Football league helps dads manage challenges of fatherhood

Match of the Dads football team

Match of the Dads is a local non-profit created to open up conversations about men’s mental health - Credit: Match of the Dads

Match of the Dads is a five-a-side football league and support group for fathers in Norfolk. As part of the East of England Co-op's #EastTogether campaign, in partnership with Archant, chief operating officer Adam Kemp explains how the beautiful game can help dads open up about mental health and depression. 

Every Monday night at Bowthorpe Football Development Centre in Norwich, boots are laced, jerseys donned and whistles blown as a community of dads congregate under the floodlights. From 7:30pm until 9:30pm each week, up to 56 fathers meet to exercise, socialise and vocalise their experiences navigating fatherhood.  

Founded by Paul Godfrey in 2017, Match of the Dads is a local non-profit created to open up conversations about men’s mental health.  

“Match of the Dads is a five-a-side football league based in Norfolk specifically for dads, stepdads or dads-to-be,” says chief operating officer Adam Kemp. “The aim is to provide a support network throughout the journey of fatherhood.” 

Match of the Dads chief operating officer Adam Kemp

Match of the Dads chief operating officer Adam Kemp - Credit: Match of the Dads

Though the issue is under-researched, perinatal mental health problems can also affect men, as new dads adapt to the stresses of paternity – a role that can often leave them feeling exhausted, irritable and overlooked. New dads may be reluctant to express their needs or seek help and they may question the legitimacy of their psychological experiences, including anxiety disorders and clinical depression.  

“It's a big culture shock when you become a father,” Adam admits. “A child arrives and your life becomes totally different overnight. When we first started, Monday night football was probably the only thing I did all week outside of my home and work. Finding the time to meet new friends is hard as a new parent, so this is a great solution to a problem that most dads will experience.”  

Match of the Dads football game at Bowthorpe FDC in Norwich

The league features 12 teams – including Borussia Dadmund and LA Dadaxy – with seven players in each squad - Credit: Match of the Dads

This season, the league features 12 teams – including Borussia Dadmund and LA Dadaxy – with seven players in each squad. “Next season will be our sixth and we've had different team names every year, so we’re starting to run out of dad puns!” 

Match of the Dads has a closed group on Facebook, which provides a forum in which members can seek and offer advice, as well as a YouTube channel featuring game coverage and highlights. 

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“What’s so beautiful about it is, at the surface level, you’re just playing football. But beyond that you’re building friendships and connections while getting advice before and after games,” Adam says. “We are a good alternative to the formal methods of seeking help. There's no waiting list, no joining fees, no long-term commitment, just your £4 donation each game – that’s it.” 

The project has already raised several thousand pounds for the Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM), a suicide prevention group that provides a confidential helpline and webchat. Match of the Dads also recently partnered with Wellbeing Norfolk & Waveney to ensure that members have access to important information and resources to safeguard their mental wellbeing. 

Match of the Dads players with cheque for the Campaign Against Living Miserably

Match of the Dads has raised thousands of pounds for the Campaign Against Living Miserably - Credit: Match of the Dads

“We’re very proud of our partnership with Wellbeing Norfolk & Waveney,” Adam says. “There’s a wealth of experience in this group to tackle the stigma of men’s mental health – from expecting dads all the way to grandads. There's no prejudice, no judgment. It's a wonderful thing. 

“We've had so many success stories of people coming to us and benefiting from what we do. One dad had seven kids and no job. He played with us and sought advice. We were able to support him through that to the point where now he's got a job and is doing well.” 

During lockdown, a keepie-uppies competition was launched which saw dads filming themselves to see how long they could juggle the ball. And a 24-hour five-a-side game is currently being planned to raise funds for CALM, having been postponed due to the pandemic. 

The football league’s annual award ceremony will be held at Man Cave Norwich on August 28. At the last ceremony in 2019, former Norwich City Football Club professional and mental health ambassador Cedric Anselin presented the awards. 

After Match of the Dads won The Norfolk FA & McDonald's Grassroots Football Awards Project of the Year in 2019, a father in Wales was inspired by Match of the Dads to establish a splinter group.  

“It just shows the potential of the project,” Adam says. “We'd love to grow this outside of Norfolk. The hardest thing to replicate is the magic of this group. These people give up their time to come and help out: carrying the kit bags, setting up the cameras or whatever – the atmosphere and ethos that we have here is special. It doesn't matter if you're 18 or 60, you have a good time. 

“If this is something you could benefit from, come and play with us,” Adam adds. “The more the merrier!” 

For more information, please visit www.matchofthedads.com 

Watch more episodes from the #EastTogether series at www.eastofengland.coop/easttogether