Mark Atkinson – the ‘daddy’ of the Wales Homeless Football Team.


The training session was over and as the men and women shuffled off to change I led Mark Atkinson, the Wales team’s goalkeeper, to a corner of the artificial pitch.

We sat cross-legged on the Astro, his shiny bald head and ginger beard framing a big smile. Looking back I see a certain irony in talking to an ex-prisoner inside a cage. But that fence in every sense is now behind Mark. Street football has changed this man’s life.

Rugby was his first love and kept him fit when he was a soldier in the Royal Regiment of Wales. But life after the Army can often be cruel and Mark got into smoking spice and drinking alcohol, lots of alcohol. He ended up in prison but during his rehab, the chaplain suggested he try having a kick about with some other people. ‘Nothing ventured nothing gained I thought,’ Mark told me. ‘Since then I haven’t looked back. Being around people that may have been on similar paths to me, I just felt included again and I’ve met some amazing people.’

Mark describes himself as a recovering alcoholic and despite being sober for four years he says football came round at the right time. ‘I was getting a bit complacent with my rehab,’ he said, ‘but then being around other people that who were not as far down the line as me, I said to myself, “Stop it. You’re not fixed yet!”’

At 44 Mark is the oldest member of the Wales team and during a recent training camp in west Wales, players were asked to write a sentence about every one of their teammates. It was a sort of group therapy. Mark scratched his beard and looked away briefly before saying, ‘One of them said I was a ‘daddy’ figure and that they could talk to me about anything. I was so touched I took a photo of it on my phone. Now when I’m feeling down I take it out and look at it.’

As part of his recovery programme, Mark was asked to write a farewell letter to his drug of choice. He’s framed the letter and hung it on the wall in his partner’s house. ‘It inspires me. Every morning I look at it. It’s like a mantra that keeps me going.’ Mark had a lot of help from Care After Combat and is now using his own experience to help others. In fact he’s actually looking forward to going back inside next week – only this time to mentor other army veterans. ‘I’ll probably know most of them,’ he jokes. ‘Look at me,’ he says as we get up to leave the cage. ‘Representing my country. In my home city. Yep. Life is pretty damned good at the moment.’


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