Sands United: The football teams helping dads deal with baby loss


by Lorna White |
Updated on

So often, we’re guilty of not giving enough thought to how baby loss affects fathers. There’s no doubt how the loss of a child has a devastating impact on mothers, physically and mentally, but all too often we can forget about the emotional toll it takes on dad.

After Cristiano Ronaldo made the heart breaking announcement that he and his partner Georgina lost one of their baby twins, it helped spark many conversations amongst dads who had also suffered baby loss. It really does hit home when something as tragic and devastating as baby loss happens to one of the most famous and wealthy people in the world, and it’s a stark reminder how far too many of us are grieving the loss of a baby.

While you may be familiar with Sands, the baby loss charity, you may not be so familiar with the Sands United Football Club. Sands United FC (SUFC), was an idea born out of love for the beautiful game and a group of dads who felt they needed a support network to turn to after going through the loss of their baby.

The first team was established back in 2019 by Rob Allen who sadly lost his daughter Niamh back in 2017 at 39 weeks and three days. Fast-forward a few years and there are now 33 teams dotted all over the UK, bringing dads, uncles, grandads, cousins and brothers together to help one another deal with their grief while enjoying a game of footy - although it’s so much more than just football.

To find out more about these inspiring football teams, we caught up with dads Simon and Reg who play for the Sands United Bristol Football team.

“All you need is a patch of land, some jumpers for goalposts and a ball and that’s all it takes.” Reg tells me.

That’s the beauty of football, it’s universally accessible and it brings so many people together. For the Sands teams up and down the country, there’s an extra special, yet very moving bond that brings these players together, and that’s their shared experience of baby loss.

Reg Coombs sadly lost his daughter Elizabeth back in February 2012 at 33 weeks.

“Your world implodes. Everything went black. It's like you're in a film, or you're watching something on television, like you're having an out of body experience. I don’t know how long we sat there for, I think we probably didn't want to move because that made it real.”

The devastation of the loss caused Reg to suffer from PTSD, and a few years after the loss, he realised he needed some help.

“You can’t ever be the same person or ever go back to the day before it happens. You become a new version of you. The counselling came a few years later when I realised I wasn’t coping. It was really a sticking plaster, just a temporary thing to lift your mood a wee bit.”

While the NHS counselling helped in some ways, it was Sands who were a huge support following the loss of Elizabeth, and Reg and his partner found much comfort in the group support sessions and hearing the experience of others.

sands united team

“It was comforting and rewarding to be able to talk about Elizabeth in a way that no one was going to judge us for in front of people who understood and had been through something similar.”

It was 2019 when Reg first heard about the work Rob Allen was doing with Sands United FC, and a number of teams began popping up across the country. As a lifelong football fan himself, it was something Reg was keen to be involved with, and he joined the Bristol team that year.

“We didn’t have a kit, we didn’t have any boots - we didn’t really have any idea.” Reg jokes.

Since then, the team have grown in numbers, confidence and momentum, and it really has become a community where men, aged 16-60 who have all been affected by baby loss can come together, play football and establish supportive friendships.

The team have finally got their own kit too featuring an extra special and sentimental touch which really brought a tear to our eye.

“Our shirts have all got our babies' names stitched into them. So when you pull that shirt on, you're literally wearing their name on your heart. You’re representing them, and sharing their name with the world.”

As well as wearing their child’s name on their shirt, each match begins with a minute silence to remember the baby’s that have been lost. And if a game happens to fall on the anniversary of one of the baby’s bereavements, that dad is the captain for that game and a special message is sent out to the group with the name of the child and how old they would have been on that day. Another touching example of how these clubs are keeping their baby’s memory alive.

These special commemorations and moments of remembrance really brought comfort to Simon when he joined the club in April 2022.

“That minute’s silence before the first game I played for all the bereaved parents, was really special. I felt really included. For me, having just lost a child, it was really poignant because I was around other people who knew exactly how I felt.”

Simon and his wife tragically lost their son, Yonah at 21 weeks in March 2022.

“It's completely rocked our world. Everything that we had planned, everything that we had prepared for. We're devastated.”

While Reg felt the support he received throughout those very difficult days at the hospital and from Sands afterwards couldn’t have been better, Simon and his wife had a rather different experience, and that’s without taking Covid into account too.

“Lots of people suffer miscarriages of all types at all gestations, unfortunately, so it's actually not that uncommon in relative terms, particularly if you're older parents, like us. However, because we don't talk about it in society, it's not something that is normalised. So when you go through such an awful situation, I believe that the hospital staff and the health professionals don't also know how to talk about it, really. So you're kind of having to deal with your own grief, but also having to deal with someone who doesn't really know how to talk to you about it.”

