Portsmouth base was too far. “Emily just said ‘well why don’t you start a team here?’,” he said. 

Sam Woolford

Sam Woolford

'Bond of having lost a child united us quickly'

He was given the go-ahead by the charity and launched the team last August.

“We are famously known as the team no one wants to be a part of. It’s really hard to recruit because men don’t talk about this stuff, they just don’t bring it up,” said the 30-year-old.

“Fortunately there were two lads who played at Solent who lived in Salisbury so they came along and there were three of us.”

More followed after he and one of his new teammates attended baby loss events but the lockdown meant they couldn’t actually meet until December for training.

In the meantime he set up a WhatsApp group. “That bond of having lost a child united us quite quickly,” said Sam.

Training for Sands United FC Salisbury

Training for Sands United FC Salisbury

'There is a wound that will never heal'

He said the grant has been instrumental in the team’s rapid progress. “Knowing that we have training covered for a year by the Wiltshire Community Foundation’s grant is unbelievably helpful. It means we can focus on the other things we need to take care of.

“They have also given us great advice in how we set up our constitution and attracted board members. The support the community foundation has given us with this grant is immeasurable.”

The fledgling manager said the steady progress of the club has been a source of help to him in coping with his grief for his daughter. “I’m proud every time I achieve something with this team because it feels like I am putting purpose on her life. I know a lot of the other players feel that way too,” he said.

“I still have my low points, it’s been a year-and-a-half since Etta died and it still hurts just as much. But this has definitely helped.

"I think there’s a wound with the loss of a child that will never heal. I’m coming to terms with that and actually I kind of want that ability to feel that strongly about my daughter, I don’t ever want to forget how strongly I feel about her.”

To donate to the Wiltshire and Swindon Coronavirus Response Fund or to find out how to apply for a grant, go to wiltshirecf.org.uk.

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