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ONEIGHTY

Soccer players turned filmmakers explore when injuries challenge identity — with a ‘Ted Lasso’ connection

There’s a need to talk about mental health in sports. A group of soccer players who became filmmakers show why.

 

Jeremy Blackmore

IRL

Broke, a online short film which powerfully explores the violent transition of identity for pro sports stars when their dreams (and what defines their lives) are ripped away, is a highly personal one for its filmmakers.

Will Miller, the film’s writer and director, has experienced the pressures of top-flight soccer and the precarious lives of a professional athletes—and more recently, the often unsettling transition into life after sport. It’s also a familiar story for Miller’s former Burton Albion teammates Marvin Sordell and Harry Campbell, his partners in fledgling film production company ONEIGHTY.

The trio, together with filmmaker Maxwell Harris-Tharp, drew on their experiences to create ONEIGHTY, aiming to tell stories which resonate and tackle important issues. Chief among those concerns is the need to open up much-needed conversations about mental health in sport and the importance of support offered by teammates.

Over the past four years, ONEIGHTY has worked on online campaigns for big brands such as Adidas and the Football Association (or FA), English soccer’s governing body, but Broke is their most personal project yet—and entirely their initiative.

Once the idea and script were fully formed, they went out to bring partners on board and raise funding. Produced in association with film and TV production company Fulwell 73 and partners including Nike, Common Goal, Football Manager, mental health charity Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM) and the players’ union the Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA), it has been widely shared online by leading charity and sporting partners greatly amplifying its reach.

You know him from ‘Ted Lasso’

Starring Moe Hashim (best known for playing Moe Bumbercatch on Apple TV’s hit show Ted Lasso), Broke tells the story of a young professional soccer player, also named Moe. Out of contract and desperately trying to find a club to keep his dream alive, he is offered an unmissable opportunity to play in a trial game for a league club. Even though he is carrying an injury and not fully fit, he chooses to take the risk and play through the pain, because what other choice does he have?

During the match, Moe suffers a career-threatening injury that changes the course of his life. In the aftermath, he must grapple with his identity and the somewhat fractured relationship with his father—built on their love for football and Moe’s career. Moe struggles to accept the circumstances and must confront the death of his dream, and himself in many ways, in order to grow and move on.

Created to raise awareness around the importance of mental health within soccer and the support needed for aspiring and professional players falling out of the game, it was launched at a special screening in London attended by key stakeholders from English soccer and released online on #WorldMentalHealthDay 2022.

Broke’s story is a familiar one for Miller, who after time as a child actor starring as Oliver Twist in a BBC Charles Dickens adaptation, came through the youth systems at Leyton Orient and Tottenham Hotspur and played for England at the under-18 level. He later joined Burton where he had a year out through injury. From a young age, much of his identity was defined by soccer, even among his family and friends. Losing that structure so suddenly can be tough to adjust to and something Miller was keen to explore on screen.

“There are so many players that fall out the system at a very young age and have given their entire lives to it and sacrificed everything and don’t have much to leave with,” he says. “But I know for me personally, and for H and Marv as well, it’s just a really interesting thing, how much of your identity something like football takes. How much dedication and devotion it takes and how that can become your entire world, not just yours, but the people around you.

“Growing up when I’d see family members or friends, the first thing people would say is ‘How’s football’ before they asked how you are as a person. So very quickly, your whole life becomes defined by your success or where you’re at in your career. Then when you suddenly lose that, it’s like, whoa, what are we now?”

Miller says questions from family and friends about his career were always from a place of love and pride for what he was doing, but he adds: “Over time that mounts up and the pressure builds and it gets more serious, you get to youth team, scholarships and pro contracts. You’re in the first team, you’re playing in front of fans, you’re playing for points, you’re playing for other people’s livelihoods.

“But what a wonderful experience coming through that football system was and the people we met. I wouldn’t change it for the world, but coming out of it, that transition was interesting. It still is. I still think it’s not finished. A big part of me is still going through that.”

It started on a plane

ONEIGHTY was born from a conversation on a plane six years ago when Sordell and Miller were returning from a Burton Albion team bonding trip in Tenerife that led to their first creative collaboration.

Sordell recalled that moment in a recent LinkedIn post: “He passes me one of his headphones and just says listen to this. I was a fan of the song and artist instantly, who it turns out I was actually sat next to. For some reason, this gave me the courage to do something I had never really done before. I shared my poetry, one of which he suggested we ‘put some visuals to’. I had no idea what this meant at the time but said yes.“

He’d recently met this talented guy Max and was planning on making some music videos with him. We all met up, made [online film] Denis Prose [an anagram of Depression] and figured we enjoyed working together.

“So,” Sordell continued, “when myself, William and Harry all stepped away from football at the same time, it just made sense to give this a proper go. Luck, timing, fate. Whatever you want to call it, sometimes things feel inevitable beyond explanation.”

