John Caven hit his lowest ebb just before last Christmas, after being affected by serious mental health problems.
But the support the 40-year-old received, including from the University of South Wales (USW), meant that he has been able to celebrate getting 2.2 honours in his degree in Community Football Coaching, Development and Administration, and is looking forward to a bright future working in the game he loves.
Originally from Leeds, and now living near Holmfirth, West Yorkshire, with his wife and three children, John’s journey to degree success has been anything but straightforward, having left school at 15 without a qualification to his name.
Initially a building worker and then owner of his own construction business, John discovered a passion for supporting young footballers within the community with his initial opportunity coming when he started doing voluntary coaching for his son’s grassroots team, Cumberworth Juniors.
“I really enjoyed doing that, it brought me such a lot of happiness, and, as the years went by, because I was my own boss, I was able to help more different groups in the community.
"It was just something I was passionate about and really enjoyed, but I never really saw it as a job, or a career I could follow,” John said.
As often happens, however, circumstances gave John reason to reconsider football coaching as more than just a voluntary role.
“There was time a few years ago when things weren’t going too well – I had health problems, one of my close friends died, my work was targeted by criminals, and we suffered financial losses that weren’t caused by the business,” he said.
“All of it just came together and I just decided that I wanted to have a complete career change, and looked at how to get into football coaching.”
After originally starting a degree course close to home, which he said ‘didn’t quite live up to expectations’, while also continuing to work in the building trade in-between classes, John again had to rethink his plans, realising that he was unable to spread his time so thinly.
However, with his experience in the sector, John managed to secure a coaching role at League One side Doncaster Rovers FC, where he was heavily involved in setting up the Doncaster Titans, which supports youngsters with disabilities.
While still looking to continue his study, a friend who was working at the Sheffield United Community Foundation told him about the courses available at USW, which offer the chance to gain an industry-recognised coaching award while being affiliated to a football club.
“I had no idea that these courses even existed, so when I discovered I could study while also doing the job at Doncaster Rovers, it was exactly what I wanted,” John said.
After signing up to USW’s Foundation Diploma in Community Football Coaching and Development, John went on to complete his first year with flying colours. Soon after, however, he faced challenges that led to his mental health difficulties.
“Before finishing the second year at USW I lost a couple of close family members, which hit me really hard and was the catalyst for the problems that put me back a year, meaning I didn’t graduate from the foundation course alongside the students I started with,” he said.
“Then, when I started my degree, I noticed some health problems, then came the pandemic and the lockdown. With my wife being self-employed, it meant we were really struggling to make ends meet, our kids were finding it tough being at home and we couldn’t help them with their school work, and with the amount I was doing with uni, it all got on top of me and I got to my lowest ebb just before last Christmas.”
Thankfully, at one of the toughest times in John’s life, he got the support he desperately needed after asking for help from his lecturers, USW’s Chaplaincy, and the University’s Student Services.
“I really do think that the support offered saved me,” John said.
“It’s been unreal. The day after I’d had my lowest moment, I had an epiphany following a moment with my wife. This inspired me to make a few calls and reach out, to try to sort myself out.
“The guys at uni were brilliant. I sent an email to a couple of staff at USW and the educational programme mentor, who referred me to the USW Chaplaincy and Student Support, and I had a couple of meetings with counsellors. I went from really struggling to having a number of people who made themselves readily available to talk and help.
“That initial support helped me go on, and keep going, and the follow-up support from the tutors helped me get over the line.”
In the lead up to the second lockdown last autumn, John was working on a project to develop girls’ football in his home area, but the challenges he was facing meant he wasn’t able to complete the planning. However, the ‘silver lining’ was the fact he had more time to develop his scheme.
“That was the only saving grace from lockdown,” John said. “At the start of it all I was going to put together a project to develop girls’ football within the community, but didn’t think I’d manage it.
“But, during lockdown, and after my mental health issues, I was able to put together plans to champion participation in football for females of any age. I’ve had lots of support from national and local bodies, and it’s looking like this is ready to take off now, and that wouldn’t have happened without the prolonged lockdown.
“It meant I had more time to do research and develop an understanding of what was needed to make it work.”