THE BIG INTERVIEW: The inspirational Luke Ambler on the two-year anniversary of Andy’s Man Club

Two years ago this weekend, Luke Ambler took a chance on something which would not only change his life, but save the lives of others. It would take him from Huddersfield to Hampshire. It would take him to prisons up and down the country. It would take him to meeting royalty in Buckingham Palace. It would even convince him to walk away from the career he dreamed of having as a child.

On June 30 2016, former Super League and Ireland international Ambler created the Andy’s Man Club concept, motivated by the tragic suicide of his brother-in-law, Andy Roberts, and the goal of breaking down the barriers concerning male mental health. When we speak to conduct this interview, Ambler is heading back to his native Halifax from the Isle of Sheppey, where he has given a talk to prisoners at HMP Elmley.

Ambler’s goal to tackle the rates of male suicide – which, frighteningly, remains the biggest cause of death in men under 45 in this country – has taken him across the length and breadth of England: but he has no intention of slowing down. When the inaugural Andy’s Man Club opened its doors two years ago to the day, nine men turned up. Now, over 1,000 men a month use the 15 clubs Ambler has helped create across the country.

“It’s surreal how fast it’s gone really,” he explains to League Express. “Yet at the same time, with how much we’ve done, it feels like it’s been forever.” In the first few months of Andy’s Man Club, the #ItsOkayToTalk hashtag quickly trended across social media, with famous rugby players, sportsmen and celebrities all endorsing it.

But more importantly than that, the doors of Andy’s Man Club opening up to those men who needed support and needed someone to talk to made an almost-instant impact on the lives of people who could have taken an unthinkable alternative without Ambler’s help. “I went to the one-year anniversary of our club in Oldham, not to run it or anything, just to sit in and watch,” he explains. “I heard ten guys all stand up and direct a message to each other that without the club, they would be dead.

“One looked at his wife and explained how without this, she wouldn’t have a husband. I then went to our Huddersfield group and saw people say it there; I saw the same in Bradford, and so on. It’s such a powerful change you’re helping people to make, but you don’t really realise the gravity until you sit down, take a step back and do interviews like these. Then it hits home. It’s incredibly humbling.”

Ambler in his playing days with Halifax.

Already this year, the 15 Andy’s Man Club groups which run every Monday across the country have attracted record-breaking numbers. The exact figures cannot be obtained – but that is part of the Andy’s Man Club ethos. Nobody signs in, nobody feels like they’re in a waiting room at a doctors: men are simply encouraged to turn up, share their issues with one another and help each other. Yet Ambler estimates that after around 3,500 men coming through the doors in 2017, they are already at 4,500 halfway through this year.

The other key point? Andy’s Man Club is not-for-profit; every single penny raised goes back into funding the cause. “We don’t take names, that’s a key rule,” he says. “The exciting statistic is that we’ve blown last year’s number out of the water – we’re breaking down the barriers and I think more and more men are realising that it is okay to talk about your problems.”

Coming from a heavily-macho background like rugby league, Ambler can recall his own story well – and how he reached this point in his life at the age of just 28. “I got let go from Leeds as a kid, and my life felt that it was crumbling around me,” he says. “My dream job was gone; I was a kid from a council estate with not much else, my girlfriend at the time left me, I started going out drinking, got in a fight and ended up in a police cell.

“At that time, you think, ‘why me?’ – but really, the question was more: ‘what next?’. That’s where I decided it was time to change.” Then, when Ambler’s brother-in-law took his own life, the Andy’s Man Club concept was quickly born. It took off to such an extent that, despite potentially being selected for Ireland for last year’s World Cup, Ambler called a halt to his playing career while with Halifax midway through last year.

It is a decision he does not regret. “There could have been a chance to go to the World Cup, but I have no regrets whatsoever,” he says. “I love helping people through Andy’s Man Club and the workshops we do. It could have all gone wrong; I gave up a guaranteed income and had nothing, but the buy-in from people around me has been incredible.”

And a year on from his own career coming to an end through choice, can Ambler sense perceptions are changing within rugby league to male mental health? “I think so, yeah,” he claims. “After the #ItsOkayToTalk campaign, I had high-profile Super League players messaging me saying they would consider using the clubs. Ex-players have used it too – I’ll never say who, and I couldn’t anyway, because as I say, we don’t take names as a rule of thumb. Stigmas are changing; I don’t work for Andy’s Man Club, I’ve got my own business in mental wellbeing so I’ve liked up with organisations like Rugby League Cares and you can see things are changing.”

Ambler’s business interests have prompted the creation of a journal called BeeYou, which again urges people to share the issues surrounding their mental wellbeing. Like Andy’s Man Club, it has taken off; prisons across the country are ordering them, while orders have already been shipped to places like Vancouver and Argentina.

Just a short amount of time on the phone with Ambler reaffirms his decision to retire at the age of 27 was the right one. It also doesn’t take long to learn that Ambler is not intent on slowing down any time soon, too. “We set out with a goal of halving the number of male suicides, and that hasn’t changed,” he insists. “The reason it’s all been so successful is because we’re passionate about changing things. I’d never expected it to be as big as this so quick – but it is, and it’s growing. I’m proud to be involved with doing what we’re doing.

And what Ambler is doing, without over-exaggerating one bit, is saving the lives of men who are in need of support. Sportsmen often want to be remembered for something positive when they leave the game. Ambler, in truth, will be remembered for something far more important. For that, he deserves universal praise from everyone in rugby league and beyond.

On Saturday night, Andy’s Man Club will host their two-year anniversary celebration at The Shay in Halifax. The event is free entry and starts at 7pm.