Creating an activity with veterans in mind
Moving Forces Programme Manager Pete Carruthers was already aware of existing military veterans’ football teams at Liverpool and Everton, so quickly made contact with City in the Community when he started working at GreaterSport. ‘Moving Forces asked City in the Community to put on weekly, one-hour football sessions for veterans at the tennis centre near the Etihad,’ explains Engagement Coach Peter Bradshaw. ‘I put my name forward to coach this as an add-on to my full time role, as I wanted to help keep our veterans active and social.’
Moving Forces booked a five-a-side pitch, City in the Community provided the coach and the equipment, and the sessions began. ‘There were just three of us taking part to begin with, including me: I’m a military veteran too, so I wanted to get involved,’ says Pete Carruthers. ‘It was tricky to get going at first with the low numbers, but Peter Bradshaw made everything interesting and fun. He always had loads of ideas, no matter the turnout.’
Engaging veterans through Moving Forces networks
To increase engagement in the sessions, those involved did all they could to spread the word, including social media promotion, conversations with veterans, and talking to other Moving Forces partners. One participant who found out about the club through Moving Forces was military veteran Jamie Lyons. Jamie was already being supported by the military veterans’ charity Walking with the Wounded, where he heard about a start-up five-a-side football team for veterans. ‘I’d been taking part in rock climbing through the Moving Forces programme, but it wasn’t really my thing,’ says Jamie. ‘Yet I’ve always enjoyed football, mainly playing in goal. So I came along to one of the earlier sessions, and I’ve been going ever since.’
‘The veterans coming had an amazing energy,’ adds Peter Bradshaw. ‘Word quickly spread, and the collaborations helped numbers soon grow to full five-a-side games in a just few short weeks. Before we knew it, we needed a bigger pitch.’
Discovering a space to find active confidence
Peter Bradshaw knew City in the Community ran disability training sessions at the City Football Academy, so approached them to ask if the veterans could share their pitch. They agreed. ‘City in the Community recognised the importance and wider benefits of the veterans sessions,’ Pete Carruthers explains. ‘They kindly allowed us to train at the City Academy on the indoor pitch the first team use, which was an incredible resource and an amazing experience. It wasn’t long before the sessions became self-sufficient, without requiring funding from Moving Forces. City even provided kits for the team to play in.’
‘There are over 60 players registered with Manchester City Veterans and playing in military veterans’ football tournaments all over the northwest,’ Peter Bradshaw says. ‘But it’s not about the team the veterans support or who they normally play for. Instead, it’s about joining in and being active, playing at whichever ground they can get to, and focussing on enjoying being active and increasing confidence. Though that doesn’t mean the matches don’t get competitive!’
Improving social, physical and mental wellness through activity
The veterans in the team bonded through the physical, mental and social health benefits of the sessions. ‘One participant told us they were suffering with their mental health,’ says Pete Carruthers. ‘Yet they shared that Mondays after training were the only nights they slept all the way through, finding comfort in the weekly routine and having something to look forward to in their diary.’
For others, the sessions provide a great opportunity to link up with likeminded people. ‘Interacting with other veterans is really important,’ Jamie explains. ‘I felt quite isolated when I left the Army. You get used to being part of a big group, where there’s always someone to talk to. When you transition into civilian life, it’s not the same, and I wasn’t physically or mentally active. But the Manchester City Vets team has been a huge help. I feel there’s a really positive change to my physical and mental health. I can share experiences with other veterans who understand and relate to the issues I’ve faced, and we stick together as a family.’
Honouring experiences and history with a remembrance walk
The 2019 Remembrance Day celebrations stand out in the minds of everyone involved in the team. ‘We wanted the veterans to help mark Remembrance Day in the city,’ explains Peter Bradshaw. ‘We looked into the local history, and found an ex-Manchester City goalkeeper was a former prisoner of war: he’d been spotted for his skills in the POW camp. With Manchester City playing at home that day, we knew we could make a fitting tribute to this and honour the veterans momentously.’
The veterans walked almost 26 miles in the pouring rain across the city, from Ashton-in-Makerfield to the Etihad via Maine Road, carrying their forces-issued weighted packs. They then walked onto the pitch at the Etihad, standing alongside a giant centre-circle poppy and the first-team players to the sound of the Last Post. ‘The crowd gave them a standing ovation, which gave me goosebumps: it was incredibly emotional,’ says Peter Bradshaw. Pete Carruthers adds ‘It was one of my personal highlights, and a really moving experience.’
Securing the team’s long-term future
‘There’s a real variety of veterans taking part in the sessions, from those that served close to 20 years and are still part of the reserves to others with short-terms of service who are fresh out of the forces,’ explains Peter Bradshaw. ‘This great mixture is one of the reasons the club works so well, as everyone has something to offer.’
Jamie’s had a recent injury, but he’s certain he’ll return to the sessions once he’s recovered. ‘It was hard to save enough shots when I was injured!’ he smiles. ‘But I can’t wait to be back. I struggled with my anxiety when I couldn’t play team football during the covid lockdowns, so it’s a blessing everything is up and running again.’
‘The experience of training at the Manchester City ground is amazing, but it’s the solidarity with other veterans that I really value,’ Jamie adds. ‘No matter where you train or which club you support, the league brings us all together.’
‘I’m proud to have played even a small part in inspiring the military veterans clubs to connect and build a really strong support network for one another,’ Pete Carruthers concludes. ‘We wanted Moving Forces to start sessions that could continue independently, and with the Manchester City Military Vets we’ve secured that legacy.’
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