Sordell, who represented England in the under 21s & Team GB at London 2012 Olympics, and retired from the game at just 28, after more than a decade as a professional to pursue this new dream. In an Instagram post entitled ‘A Beautiful Game with An Ugly Persona’, he cited examples of racism and bullying which had left a stain on the sport for him.

Since then, he has become a passionate advocate for mental health charities and spoken openly and honestly about his historic battles with severe depression that led to a suicide attempt. Speaking on a morning television show in the UK in 2020, he recounted how he found it difficult to deal with the weight of expectations at Bolton Wanderers, the Premier League club he joined in 2012 on a £3 million deal. Not having the support network he had relied on at childhood club Watford made it even tougher. He says telling his story is important for people to “see you can overcome it and can be in a better place.”

Poetry and film have offered him a way to express himself. Indeed, ONEIGHTY’s first major production was a unique online campaign to spread awareness about the value of an honest and open conversation about mental health, sharing problems and the support of teammates. Released for 2020’s World Mental Health Day, the film was posted on all the FA’s and Team England’s social media channels. It placed the viewer in the footsteps of an England men’s soccer player as he prepared for a big game at Wembley Stadium, showing the journey from call-up to matchday. The intention was to speak to a new audience about mental health in a more relatable way.

Filmed just before COVID-19 in early March 2020, the film featured England manager Gareth Southgate and internationals Declan Rice, Fikayo Tomori, Harry Winks and Tyrone Mings. Recognizing the challenges posed by the pandemic, the video called for fans to ditch the handshakes and invest in more than the usual pleasantries with loved ones, urging them to “be there for your mates–even when you can’t be with them.”

That film helped firmly establish ONEIGHTY’s reputation. As Sordell put it, “The campaign was very impactful in terms of mental health around the country and within football.”

“It was a great experience for us because we’d never done something of that scale before. Having that as part of our portfolio to then take forward, has been pretty big for us. From that point on, we had a lot of really positive conversations. So many things we’ve done since have probably just followed on from that.”

‘Like a mini film school’

The pandemic allowed some time for the four partners to work out what kind of company they wanted to be and how they could use sport to tell important stories. Lockdown also afforded them time to hone their skills – “like a mini film school,” jokes Campbell.

“One of the biggest things, during that time was understanding what kind of filmmakers and what kind of brand we want to be,” Miller said. “And then, being very selective and calculated about the films we make and what we put our time into. At the end of the day, we’re a production company and the films we make are going to define us and our reputation, and what we stand for.

“So, over the last three years, we’ve definitely prioritized important work that means a lot to us, that we feel is a reflection of who we want to be in the future as well, rather than necessarily money. We’ve tried to focus more on building our identity and our reputation for our films first. That’s been both challenging but also a really great thing. We’re proud of the films we’ve made and the portfolio we’ve managed to create.

Claiming their focus is on “purpose-driven content,” he added, “One of the biggest blessings about this is being able to have a voice and say something and communicate things to people. When they’re things that mean a lot to you as well, it comes out in the work, it elevates the work. It pushes you a bit harder.”

Harris-Tharp agrees it’s about finding things that will keep them in business for the long term rather than a bit of fun.

“We’ve got to think about the long journey instead of the short journey,” he said. “And for us, it’s definitely telling stories that keep you motivated, keep you intrigued, trying to find new things to talk about, trying to find stories that haven’t been spoken about, people that haven’t been talked about, that need to have that voice and have something important to say.”

Making a difference is the driving factor for Sordell too. Combining his love of poetry, music, art and filmmaking has allowed him to work on projects which resonate in many different ways.

https://twitter.com/MarvinSordell/status/1322252132347748353?s=20

“Stories have such power and such resonance,” he says. “People can go on our website and look at our work and a lot of it has a strong element of purpose running through it. Being a part of telling stories that are positive and important, for us it’s great, because there’s no better way to earn a living than having a positive mark in the world.”

Among their early commissions was a series of online films for England Football, the organisation established by the FA to represent, unite and promote participation in soccer. The This Is Football series chronicled players’ journeys from the grassroots game to England’s elite. Among the stars featured in the series were Jordan Henderson, John Stones and Raheem Sterling who spoke about growing up in the shadow of Wembley Stadium and reflected on the role of youth worker and football coach, Clive Ellington in his career. The films ran on the official Team England website and socials across 2021.

They also worked with German international and former Chelsea striker Timo Werner when he teamed up with Adidas and Common Goal to enable equitable access to soccer by pledging 1% of his salary to support Street League UK:

ONEIGHTY has prioritized building trust in working with elite sports stars, says Campbell, as filmmakers who understand both worlds.

“I guess the second you say to them you used to play, there’s that immediate kind of trust built there that we’ve all been in same situation. I’m not going to screw you and make you look stupid. They’re not going to screw us by messing around, because there’s that mutual level of respect.

“When we worked with Timo Werner, I think that level of respect was there. I think some of the pieces we did with John Stones and Raheem Sterling [for the This Is Football series], Marvin either played against or with them, or went away on camps with them for England.

