By Ben Henderson
Dulwich Hamlet’s Danny Mills led from the front both on and off the pitch in February, as he organised a mental health campaign with the support of the club and Whitehawk FC, his former team.
With Mills at the helm, the two clubs hosted a series of virtual events as part of the ‘Shout Out for Mental Health’ campaign, through which they hope to raise £2,500 for the charity MIND.
“It started with a throwaway comment on a podcast I was doing for Whitehawk,” Mills explained to the News.
“At the end I said, ‘maybe there’s more I can do to help people during the lockdown’. So I put my head down and thought about how I could drive a campaign.”
Mills approached the clubs and played a major role in organising the events.
“This has been such a hard year for everyone,” he said. “People’s mental health has taken a knock in one way or another. People have lost jobs, been furloughed and lost loved ones.
“This campaign is to let them know help is out there and they are not alone. It’s here to let people know that they should check in with their friends and family to make sure they’re okay and if they’re not then help is here.”
Mills also reflected on mental health among footballers. “Being in football for a number of years, I have seen the effects football has on players’ mental health.
“The anxiety of not knowing whether you’re going to start a game, waiting to know if you’re going to make the bench. The fear of making mistakes during a game. This campaign has been inspired by seeing these struggles and I want to help raise awareness for those who may not realise it’s happening.
“Fans and the media only see a fraction of players’ lives. We’re more than just footballers, we’ve got hearts and families too. Being a footballer can bring money and fame so people have no sympathy for the players, but that’s not how it should work.”
Mills has experienced many dressing rooms over a career that’s taken him to fourteen clubs. He said the attitudes of coaching staff hasn’t always helped. “Managers can be quite archaic, constantly telling players to man-up, I’ve seen managers completely lose their heads with individual players and single them out.
“You can see it affects the players, they’re hiding on the pitch, because of that fear of making another mistake and what that would bring.
“I don’t necessarily blame the managers – that approach is all they’ve ever known. But some of them need to evolve in the way they man-manage players.”
When asked how Dulwich manager Gavin Rose treats his players, Mills chuckled: “Gav’s done really well in the way he nurtures players from the academy. He helps us a lot. He has his own way of doing things.”
Mills’ sentiments were reflected by former players who spoke at one of the virtual events on Sunday, February 21. Sergio Torres – who made over 200 appearances in the Football League – spoke about the anxiety he suffered when he fell out of favour as a player and was forced to train with the youth team.
He was so low he nearly returned to his native Argentina. Eventually he got help from a psychiatrist and went on to achieve hero status at Crawley Town and Whitehawk.
The Billericay Town forward, Jake Robison, also spoke about the loneliness that football can bring. When things weren’t going well for him at Shrewsbury Town, Robinson would take any opportunity he could to drive home to Brighton – even for just a day – to escape the atmosphere and switch off.
As well as the virtual event, the campaign appeared on Whitehawk’s own TV show, and included a Dulwich versus Whitehawk legends game simulated on Twitter – featuring a Dulwich frontline of Edgar Kail and Peter Crouch.
There was also a radio show and a fans’ quiz night. A Hamlet insider ruefully confirmed that Whitehawk’s quiz team “wiped the floor” with the Dulwich faithful.
This is the first time two non-league clubs have partnered for a charitable campaign. Rob Hyneman, the head of Dulwich’s community work, said: “We’re not going to solve all the problems with mental health in the local area, but this campaign hopefully gives people some respite in difficult times. It’s about bringing people together to give them a release.”
Hyneman was eager to emphasise Mill’s importance in driving the campaign. “He’s really stepped up,” he said. “This is how community clubs should be run – with the players driving community outreach forward. Danny’s thrown himself into life in Dulwich and set an example for other footballers to follow in terms of engaging with the fanbase.”
Mills agreed about the significance of players taking the lead. “The key with all these initiatives is to get the players involved. Fans want to get to know the players. When they’re on the pitch they feel a mile away, but when they’re accessible it has a massive impact.”
The Hamlet striker made it clear that his drive to support mental health will not stop here. “My aim now is to work with organisations like the PFA and the FA to improve the situation. We need more current or ex-players in these roles because only the players know what it’s really like.”
Mills even suggested he may write a book about his experiences one day.
“As players we have much more to offer.”