Matt Maher: Fighting the good cause down at the Lions’ den

In an otherwise quiet corner of Brierley Hill, in a building wedged between a housing estate and the railway line, Kev Dillion’s voice booms loud.

“Right! Next, let’s have three, two-minute rounds of sparring, on the pads. Ready, go!”

Welcome to Furlough Club, the latest brainwave of Dillon, head coach at Lions Amateur Boxing Club.

Every Tuesday and Thursday morning (or every Wednesday and Friday for women), the club opens the doors of its gym to some of those hit hard by the pandemic.

“This isn’t a wealthy area,” explains Dillon, sitting down after setting up the next drill. “There are people who have lost their jobs, or been placed on furlough for a long time. It’s tough.

“We thought, why don’t we open up a couple of times a week for people to come and train for free? Something that will get them out of the house.

“We started it in April and we’ve had over 60 people turn up, men and women. That’s been the brilliant thing. The natural assumption, with boxing, is that it would only be blokes. But some of the ladies’ classes have been packed. The more people we can help, the better.”

Sessions take place in front of walls covered in newspaper cuttings and pictures telling the proud history of the Lions club, co-founded by Dillon’s father Bob and John Shakespeare 21 years ago.

It is a who’s who of British boxing, from Henry Cooper, who formally opened the gym, to visitors including Frank Bruno and Anthony Joshua and the club’s own stars, among them Osama Mohamed, recently selected to represent England at the European Youth Games.

Yet as is always the case in amateur boxing, the work going on at the Lions is more valuable than simply teaching how to throw the perfect jab. This is a place where countless lives have been transformed for the better.

Recently, Dillon has placed a greater emphasis on addressing mental health issues. In 2019, he was responsible for starting the Black Country Blokes podcast after discussing his own problems with friend Lee Cadman. Together with Aren Deu and Craig Pinches, they record the show every Tuesday in a recently-created studio above the gym. The quartet also now have a weekly radio slot on Black Country Xtra.

“Lee has a disabled daughter and that’s not easy. One night he called me up and told me what a bad place he was in. I’d had no idea,” says Dillon.

“That’s when we decided to start something which could remove the stigma around men’s mental health. I’ve known Lee since we were teenagers but we’re chalk and cheese.

“All four of us have completely different lives but we’ve gone through similar things and dealt with it differently. We can give a different perspective on the same problem.”

Dillon, 37, is candid when discussing his own troubles but admits until recently, that was not the case. Blind in one eye and partially-sighted in the other since contracting viral meningitis at the age of three, he hasn’t had it easy.

“I always felt different,” he says. “I had depression. I couldn’t get off the sofa. I was on tablets. I still suffer panic attacks now but not as bad. For years, I couldn’t talk about it.

“I have been working through it. Some things have worked brilliantly, some things haven’t. A lot of the people who have helped me along the way, we’ve had on the podcast.

“There are so many great organisations out there but they can be hard to find. Part of our role is showing people where they are, pointing them in the right direction.”

It isn’t only over the airwaves Dillon has been trying to make a difference. Every Wednesday night, since the end of lockdown, an upstairs room at the Lions has hosted a support group where men can come, in confidence, to discuss their problems.

“The best way to describe it is like the pub without the beer,” laughs Dillon. “We usually have between six and 10 people. Some come every week. For others, it is like physio – one session and once they’ve got it off their chest, they’re OK.

“We aren’t experts but we are experienced. We don’t have the answer but we can tell people what has and hasn’t worked for us.”

Delivering the message, Dillon believes, is even more important as the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic continues to be felt.

“Mental health issues haven’t just arrived,” he says. “But if you had problems before it has probably thrown petrol on an angry fire.

“If you didn’t, it has perhaps given a taste of it, the angriness, the loneliness and the depression. Where do blokes talk? The gym, the pub and the barbers. They were all shut.”

Dillon’s plans for the Black Country Blokes are ambitious.

“I reckon one day we’ll end up on TV,” he says. “Maybe we could do for mental health what The Last Leg has done for disability.” Alex Brooker, a star of that show, has been a guest on the podcast.

Dillon and Cadman have already been invited in by several businesses to talk to staff. They’d like to do more of that and set up links with local schools, though it will require sponsorship.

Dillon is also campaigning for mental health first aid to be included in the amateur boxing curriculum. In July, the Lions gym hosted a talk for members from the Mental Health First group.

“That was to give some awareness to the boxers and parents,” says Dillon. “Ultimately, I just want to get people talking about things. It took me 30-odd years to be able to do that comfortably. It is about owning your illness. When you can do that, you are almost free from it.

“We need to get rid of the myth that if you have a disability or a mental illness your life is over. I’m living proof that isn’t the case.”

To learn more about the Black Country Blokes visit theblackcountryblokes.co.uk

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