Running across the pitch, this football team looks like no other as players take their places for kick-off.
Yet there is a heartbreaking bond that unites them – they are all fathers who have lost children.
This week the club, Angels United FC, was founded by 14 fathers who met through a condolence group.
Through a shared love of the sport and a desire to remember their children, the team supports each other both on and off the pitch.
Each player proudly wears their “lost angel” name behind the team’s eye-catching pink and blue stripe.
It was looking at the names on the kit that brought Jake Pugh to a training session for the first time this summer.
He and his partner Beth lost their three-year-old daughter Lily-Mae to a rare form of lung cancer in July 2020.
Jake, 30, of Preston, says Lily was “fun, bubbly and lively” and enjoyed singing along to the Disney film Frozen.
He says: “She was perfect. She was my everything. He did not leave home for a year after his death, and says: “I had not slept for 12 months.
“I was living with depression and a little PTSD because of the troubled times I was with Lily in the hospital during Covid.
“I used to be a very stone-faced guy, never bothered by anything, never cried. I’m over that now.
“It was coming up on the anniversary of Lily’s passing and I was thinking, ‘Okay, I need to do something because I’m in a rut’. I needed something to kindle that spark and get me out of the house .
“Football has always been a big part of my life and once I saw teams wear their kids’ names, I thought, ‘That’s it, I don’t need to look any more. I want Lily-Mae on my back’ “
For Jake, a data analyst at aerospace firm BAE Systems, the shared empathy and experience of the loss of a child is worth the weekly hour-plus drive to training with the team based in Mosley, Greater Manchester.
He says: “You can see that pain and struggle on someone’s face, even when we are laughing and joking. The word grief is not strong enough to describe what we have gone through.
“Everyone has experienced grief, but it’s not the same. I needed a group of people who got it.”
Club co-founder Ollie Monk realized what a force to unite football after losing daughters Dottie and Poppy. His partner Katie, 29, had a miscarriage in 2018, then became pregnant with twins the following year.
Tragically, he was affected by the rare pregnancy condition Twin-to-Twin Transfusion Syndrome (TTTS) and was born dead in 2019.
Ollie, 33, a logistics worker from Salford, Greater Manchester, says: “You dream of walking down the aisle at their wedding to take them down the aisle for their funeral.
‘You can see that pain’
“A day later, I ran over to see my team, Gillingham. They won a one-for-zero win, and it was the first time in two weeks that I managed to smile.
Oli tweeted about it and the next morning he was flooded with messages.
He adds: “I had random professional soccer players from across the country texting me to see if I was okay.
“It really showed me how you can use a silly thing like a football as a big tool to help people.”
Ollie is an avid advocate for using sport to break boundaries. The team plays one game every month, but as Ollie puts it: “Football is secondary. Everyone is there to chat half an hour ago.
“People find it weird that the blokes are talking about this because historically men don’t talk, but that’s what we’re trying to do — trying to break the stigma. In the infant and childless community One big thing is to speak the name and break the silence.
“I’m more comfortable talking to a random stranger than talking to my wife about things.”
But it hasn’t always come naturally for Ollie to be open. He adds: “When Katie miscarried in 2018 I did nothing to deal with my grief. I bottled it up, went back to work, buried my head in the sand and mentally broke myself.
‘Broken myself mentally’
“Finally I found myself crying. So after the girls were born, I knew I needed to do something.”
Angels United follows in the footsteps of the charity Sands, The Stillbirth and Neonatal Death Society, which has football teams across the country.
Its Stockport squad took on Angels United in a match for their first birthday last Sunday, marking the occasion with a minute’s silence and flashes of pink and blue.
Angels differ from Sands by welcoming parents of children lost at any stage of life.
Ollie says: “Sand works wonders but we have people who don’t fit the newborn’s bracket, like our manager, Wayne.
“His son Alex caught meningitis and passed away when he was in his teens. There’s no circumstance we don’t see.”
The team has grown to about 30 players over the past year, and has a Facebook condolence support page.
Yesterday marked two years since Poppy and Dottie were born — and the prospect of an anniversary may be too daunting. But Oli says that the support network that has emerged through the team is very comforting.
He adds: “We have a WhatsApp group in which people are always talking. Nice to know I have 29 numbers on my phone in case I’m having trouble. I can just send someone a text or have a proper conversation or go for a walk. “
To Jimmy Riley, his teammates are like family. The 41-year-old defender plays with his 40-year-old partner Lisa in memory of their son Alfie. Alfie died in January 2017 after being born at just 28 weeks.
Jimmy says: “You get this new family as soon as you move in. I live in Oldham but I grew up on Anglesey, so I’m 100 miles away from anyone.
‘Builds a legacy’
“It means a lot to have these people at the local level. I can go to soccer training and if I’m not in the mood to play, I can sit on the sidelines and someone will come up to me, give me that hug and say, ‘Come on, let’s just go for a walk’, or me Whatever is needed at that time.
“And it creates a legacy for our angels. Ninety minutes on the field is my time with my little boy, Alfie, so I do that to represent him.”
Jimmy remembers spending time with Alfie in a “cold cot” in the hospital, “who can he talk about” before performing the funeral.
He adds: “He’s got a little blue coffin, but the day they don’t dress you up, he takes it all the way. It was handed to me and I had to sit in the car driving for miles. It was tough.”
After Alfie’s death, Jimmy says he suffered more physically than mentally.
He continues: “My body began to shut down. Half of my body went numb and on the left side of my face, in my left hand, I felt electric shocks.
“I ended up with carpal tunnel syndrome because all my muscles were spasms. I needed injections to release the muscles and medication for two years.”
Jimmy, who works for the Defense Ministry, says he is now happy to “break down” in front of people instead of keeping things bottled up.
He adds: “I’m quite an emotional person so every time I talk about Alfie, I cry. I’m not afraid to call it out.”
Jimmy and Lisa – who also have daughter Alex, 15 – have Charlotte, three, and Harrison, 20 months.
Talking about the children we lost and keeping their memories alive is very important to the team.
Jimmy says: “I don’t care if we win ten-zero or lose ten-zero, I’ll still walk around smiling because I love having that time to represent my guy.
“I spend my travels for the game just remembering and talking to Alfie. It’s nice to know that his name won’t be forgotten.”
Oli says: “Our kids will never get to play football, so when we play, we play for them.”
The team has achieved a lot in its first year and now they plan to start Coffee Mornings for partners and families and to fund a mentor for players.
The sad reason for the team’s existence is that the players “don’t want to be part of the club”. But going forward they want to expand Angels United with more sports teams – not just football – across the country.
Jake says: “Unfortunately, the family continues to grow. I hate that it does, I hate that it has to reach more people.
“But I’m so proud of each one of us because it’s so hard to ask for help. I know it’s so easy to put ourselves away, and every lad of them understands it. I love them like my brothers.” Am.
“It’s trying to shed a positive light on a dark time — and I want to be there for every new person who joins us.”