Blokes United is a football team with a difference. It's about tackling mental health issues in men; preventing loneliness, providing support, and promoting social inclusion.
It is, in the words of some of the men who turn up weekly, "life-saving" - and none of it would be possible if it were not for a pub in Lancashire run by landlord Mike Hales.
One of Mike's first acts as licensee of Star Pubs & Bars pub, The Butler's Head in the pleasingly named Pleasington, was to get involved with Brewing Good Cheer, a Heineken initiative aimed at combating loneliness at Christmas. He organised an early Christmas lunch for 20 and sent invites out via social media, local groups and charities.
He ended up hosting a dinner for 60 – "if it's about social inclusion you can't then turn people down when they want to come," he explains. Two locals who turned up were Wayne Beck and Paul Davies. Chaps who had personal experience of mental health issues and who had founded a football team to help others like them – Blokes United.
In Mike they found a perfect pub patron and he signed up immediately, donating £300 a month for pitch fees and equipment. But what persuades a publican with a new business to establish to part with £300 a month to an unproven local initiative?
"It was a no-brainer," Mike says. "Paul's personal story and how football had brought him back from the brink made it an easy decision."
Being Mike his involvement has since extended beyond that initial commitment and he has now, two years later, he estimates, donated over £5,000 to the cause plus all the free food and drink he puts on for the players after practice for the now two Blokes United teams, plus another in the pipeline and a women's version.
Other community initiatives have followed, including for the bowls team based at The Butler's Head.
Previously unloved and unkempt, the pub boasts a bowling green that is now a thriving community resource.
"On match days the pub didn't even use to open, they had to bring in Portaloos!" Mike says."We spent around £6,000 on improving the green and building a hut and we always open the pub for matches. When we built a new terrace we made sure people could look out over the green. That has sparked interest and membership has gone from one team of old-timers to six teams of mixed ages and abilities."
Each member of the club gets a loyalty card to the pub that offers them a hefty discount on food and drinks and it's the same for the members of a cricket team local to The Railway, Bromley Cross, another of Mike's two other Lancashire pubs (the third is Top Lock in Wheelton, and together they form his pubco, Imagine Inns).
Pillar of the community
Mike also recently spent £1,200 on kit for the cricket team but his community spirit extends beyond sport.
"As an ex-teacher one of the most rewarding things we've done is a tie-up with a primary school close to The Railway. We went in and delivered a lesson on food and health and then asked them to decide on a menu and create some desserts, which we now serve in the pub, and 25p from every child's meal sold goes to the school."
Good causes are found by putting a shout out on social media. Most recently Mike asked for local groups to come and enjoy a coffee and a mince-pie and Men in Sheds (a movement of workshops and spaces where men can meet for company and to help with community projects) answered his call. He's also setting up a "knit and natter" group to help locals who need company in the day.
"It's about enabling people to get out of their homes and socialising," Mike says. "That's why the tie-up between pubs and things like Blokes United or Men in Sheds is so crucial – the activity gets people motivated but the pub is the bit that builds on that and allows them to come and talk to each other and find support."
Needless to say, Mike has plans to further extend his good work and is hoping to establish an Imagine Inns Charity off the back of a carbon-free dining initiative he's been running.
"As a result of an extra £1 on each bill to off-set carbon emissions, we've planted 16,000 trees. I think we can use a similar idea but use the funds for causes closer to home, so we are setting up a charity to enable us to do that."