Ben Watkins: Community spirit

Founded two decades ago, Oak Football Club are an amateur football team who play in the Gwent Premier Division Two.

Their story began when current player-manager Ben Watkins started taking part in weekend five-a-side football with his friends as a teenager. The group, noticing that they had something special, decided very quickly to aspire to grow their hobby into a fully fledged team – a decision that came with both opportunity, and challenge.

“We found we were very good at generating money for charities,” said Ben. “And useless at generating money for the club.”

So there began the annual fundraising that would become such a key part of Oak’s identity and purpose. They started generating money for charities that would support people in their local community in Wales; then Ben and his wife had their son Noah.

The Watkins family found out Noah was autistic a few years after his birth, and another year after that, Oak did their first fundraiser for the National Autistic Society (NAS) in their game against Rumney. Ben then learned that three of Rumney’s players also had autistic children, and another father joined Oak’s squad to be a part of the fundraising efforts.

From there Oak blossomed into a community-supportive football club through a worldwide purpose, and then the COVID-19 pandemic struck.

“We were really struggling, couldn’t meet up in groups and do things in football,” continued Ben, who is a teacher in his day job. “So, we started doing our running challenges which I know lots of football teams did.

“We did a challenge where you ran as much as you could in 90 minutes and raised a couple of thousand pounds as everyone in the football team joined together. We also attempted walking 500 miles in a week; I slipped three discs in my back picking up my daughter before the challenge began so Noah actually did a lot of those miles for me with my wife, being mindful of safety and changing the routes to keep his attention.

“Because they were such a success we wanted to up our game, and for the NAS 60th anniversary, six of us decided to walk 60 kilometres in 12 hours. We set off at five in the morning from my mother’s pub, and the walk really took its toll on our bodies. When we got back to the pub we just broke down full of emotion, seeing friends and family cheering us. I hadn’t come close to replicating that feeling before.

“We are really proud of what we’ve achieved as a football club, raising around £30,000 for various charities over nearly two decades. Some people remember the cup finals and the league trophies, but when my football journey ends, I will remember what we’ve done for other people more.”

Oak FC players walking 60km in support of National Autistic Society
Oak FC players walking 60km in support of National Autistic Society

Now Oak use their social media and popular football kits to continue to raise awareness all year round, and Ben is never shy to talk about his son.

“I’m very proud of Noah. I’m happy to post pictures when he has headphones on or he is really happy and stimming [self-stimulating behaviour], I’ve never hid that and it really shocked me the amount of people who do. Me and my wife also found out how many people from school also had autistic children, and some would ask us for advice.

“Everyone knows Noah because my mum has him at her pub twice a week. He’ll walk into the pub with his headphones on, people will say hello and he’ll say hello back, and head over to play on the pool table. It’s a typical Welsh valley atmosphere where everyone loves him and he can just be himself.

“The younger generation coming through our football team are a lot more accepting now than they were back then, and being as open and transparent as possible on things like this is my advice to other teams, being happy to explain things to other people.

“I love that my son comes and watches the football sometimes and the team knows exactly what he is about, what makes him tick, and what he struggles with. They are so open, and he is like part of the family to them.

“I just wish there were more teams out there for people like Noah to get involved in football, and I’m definitely noticing a change in that there is a lot more happening. It’s something I’d like to perhaps think about once I finish managing and playing, not necessarily football, just to get autistic children more active.”

As Noah has grown up, Ben has also grown as a person and now has a different outlook on things in his life.

“No matter what’s going on, Noah has always got time to look at people’s happiness first in his own way. He is protective over his sister and he just wants to keep peace and love.

“For me as a teacher, I’m also looking at pupils in a different way. In the past where I could have been frustrated with pupils if they weren’t getting bits of work straight away, I now love teaching more classes for Additional Learning Needs students.

“I’m a massive Arsenal fan and, years ago, I’d be in a bad mood for days if they lost, but now it’s so irrelevant compared to some of the struggles Noah goes through. I’m proud of him, and whatever we do, wherever we go, I want to show him off.

“He’s perfect in every way.”