Matlock Town skipper Liam Hughes has made a loan move to National League North outfit Kettering Town until February. The move comes as the Northern Premier League along with equivalent levels and below of football is suspended until further notice now that the UK finds itself restricted to a third national lockdown.

The National League North comes under the umbrella of ‘elite football’ and so is allowed to continue even while strict lockdown measures are in place. Hughes made his Poppies debut on Tuesday night this week as he came on as a second half substitute during Kettering Town’s 2-2 draw away at Boston United in the league.

In an exclusive interview with Derbyshire Media Company, the Gladiators talked about how staying on top of his mental health played a big role in his decision to move out on loan while Matlock Town’s season is frozen due to the UK stepping back into full lockdown measures:

“Firstly, I should start by saying how grateful I am to Matlock, to the gaffer, to Wildy (Dave Wild, Matlock Town’s assistant manager) and to the club in general for their support in getting this temporary switch sorted. It came about after a few discussions. I know that, during the first lockdown, Kettering were interested in taking me on loan. However, we didn’t know at that time where Matlock’s league stood and obviously I have my loyalties with Matlock – I want to be here in the future. That’s something I’m passionate about. I’ve grown to love the club. The lads are great and I think the future’s bright. With this loan move, it’s come about with the mental health side of things and me wanting to play games. I’m very much a person that likes to be active, I like to be constantly busy for my own head…to feel that I am accomplishing something because, I’m sure other people can relate to this, that when you’re alone and living with your own thoughts…it can be an awful place. So that was the first reason behind the loan move – to look after my own mental state.”

“The club have been amazing to support me in that because sometimes it is difficult to understand how football can be related to someone’s mental health…but the club understood where my head was at with it all. They trusted that this was a loan move for that very reason; it’s helping Kettering out, it’s helping myself out and, like I said, the club have been great.”

Hughes is a massive advocate of the importance of mental health. Matlock’s forward is heavily involved with the organisation called WAND (Wisdom and New Direction) which raises awareness of mental health anxiety and addiction through talks and workshops.

Hughes continues to be extremely honest and frank about his own mental health issues and has discussed in detail the struggles he has overcome in the past. In our interview, Liam explains what WAND does and how important organisations like these are during such a vulnerable and worrying time that the UK finds itself in:

“We’re trying to get that message out there of being proactive instead of reactive. We’re a platform. We give people a voice and, on top of that, we give people advice and help and want very much to be a part of their journey in their life. We’ve helped a number of people and delivered workshops and talks relating to my story. Sometimes, I feel that if you just expect people to open up and talk, you set them up for failure. We all know how difficult it is to just open up. So I like to open myself up about the vulnerability of mental health, depression, anxiety and addiction as well, because they all fall in the same category. I struggled with addiction, anxiety and my mental health and by sharing that story, it kind of empowers people and makes people think, ‘well, he’s going through that and I can relate to that’, and when you make things relatable and people can understand where you’ve been, it opens them up a little bit more and, slowly but surely, it empowers them to open up and talk. And that was the reason behind me setting WAND up. I got out of rehab, looked after myself, got myself clean and in October 2019, I wanted to give that platform for people to approach me about, not only their journey, but what I’ve been through and my experiences to help them as well.”

At the time of writing, we are in the second day of a third national lockdown across England and the situation regarding intensive care units being stretched to its limits and the amount of positive Coronavirus cases and deaths now reaching its highest number since mass testing began is an extremely bleak one.

With the third national lockdown set to last for at least six weeks, it’s looking increasingly unlikely that the 2020-21 NPL campaign is going to come to a traditional end and the likelihood of a second null and voided season in a row is increasing as each week passes. As it stands, Matlock Town still have a staggering 36 league games to play.

Due to this, it’s anyone’s guess as to when Matlock Town, or indeed so many other clubs across England, will play again. For so many people, further restrictions (while necessary) are a hammer blow to their mental health. Supporting your beloved football club, whether it’s in the Premier League or the tenth step of non-league football, is escapism for many people from the trials and tribulations of so many other aspects of life. Purely from my perspective, there’s never been a more important time to discuss self-care and mental health and this is something that Liam echoes in our interview. For the remainder of our discussion, the striker goes into detail about how important looking after our mental health is when we are under strict lockdown rules and when the news we need to keep abreast of is dominated by negative and worrying headlines:

“It’s about engaging in conversation. I think the biggest key for people who have maybe not been through any mental health issues themselves or for people who are just looking to help others is open-mindedness. You have to be open-minded because there’s the old cliché where it’s said people can wear twenty masks. I used to be the master at it. People did not have a clue that I was suffering inside because this illness is not a visible illness. It’s an illness that’s deep within. So, being open-minded is the most crucial thing that anyone can do. If you can recognise things that you think are a bit out of character or perhaps you haven’t spoken to an individual for a long time that previously you had spoken with a lot – all it is, is a message. It’s reaching out…I think consistent, regular contact with people is crucial and it’s really powerful and it goes a long way of reassuring people that they’re not on their own in this time.”

“Social media, magazines, TV: you can’t help it! You’re always comparing yourself to how other people are portrayed. You’re constantly chasing something else. I used to do it. I used to think ‘why is that person always so happy all the time?’ Don’t let that fool you. I’m a big guy, six foot, but I struggle. I cry. I’m an emotional wreck sometimes and that’s okay. I’m not scared to admit it. It’s the fear of the emotion that causes most problems. That fear of insecurity, of crying, of feeling emotional – what I’ve realised because of what I’ve been through and how close I’ve been to losing everything, and when I say everything, I mean life, is that I embrace feelings and feeling low. It makes me human – being able to feel these things – to be able to share these feelings with my partner and my family.”

“The one thing that you’ve got to remember is that if you try and hide these feelings away: you’ve got to imagine a volcano. Under the surface, these things are bubbling away. All of a sudden, it’s going to explode. And that can come out in many different forms depending on the individual. That’s where, I feel, if we’re proactive with things and we take care of our mental health and we’re talking openly about our mental health and our fears and our insecurities and our feelings, then it creates a positive mindset. It creates positivity around you and you can use that positivity to help other people.”

“If you put things in place with mental health and you reach out to people, more often than not, you’re going to stop it at the source. You’re going to prevent things happening in the future just by acting today.”

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