“So, when you either know them, or there’s friends in common, there’s that common ground. When they see us guys there, I think it just makes them feel a bit more comfortable and a bit more like they’re not just these unapproachable superstars … I definitely think that helps us get the best out of these guys.”

On being real

Realism and authenticity have become defining traits in ONEIGHTY’s work. Broke depicted a world they knew, and they were keen to make it as accurate as possible.

“We were very passionate about portraying it very authentically, and making it feel real,” Miller noted. “So that any footballers watching it can say, yeah, that’s right, that’s how it feels in the changing room. That’s how it feels in the tunnel. That’s how it feels on the pitch. That’s how it feels when you get injured.”

“A big part of the creative process was casting the lead character and making sure they knew football themselves,” he added. “We prioritized authenticity to the game of football rather than acting experience,” adding that they didn’t want to be “overly cinematic” but also that Hashim delivered a spot-on performance.

“He’d been through similar experiences to us and had been through that world, heartache, pain and identity crisis,” Miller noted. “In a sense, at the time, he was going through this a similar transition to us.”

“We’ve managed to build a style in our work,” Harris-Tharp added. There’s a lot of production companies out there and there’s a lot of people who make films. If you looked at their film, you wouldn’t really see the identity behind the filmmakers. But I think now, there’s an awareness that if someone saw something [we’d made], I think they’d be able to look at it and say, ONEIGHTY did that. There’s a ONEIGHTY style that resonates with a lot of audiences, which is cool.”

Outside of ONEIGHTY, Sordell has pursued a range of avenues to normalize conversations around mental health. He has spoken regularly at conferences, schools, football clubs (including his former club Watford) and companies, covering topics including mental health, wellbeing, elite performance, life as a professional athlete and identity. He also worked with the BBC on an online classroom resource about living with depression.

As an ambassador for the charity CALM (Campaign Against Living Miserably), he supports their campaigns, brings creative ideas and boosts their voice through podcasts and interviews. The charity takes a stand against suicide by provoking conversation, running life-saving services, and bringing people together so they reject living miserably, get help when they need it. Sordell co-hosts the #UnderTheSurface podcast/video series for CALM and Original Penguin where he speaks with famous sports stars about mental health.

He has also co-founded Swoop Social, a data-driven soccer marketing agency which boasts unrivaled access to male and female professional football players and their fanbases.

Being part of the PFA Players’ Board since 2021 has enabled him to shape and drive discussions around mental health and transition from within. He was also appointed to the FA’s Inclusion Advisory Board which addresses issues of diversity in the game.

‘I think things are starting to shift’

Almost three years on from ONEIGHTY’s initial work with the FA around mental health, does Sordell think attitudes in the English game are changing?

“I think things are starting to shift,” he says. “Obviously, the [mental health] campaign was a big part of that. A lot of people have spoken about it. I’ve spoken about it a lot; I’ve spoken to a lot of players and people within the football world. So, things are starting to move in a more positive direction. Conversations are happening, and people’s mindsets and understanding are changing. Education is a massive part of that. We’re not there yet, but the most important thing is we’re headed in the right direction.

“When it comes to inclusion … for me, it’s great I’m able to be a part of these conversations and be in these rooms, to understand how change gets made,” he added. “Because a lot of the time I think being on the outside, it’s easy to get frustrated and wonder why things aren’t happening. I understand very much things take time. Things take a lot of money. But the reason I’m there is because I want to see change happen, and I want to keep pushing for it. So, I’m never going to stop doing that, regardless of how long it takes.”

Though he also finds himself asking to speed up timelines, asking, “Can we do something now? What is the impact we can have immediately? Because I think the world in general, and society and people within it, just need things to be better in so many different ways. So, I think for a lot of people, it’s up to us, and it’s our responsibility to change things.”

As with raising awareness of mental health, he sees education as being equally key when it comes to racism.

“Racism, I mean, it comes and goes, you know. I don’t think it’s necessarily a thing that has improved or lessened. It’s going to take many years, really, for different generations to have different mindsets and different understanding and education as to why certain things are not okay.

“So, I think things like that are going to take time,” he concluded. “I think everything’s going to take time to be honest. But the most important thing is we’re planting the seeds. And we’re going to just keep watering them, keep educating people, keep having these conversations, really, because without them, we’re not going to get anywhere.”

Jeremy Blackmore is an experienced NCTJ-qualified journalist, covering sport and specializing in cricket for a variety of regional, national and international outlets. He also writes about music and the arts as well as general news stories and features. He previously worked in public relations roles helping organizations to improve the way they communicate.

This story is part of the Pixel Pitch series, exploring the spaces where soccer, the internet and identity intersect. Pixel Pitch is a joint project partnering The Daily Dot with The Striker, a soccer-centric online publication “where every day is a soccer news day.”


See more stories from Presser – examining the intersection of race and sports online.

 
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