The God squad player

If you think that religion has only ever been a negative force in Scottish football you’ve never met Mark Fleming.

By Heather McKinlay

This article first appeared in Issue 8 which was published in June 2018.

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Until four years ago, no-one was taking the issue of mental health in Scottish football seriously. Then, in one season, chaplains were called upon to make five suicide interventions.
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chaplaincy has become an integral part of the fabric of Scottish football. Common needs revolve around supporting players through long-term injury or difficulties in their personal life such as dealing with bereavement and divorce.

Kate, the club chiropodist, felt terribly sorry for the lad. Whenever she attended Firhill on a Friday, he always greeted her with a friendly smile and exchanged a few warm words as he trooped off the pitch. Week after week, month after month, year after year, she saw him turn out for the warm-up, for the bounce game, for the warm-down. Not even the Glasgow rain could dampen his cheery spirits joining in the banter with his team-mates. He never attended for chiropody treatment so his feet must be in good order, mused Kate. So why had he not yet made his first-team debut? Finally, curiosity got the better of her. It was time to stand up to the boss. “John, I have to say this,” she addressed Mr Lambie. “There’s one of the players and I’ve seen him in training for years – he never misses training – yet you never give him a game. God’s not on his side, is he?” The manager guffawed. “God’s not on his side? Of course God’s on his side, Kate – he’s the bleedin’ chaplain!”

Mark Fleming gets a kick out of such anecdotes. An amiable and self-deprecating character, he was the pioneer chaplain at Partick Thistle from 1998 and now holds a wider role for the whole of Scottish football at Sports Chaplaincy UK, recruiting, training and establishing chaplains at more than 100 clubs, extending across the professional men’s game, the women’s game and the Highland and Lowland leagues. He is a reverend and previously led his own church but is very quick to stress that the football role is not about converting anyone to religion. “We are pastorally proactive and spiritually reactive,” he explains. “The role of the chaplain is to support around mental, emotional, psychological and practical issues. We are unashamedly a Christian charity but we are pastorally available to everybody of all faiths and no faith.” In fact Fleming claims that those of no faith are among the most likely to call upon the football chaplain’s services, admitting to a best-of-both-worlds scenario: “It means they have a pastor without needing to go to church.”

The title of the seminar which Fleming regularly delivers at the UEFA A Licence coaching course is: ‘More than two legs on a Saturday’. He encourages football managers and coaches to look beyond the playing commodity to the human being. “If you value a player beyond their performance on a Saturday, if you care about their home life, their partner, their mental wellbeing, you’ll get a better player, a loyal player, one who wants to play for you.”

This same philosophy lay at the root of Mark defining and taking on the role at Partick Thistle many years ago. The club had been pulled back from the brink of the financial abyss by the ‘Save the Jags’ movement. Allan Cowan, the spearhead of the campaign, was attending his sister’s wedding reception. The ceremony had been conducted a week before atop a Scottish mountain by Fleming. “I’d known Allan for years. We’d grown up in the same village and often saw each other at Partick Thistle games. It was hard to get lost in the crowd.”  Finding a sympathetic ear, Cowan confided that things continued to be very tough for the club – describing it as “alive but still very sick”. Morale among the players was low, unsurprising considering the payment of wages had been in doubt. The manager was bemoaning the fact that he wasn’t a social worker, that his all-consuming job was to get three points on a Saturday; he didn’t have time to worry about the rest. “I found myself saying to Allan: ‘Have you ever thought about having someone the guys could go to if they have any problems – say call it a chaplain – then they could speak to him in confidence and leave the manager to get on with coaching?’ That was on the Saturday night. I didn’t hear any more from him. Then on Tuesday I got a call.”

On the other end of the phone was a voice purporting to be Graham Scott of the Glasgow Evening Times sports desk, saying: “I hear you’ve just become chaplain to Partick Thistle.” Mark was taken aback, convinced it was one of his pals on a wind-up. His reply was: “Aye, sure mate, and my next move will be to become the Pope of Rome.” The sceptical Fleming took the caller’s phone number and looked it up in Yellow Pages before ringing back and sheepishly continuing the conversation with the man who was indeed journalist Graham Scott. “Allan had gone back to the board. They’d asked how much it would cost, and he’d said, ‘Ach, it’s Mark, it won’t cost anything’, so that was that. It’s one of the reasons it’s so successful and popular now – no cost at all to the clubs. Chaplains are all volunteer members of staff.”

