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Walking away from the career he had always dreamed of at the age of just 26 should have been one of the hardest decisions of Luke Ambler’s life. Almost five years later, and he maintains that given what happened next, it remains one of the easiest.

Not that Ambler was disillusioned with life as a rugby league player. Far from it. But after his family suffered the pain of losing his brother-in-law, Andy, to suicide, Ambler decided it was time to make a difference. The scale of what he has created since is simply unbelievable.

“I’ve never once regretted walking away,” he tells Thirteen. “I wanted to do it from a young age, and I had a dream to play until I was 35. But when Andy died, it changed my whole perspective on life. I was juggling the two for a while, but nobody was getting the best out of me. It was time to invest everything I had in this.”

Now, more than ever, Andy’s Man Club is providing a vital pillar of support to those who need it most. The clubs, which take place every Monday evening and allow men of all ages, from all walks of life, to reach out and talk about their problems, have grown in size and capacity since their launch five years ago.

But with lockdown putting a strain on our mental wellbeing more than perhaps anything many of us have faced before, Ambler is acutely aware of what Andy’s Man Club is offering people at present. “People have got so much uncertainty in their lives right now,” Ambler says. “They need an element of certainty: Andy’s Man Club offers them that every single Monday.

The clubs had to shut down during the first lockdown, but having looked into Government guidelines closely last summer, Ambler – who works in an unpaid role as chairman of AMC – knew that could not happen again. “We managed to get people online quite quickly last April, but the numbers obviously dropped,” he says.

“It’s not quite the same virtually, and we knew we had to get them back open as soon as we could. Incredibly, we’ve managed to go from 28 locations every week to 37 as we speak today, and we’ve doubled our staff numbers from three to six. We want to continue to open these doors every single Monday, because men need support and help more than ever with lockdown and Covid-19.”

Many people across the country hope that with vaccinations starting to kick in, the end may be in sight for the worst of the pandemic – though Ambler worries a similarly-significant problem is looming on the horizon. “I don’t think we’re anywhere near the worst when it comes to the mental health ramifications of this,” he says.

“We’ve got a huge wave potentially coming across the ocean, when furlough ends, unemployment could skyrocket and that’s going to put financial strain on families. We don’t know the implications of this long-term yet; social anxiety, for example, could be a big problem as people have got used to their own company. There’s a lot of moving parts when it comes to mental health.”

That is where Ambler hopes Andy’s Man Club can step in. He has seen first-hand in recent weeks – he often attends the anonymous clubs himself – just how tough things are. “I’ve seen and heard from so many people who say that Andy’s Man Club has literally saved their lives,” he says.

“I put a post out recently about a guy who said thank you to me at the end of a group, and said without what we’ve done, he wouldn’t be here. That sums it up for me. The age range of guys attending goes from 18 to 86. We’ve had professional sportsmen come. I bumped into a guy dropping his kids off at school and he told me Andy’s Man Club saved his life.

“That’s where it hits me. That child wouldn’t have their dad around to take them to school, or pick them up and greet them at the gates. I’ve seen wives pick their husbands up from the club and tell me personally what it’s done. It fills my heart with hope when a family members tells me that their husband, brother or son wouldn’t be here without this group.”

Andy’s Man Club burst into the spotlight recently when a Manchester United supporter called into talkSPORT to reveal how football, coupled with the clubs, had helped him immeasurably during lockdown. “That was amazing – and it was great for me to see some of our other staff members on air talking about what we’re doing,” he says.

“This isn’t about me. I wasn’t comfortable going on telly and radio talking about it, because it’s much bigger than me. Our mantra as a group of staff is that when nobody cares who gets the credit, it’s incredible what you can accomplish. This isn’t about one person – it’s about saving lives and telling men it’s okay to talk.”

Ambler strayed away from explaining to his young children what Andy’s Man Club stood for initially, given how it was born out of a personal family tragedy. But now? “Giving them the news about Andy was horrendous, but they know what this is all about now,” he says.

“We’re even seeing this go beyond England now – we’ve got demand worldwide. I had a guy message me from France, an American citizen wanting to talk.. we only went online through the pandemic to give guys a platform but maybe we’ll have to keep that door open now.”

It is all a far cry from the life Ambler led five years ago, when he was playing for his hometown club, Halifax, and fulfilling his dream of playing rugby for a living. But now, he has taken a very different path: one he is rightly proud of. “We haven’t even scratched the surface with this, let me tell you that,” he admits. “I really believe that. As long as men need help or support, we’ll be here. We’re not going away.”

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