Startup's switch-up all in aid of mental health

Katie Startup in action during the FA Women's Championship match between Charlton Athletic and London City Lionesses at Oakwood on September 15, 2019 in London, England.

FOOTBALL fans don’t tend to like it when players stray from their traditional shirt numbers.

Gunners fans were less than impressed when Nicklas Bendtner chose to wear his ‘special number’ 52 back in 2009-10, and for the football purists out there, Everton handing midfielder Morgan Schneiderlin the No.2 shirt in 2017 was beyond nonsensical.

But what if the switch to an unusual squad number all turned out to be in aid of mental health?

That’s the idea of Charlton Women’s first-choice goalkeeper Katie Startup, who has opted to wear the number 40 shirt in the FA Women’s Championship this season to raise awareness for the cause.

According to the World Health Organisation, one person dies from suicide every 40 seconds – that’s 135 in one football match.

When Startup read this statistic, she immediately knew she wanted to make a difference.

Ask any football fan across the globe about the shirt number they associate with goalkeepers and you are sure to get the same answer.

But according to the young goalkeeper, that’s exactly why her plan will work.

“No.1 is the traditional number for a goalkeeper to wear so I knew changing it would immediately prompt questions,” said the Charlton shot-stopper.

“I wanted to do something impactful and raise awareness of an important topic and mental health was the first one that sprung to mind.

“When I was doing my research, I found the most shocking statistic that one person dies from suicide every 40 seconds and that really struck a chord with me. Especially when you think about it closely, that’s a lot of people dying in the space of just one football match.

“The whole idea was for people to ask why I had changed to the number 40 and I could explain to them and start an important conversation. It becomes more impactful too because I don’t think anyone really expected it.

“One the day it was announced, I had lots of people messaging me asking why I had made the decision. They might go home and tell their family about it and then more people are aware of the issue. I want to normalise it.”

Listening to her explain her decision, it’s easy to forget that Startup is still just 20 years old, the goalkeeper having played for England at U19 level last year.

She’s shown maturity beyond her years, and now the young shot-stopper wants to encourage other athletes to step up and do the same.

“I’ve always thought if I can make a difference, I will,” she added.

“Mental health can be hard to talk about, especially in sports, but as athletes, we have a big platform in society and it’s becoming more and more important for us to speak up.

“We’re role models – if we speak about it, others will copy. I want to make a difference, having a platform seems like a waste otherwise.

“When athletes speak about it, it’s more powerful because we are perceived as strong and powerful, but we’re still humans. You can struggle mentally even when you’re physically strong.

“We need to be honest. It’s ok not to be ok. We all need to be aware of that.”

Startup will be no doubt keen to get the conversation rolling on Saturday when Charlton host Aston Villa at the Valley, the club hoping to follow in the footsteps of the top-flight clubs in drawing in bigger crowds to the women's game.

“Looking back on the success of the World Cup and the crowds in the Women’s Super League, I think we could pull in some good numbers,” said Startup.

“The Championship is not at the level of the WSL yet, but we’re getting there and it’s going to be fantastic. Even though it’s not our home ground, it still feels like home to us.

“We haven’t got off to the best start this season, but once we find our feet, we know we’re going to launch a real challenge at the top of the division.”