Initially Fleming faced a certain amount of cynicism from the squad. “I remember when John Lambie introduced me – ‘OK boys, this is Mark and he’s your club chaplain so if you’ve any bleeping problems don’t bleeping come to me, bleeping go to bleeping him and I don’t want to know what the bleeping problems are.’ But how did they know they could trust me?”  Alan Archibald and Kenny Arthur were the most quizzical, wondering what it was all about. Now they are both great friends of Fleming and still at Partick Thistle. The manager decided to bring the chaplain into training sessions. While fitness training and passing drills were OK, the pastor found the practice matches a bit of an ordeal, recognising he would always be the last pick and concerned that the other boys would get frustrated with him. Lambie was having none of it. “Look son, it’s like this. See, a Friday morning, that’s the warm down. That’s when I like them to relax before the game on Saturday and they get a right laugh looking at you falling on your backside!”

Lambie had it spot-on in more ways than one. With hindsight, Fleming acknowledges the vital role of becoming accepted as ‘one of the lads’. He recalls being told “bleep off back to your pulpit” by Chic Charnley for missing an open goal, while Des McKeown, a Catholic, ribbed him that he ought to pray for his first touch because it was shocking. “At first I thought, oh no, I’ve been found out, they know I’m not a great player. But then I thought, hey, I’m in! That’s the culture of the dressing room. Once they can take the mickey out of you and know you’re not going to be offended. It just takes time to break down the barriers and misconceptions.”

When Partick’s Jamie Mitchell and his wife had a daughter, the player enquired if the chaplain would christen the wean. “I said I’d do a blessing,” recounts Mark. “I will acknowledge that God has created and designed your child for significance in this life and that she has got tremendous potential. We pray that comes to fruition and that she will get to know and love God.”  The player shied away from attending Fleming’s church, citing several excuses such as living too far away, not knowing anyone, embarrassment and not wanting to take advantage. Initially he proposed that the blessing should take place at his house. Then he sprung an alternative on Fleming: “I want to invite all the boys, the squad, but my house isn’t big enough. So we’ve hired a suite in Tiger, Tiger nightclub – would you do it there?” Not in the least taken aback, the reverend replied: “Absolutely, fantastic! If it’s big enough, how about if I bring some of my church down? My worship band, my street dance team, my puppet team and we give you a wee bit of church in Tiger, Tiger?” The result was a big party of a blessing, complete with kids’ entertainment and hip hop to Christian lyrics. It proved to be an eye-opener all round. “I was speaking to one of the players at the bar and he said to me, ‘Rev, that was brilliant tonight, really got me thinking – to be honest before tonight I could never relate you and church, coz you’re alright.’ It made me realise that people sometimes have a concept of church that’s less than accurate – maybe based on soap operas presenting Christians as weirdos and charlatans or whatever.”

The idea of football chaplaincy gradually caught on over the next 10 to 12 years. “The church released me two days a week to enable it to grow and in enlarging my capacity they also facilitated the increase.” Fleming began to feel over-stretched, with more and more demands from all corners of the game. Time for divine intervention? Well, political at least. At a match at Ross County in 2014, the chairman, Roy MacGregor, introduced him to then-First Minister Alex Salmond. A half-time chat over a cuppa led to a follow-up meeting in Edinburgh for a more serious discussion. Undaunted by earthly power, Fleming turned up in a Hibs tie: “I wanted to test if it was the right thing. I knew he was a real Jambo. I was working at Hibernian Ladies at the time. I thought, well, this will see if he really has a good heart towards this.” The bravado worked. Salmond secured funding for Mark to go full-time for an initial year. In the meantime the Scottish Government negotiated with the SFA and SPFL to take over longer-term funding. That journey has not been without issue. “Football is football and money’s too tight to mention,” shrugs Fleming. He is now back doing the role part-time, having established his own mental health training company as a more secure income stream.

Until four years ago, no one was taking the issue of mental health in Scottish football seriously. Then, in one season, chaplains were called upon to make five suicide interventions. Preserving confidentiality, Flemming outlines one of the first cases. “I got a call from an SPFL manager, saying one of his players had attempted to take his life that morning, that he couldn’t make any sense out of him.”

