By Tony Dewhurst
PRESTON North End Community and Education Trust won Community Club of the season at the North West Football Awards, in association with the Professional Footballers’ Association.
Tony Dewhurst hears how the Trust and goalkeeper Declan Rudd supported a brave teenager after his father committed suicide.
A year ago, and a couple of days after Preston North End’s defeat to West Bromwich Albion, Declan Rudd, their goalkeeper, received a letter from 13-year-old Joe Martin.
It read: ‘Declan, I imagine that you might be struggling, feeling a bit down.
‘Please think of the many ways you’ve helped me when you talked to me about focusing on the positives and having that strength.
“Just remember then what a good goalkeeper you are.’
It was to prove a controversial climax to the game, a penalty awarded in the final minute for Rudd’s challenge on substitute Kyle Edwards.
Striker Charlie Austin converted the penalty to send West Brom to the summit of the Championship table.
Yet the Preston ‘keeper had clearly found solace in the teenager’s gentle words.
Joe’s letter of support for Rudd was an unselfish act of courage from a young man still grieving for his father who had taken his own life a year earlier.
Rudd said: “Joe Martin is a remarkably courageous young man with a massive heart.
“He is a credit to his family considering what he has had to deal with, losing his father.
“I’ve had my own issues with mental health, seeking help from Sporting Chance (a mental health charity) and it is something that I still deal with now.
“However, having had the chance to help Joe out certainly puts professional football firmly into perspective.”
Rudd adds: “It is vital that mental health is addressed more in football.
“I don’t think it is spoken about enough.
“When professional players talk about their own mental health in public, I don’t see it is a weakness, quite the opposite in fact.
“It shows that you are stronger than everybody else if you speak out.”
Rudd adds: “When I talk to Joe, he makes me feel positive and I hope I have done the same for him.”
It has proved a long road for the youngster from Lancaster who is now back at school and doing well.
Following his father’s death, Joe had struggled with low moods and anxiety, and had been referred to the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services.
Then Joe’s mum Jenny made contact with Preston North End’s Community and Education Trust, in the hope of finding help and support for her son through football and the team he supported.
“It was a last-ditch attempt to try and gain some confidence for Joe,” said Jenny.
“Joe was in a very low place indeed.”
She added: “He was having panic attacks and was hospitalized a couple of times.
“He loved playing football, but his anxiety was even causing him to become nervous about playing in matches.
“Joe would miss lunch at school because he was too nervous to go into the canteen with so many people there.”
It was clear though that via Joe’s love of football it could provide a route to aid his recovery and improve his mental health.
And when North End’s Assistant Head of Community and Education, Harriet Creighton-Levis, met Joe it provided his family with fresh hope.
The Trust swung into action, creating a personal programme, focusing on developing Joe’s resilience, confidence, communication and leadership skills.
“Seeing how nervous and terrified Joe was at that time, when he was frightened to go out, Harriet was brilliant with him,” added Jenny.
“That day was the first time I’d seen Joe smile for a long time.”
Later, Joe enjoyed a grand tour of Deepdale, visited North End’s training centre, where he was greeted by manager Alex Neil, and first team stars Paul Gallagher, Louis Moult and Rudd.
Soon Joe became part of the Trust team, helping staff on match days, organising half-time penalty shoot-outs.
His mum added: “The PNE Trust and Declan Rudd helped restore Joe’s focus, confidence and positive outlook for the future.
“They’ve had a massive influence on his daily life since - you really can’t put a price on that.”
With his self-confidence growing, Joe has coached and mentored other children at the PNE Community and Education Trust Half-Term Soccer Schools.
Joe said: “It is crazy how much has happened since mum contacted PNE Community Trust and through my friendship with Declan Rudd I’ve learned to cope much better.
“I was a bit scared at first when I met Declan, who was a pretty famous guy I suppose.
“But he is an incredibly down to earth and nice person, and we’ve forged a strong bond.”
Joe added: “A few weeks before I’d been scared to walk out in front of 30 people, but I stood on the centre circle last season with 15,000 fans inside Deepdale.
“Most of all, though, I want to help other children who have struggled through mental health, and who’ve suffered the sadness of a parent dying from suicide.”