We’re very much aware of how miscarriage support and care needs to be improved, not to mention the disparities in maternal mortality rates and maternal care for black women here in the UK, and Simon thinks this may have had something to do with the lack of support his wife received.

“My wife is of Caribbean descent, and we believe that there's certain treatment that she hadn't received, bearing in mind her ethnicity.”

If you too have been impacted by this, you can find out more about the charity, FiveXMore here. They are dedicated to increasing awareness of these disparities while supporting mothers in the Black community who have faced healthcare inequalities in their journey to motherhood.

Following the heartbreaking ordeal, Simon was desperate to find an outlet of supportive people who could help him through his grief. One day, by chance, he happened to turn on the radio to hear an interview with Rob Allen and wondered if he had a local team. After a quick Google, he joined the Bristol squad and began his Sands United journey.

“I needed to be around people who understood how I felt and understood what I've been through. I was bereft, and I knew that I couldn't go to my friends or my family because they didn't really acknowledge what had happened or how to support us effectively.”

The team could not have been more supportive on Simon’s first session, sharing their experiences with one another, getting him stuck into his first match and adding him to the team WhatsApp group.

“We've got two WhatsApp groups.” Reg tells us. “We've got one for fixture announcements and news and a different group for the usual chit chat. If someone pops up on the chat if they’re ever having a bad day, everyone will flood them with messages saying, ‘if you want to call me, then you know you can always chat.’ Sometimes, people just want to write stuff down rather than talk, and that's a powerful tool as well. Writing something down and sending it out into the ether - I've done that before. You're just sending it out into the world. You don't expect to hear anything back and you might not necessarily want to hear anything back. But you just have to get it off your chest.”

Related: Support for dads through pregnancy and beyond

The Sands United Bristol team play in the Corinthians League, with a game every six weeks plus training sessions, social occasions and various events in the calendar.

“They know we're a charity team and know what we're about,” Reg explains. “There's been occasions where after the game, we've had players from the opposition team come up and say, ‘lads, this is amazing, I wish this existed years ago when I lost my baby, I wouldn't have struggled so much.’”

Anyone can go and watch a SUFC game at their local club to support the team, and they welcome any support. If you or a man in your life is struggling after the loss of a baby and think they might benefit from joining your local team, you can find all the local clubs here.

SU Daniel Kenyon

It’s understandable why trying something new and joining a football team might feel like a very daunting prospect right now, especially if your grief is still very raw. However, both Reg and Simon found that joining the team helped them face their loss. It gave them the courage to talk about it with others who truly understood.

“I know that talking to others is hard for lots of people, particularly men, but I think it's really important to open up because it’s only when you open up about it that you then start to realise just how many people are affected by miscarriage and child bereavement. I was certainly really naive to the numbers and thought that we would be in a less than 1 per cent situation and actually, that isn't the case. It is a lot more common than people think. The more we talk about it, the more we normalise it and it becomes easier to process so we aren’t shying away from it, and it doesn't become a difficult subject to talk about. I think the hardest days for me have been the days where I haven't talked about it. I absolutely know that if I wanted to, I could message one of the team and say, 'I'm having a really wobbly day' and I know I would get support from that.” Says Simon.


Reg agrees that talking about loss really can make a huge difference. “Talking about it breaks down the stigma. You wouldn't want anybody to go through it, but it's a lot more common than people think. You don’t want to hide it in the shadows, pretending like it never happened, so the more people talk about it, the more people will understand that this does happen and it's very common. But they don’t need to suffer in silence as there is an awful lot of help out there. But the more people that get help, the better place the world will be.”

You can find out more about Sands and their brilliant football teams here.You can also find out how to donate and support the teams, as well as information on how to set up your own team if your local area doesn’t currently have one. Don't forget to show the team your support by keeping up with them over on Facebook and Twitter too!

You can also find more miscarriage and baby loss support here.

You can also call the Sands helpline now on 0808 164 3332

Just so you know, whilst we may receive a commission or other compensation from the links on this website, we never allow this to influence product selections - read why you should trust us
How we write our articles and reviews
Mother & Baby is dedicated to ensuring our information is always valuable and trustworthy, which is why we only use reputable resources such as the NHS, reviewed medical papers, or the advice of a credible doctor, GP, midwife, psychotherapist, gynaecologist or other medical professionals. Where possible, our articles are medically reviewed or contain expert advice. Our writers are all kept up to date on the latest safety advice for all the products we recommend and follow strict reporting guidelines to ensure our content comes from credible sources. Remember to always consult a medical professional if you have any worries. Our articles are not intended to replace professional advice from your GP or midwife.