The manager was at a loss about what to do and was extremely worried as the police and paramedics had left the player’s house. Fleming had recently appointed a new chaplain to the club but both he and the manager were concerned that the situation would throw him in at the deep end.  “As it happened, I was visiting a club nearby so I went to see the lad. The issues that precipitated the suicide attempt were in areas I had a lot of experience in. I was able to understand what he was going through, give him the necessary support and put things in place. To cut a long story short he ended up doing fine.”

The pressures of football became all too apparent in the immediate aftermath. The pastor continues: “This was a Thursday and on the Friday I got a call from the manager, saying ‘How did you get on? Is he alright? Can I play him tomorrow?’ Now that’s the pressure he’s under – this was a big player, he needed him. I said to be honest, I think it would do him good. If you think he’s physically fit, that’s your call, but if you’re asking me if he’s mentally fit, emotionally fit, I think it would give him a focus.” The player did indeed make the team, performed well on that day and maintained good form throughout the season.

These incidents provoked Fleming to discuss mental health with colleagues at the SFA and SPFL and led to the setting up of a steering group. The NHS ran a mental health first aid course for the group but the instructor admitted she knew nothing about the unique nature of football – the potential impact of long-term injuries, loss of form, loss of confidence on a player’s psychological wellbeing. Before long, Mark himself became trained as an instructor and developed scenarios and a bespoke course for Scottish football. Now he has set up in business as Positive Mental Health Scotland and delivers courses for NHS Scotland which in turn trains club doctors, chaplains, physiotherapists, community coaches and other relevant staff. Fleming is also official mental health first aid instructor to the SPFL Trust and feels very strongly about the good that clubs can do by reaching out into communities. One example he gives is the FFIT – Football Fans in Training – programme, which has helped to tackle obesity and aid recovery from mental illness. Fleming also engages directly through his company with clubs such as Liverpool and Celtic. He describes his overarching chaplaincy role and the training as “two railway tracks going in the same direction”.

Before I broach the thorny subject of religion and Scottish football, Fleming acknowledges that religion has not been a particularly positive influence over the generations. “Obviously certain supporters of two particular Glasgow teams have perpetuated this animosity through a religious cloak but it’s more of a cultural tribal cloak – religion is just used.” He appreciates that there can be resistance to the idea of chaplaincy, with clubs not wishing to be identified as a Catholic club or a Protestant club. “The church is no more connected than the club doctor’s local surgery. We leave our church at the door. I select chaplains on the basis of personality, skillset and experience, not denomination.” He politely declines to comment any further on the Old Firm clubs, beyond the mention of his involvement with Celtic through his training company. My own research reveals that Rangers have had the same chaplain in place for around 30 years, pre-dating Fleming’s original role at Partick Thistle. I respect the sensitivities and my subject’s desire to remain on good terms with every chairman in Scottish football. Not many mere mortals can lay claim to that.

I probe a little more on women’s football and am surprised when the pastor openly admits to casual sexism, though only because he has now very much learned his lesson. At a UEFA course in 2014, the manager of Hibs Ladies, Willie Kirk, approached Fleming, who now confesses: “In my head I’m thinking women’s football – they dinnae take it that seriously. They’re not that good, are they? Don’t think he’s getting that this is for serious footballers.” Shortly after, Fleming watched the BBC Alba documentary on Glasgow City and came to the realisation that some women took their football extremely seriously. Fleming recontacted Willie, still unsure how to proceed. Kirk suggested he pilot it himself with Hibs Ladies and he accepted the challenge. “I’ve got two grown-up girls. I’ve lived in a house with three women all with PMT at the same time. I’m thinking, I can give this a go.”

Fleming describes being blown away by the players’ professional attitude, work-rate, ability and tactical understanding. “Some of these girls would train 20 hours a week – five nights and mornings – and hold down a job or be at uni. I felt so rebuked in terms of my ignorance!” I find I’m chatting with a man who is totally convinced by the cliché that women are much better than men at multi-tasking. “They could take on so many more instructions,  maybe take on four at the same time when guys would have to have one instruction repeated ten times before they got it.”

