A man, woman and two young men standing in front of an Anthony Nolan banner

How we're saving lives through football, in Olly's memory - Simon's story

July 27, 2023

In November, our long-time supporter Simon and his family will host the 4th Olly Wilkes Memorial Football Tournament in aid of Anthony Nolan. This year, the tournament will be at St. George’s Park, the FA’s national football centre. In this blog, Simon shares how it all started and why it means so much to them.

Where it all started

I was diagnosed with a form of rare blood cancer 10 years ago. For the first few years I didn’t want to think about it, I just carried on with life because I still felt okay. But over the years I had to stop doing a lot of things because I just didn’t have the energy. I joined an MDS support group, and I started to think, ‘Maybe I could help people?’.

I got to know one guy and we messaged each other for two years. He had MDS too, but it progressed more rapidly than mine, and he was looking for a stem cell donor. I’d never heard of the Anthony Nolan register before, and that was the first time I thought, ‘I can do something about this.’

At the time I was coaching the youth team at Stourbridge football club, as well as still being involved with Withymoor Colts. The local Mary Stevens Hospice had an annual charity football event, so I asked if I could be part of it. I wanted to raise money for MDS and Anthony Nolan and I asked them if I could do some donor recruitment too.

A lot of people came to that event because they knew I was going to make a fool of myself! I’ve coached thousands of kids round here and it was probably the first time they were going to see me in a football kit, actually playing. It’s just gone from there really.

It took on a more special meaning because unbeknownst to us, that would be the last family day we had together. Unfortunately, we lost our son Olly 11 days later. I can’t explain it, but I’ve felt an affinity with Anthony Nolan ever since, because of the timing.

What we've achieved so far

22 people joined the register that day, including Olly and one of his football teammates, Matt. That first Christmas after we lost Olly, we decided to do a memorial event in his memory. We started organising a football tournament and I was planning to do donor recruitment again. Low and behold, a month before the tournament, Matt got called to say he was a match!

an older man and younger man with arms around each other, one is wearing an Anthony Nolan t-shirt
Simon and Matt, the first to donate

Matt's donation story was in the local papers and that helped promote the event - another 52 people signed up at Olly’s first memorial tournament, including Sam Astley who got called up as a match in 2021. His story was all over the national papers because he gave up his tickets to the Euros semi-final to donate.

I hope even more people have joined the register because of their stories. We’ve supported Anthony Nolan in other ways too. My wife Lynn did a ‘wing walk’ and raised almost £3,000. I've also been working with Birmingham City FA and Anthony Nolan to deliver talks at local grassroots football clubs.

The tournament is now in its 4th year

We want to keep Olly’s name alive by doing these events and helping people. We missed two years because of the pandemic so this will be the 4th year we’ve organised  Olly’s football tournament.

After the success of last years tournament I reached out to St George’s Park. After a few emails to them, I got a phone call and they said they were going to try to fit us in. I was blown away. I had to go visit the venue with my son Ben to make it real.

It’s a fantastic opportunity for a lot of lads who played football with Olly, and have supported us over the years since he passed away, to play at such a venue.

I’ve invited the teams who played the last four tournaments. That’s 240 players. I’ve invited people I’ve met over the years too – people who’ve had stem cell transplants through Anthony Nolan and another stem cell donor who’s donated four times.

an older man and younger man at a football stadium, both are wearing Anthony Nolan t-shirts
Simon and Sam, the second donor recruited through the tournaments

I couldn’t do this without the support of my wife, Lynn and my lad, Ben. They encourage me to do this because it’s helped me, after Olly passed away. I’ve had to turn a negative into a positive. I’m proud of what we’ve all achieved together and I hope we will continue to help people, in Olly’s name.

The Olly Wilkes Memorial Tournament, in aid of Anthony Nolan, will be staged at St George’s Park, on 25th November. Find out more by following the event on the Facebook page.