Now a firm convert, Fleming undertook a dissertation on the female game in Scotland as part of his Masters in sports chaplaincy. “I was shocked and horrified when I did historical research and I found out how Scotland had been so dismissive and disparaging of female players… I’ve developed a tremendous passion – as far as I’m concerned, as far as chaplaincy goes, I’ll make sure women get the same value and resources that the men have got.” Generally now female chaplains work at women’s clubs on the basis that certain issues are easier to discuss with someone of the same gender.

Overall, chaplaincy has become an integral part of the fabric of Scottish football. Common needs revolve around supporting players through long-term injury or difficulties in their personal life such as dealing with bereavement and divorce. Whilst alcohol is rarely an issue nowadays, gambling addiction is a major one: “Every dressing room has a problem,” recounts Fleming. “We have a programme in place to help them kick it and deal with creditors. It leads to relationship strain and other issues with people you owe money to – it’s not just the addiction but the fruit of it.”

He sighs when I mention the area of retirement and goes on to compare transitioning out of football to leaving the army or some other institution, where so much is done for you, even your thinking. He describes one former player who was known as a pantomime villain – often booed and called all kinds of names. He told Fleming: “I would rather be vilified from the terraces than have no one know who I am. I can walk down the main street and no one recognises me. I feel like I’ve lost my identity, my sense of significance. With my football shirt taken off, I don’t know who I am.” Mark encourages chaplains to talk to players about life beyond football while they are still playing and have access to PFA support, education and training.

The tasks of a chaplain are many and varied. “In one word we are servants,” says Mark. “We have no decision-making capacity, no political authority, no axe to grind.” The original concept of joining in training or providing volunteer support still holds true. The chaplain of Aberdeen sits on the community board, while the one at Brechin City doubles as the club’s videographer, filming matches for the manager’s analysis. The Stirling Albion chaplain drives the team bus. Whitehill Welfare proclaim their chaplain, James, as one of their best ever signings. “He turns his hand to anything,” explains Mark. “The groundsman was struggling because rabbits were digging up the turf and eating the nets. James brought down an air gun and took out six rabbits. Now we call him Elmer, as in Fudd, though of course we don’t say that because of the other meaning of that word around here!” Fleming’s natural charm means he easily gets away with a touch of laddish humour. I’m somewhat distracted in any case, grappling with James’ interpretation of the sixth commandment as not applying to furry animals.

The week after I interviewed the reverend, news broke that John Lambie had passed away. Fleming led the funeral service and did his old football gaffer proud, creating an atmosphere of humour and mutual support. Despite his attachment to agricultural language, Lambie was a religious man and attended Fleming’s church. On one occasion the players were invited along to a special service to hear from the chaplain of Manchester United, John Boyers. He recounted how he started out at Watford under Graham Taylor. The club got promoted from the fourth division to the third to the second to the first then went on to the FA Cup final. Boyers then moved to Altrincham and took on the chaplaincy role at Old Trafford, just around the time that Sir Alex Ferguson arrived. “John Lambie sat listening to this,” explains Mark. “Then he stands up in my church to do the Bible reading but first he says, ‘Right, I’m going to have a chaplain swap here. We’re still struggling in League Two and this boy here has won the Champions League with his club – I’ve got the wrong chaplain!’”

While revelling in such banter, Fleming quickly points out that chaplains are not ‘witchdoctors’ and cannot be held responsible for on-pitch performance. Nevertheless, I can’t help wondering if the pastor could work miracles for Scottish international football. He shrugs. “We’ve had a lot of players over the years with great ability who haven’t made it because of lack of resilience, or they’ve hung about with the wrong company, fallen down the many pot holes that players do. I’m seeking to do work with the SFA Performance Schools in terms of character coaching. I can’t give a player a better first touch, can’t make him faster, can’t make him stronger, can’t make him better. I can only support him, help prevent off-field problems having an impact on the field. I wish I could do more.”

It is now 20 years since Kate the chiropodist first came across the man with God on his side. Have we moved on? “I would say there’s been a change in culture,” posits Fleming. “Less bravado, more openness, more emotional literacy. Guys are now probably more likely to talk about stuff when before they would just put on a façade. Football is a ruthless, brutal industry but most of the people I know within it, aren’t. We are now seeing a culture of care that I don’t think was there historically.”

It makes a change to conclude that religion – albeit in its loosest pastoral sense – has been a positive force for good in our national sport. 

This article first appeared in Issue 8 which was published in June 2018.

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