You would be entirely forgiven if you missed this year’s UK FA Cup final, after all British soccer is only slightly more popular in Australia than lawn bowls and televised bridge tournaments.
Still, this year’s match was significant and not just because Arsenal beat Chelsea. Instead the entire thing was called the Heads Together FA Cup Final after soccer’s presiding body agreed to team up with the mental health charity founded by the Royal Foundation.
The President of the Football Association just happens to be Prince William, who watched the match perched in a pastel lawn chair at Sandringham surrounded by a select group of scrubbed up blokes on their best behaviour and buckets of conspicuously untouched beers.
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And this is truly significant: Here was a future king of Great Britain creating a national conversation about men and mental health unlike anything that has been done before.
This is not some anomaly in William’s regal career. Heads Together, which was co-created by his wife Kate, Duchess of Cambridge, and his brother Prince Harry, has changed the national conversation about mental health in the UK, working to destigmatise the issue along with launching a 24/7 crisis text line. (Earlier this year it was revealed William had been working as one of the platform’s 2000 trained volunteers to answer messages.)
While William might outwardly seem like the human personification of a beige Marks & Spencer jumper, about as subversive as warm beer and an overcooked Sunday roast, the man is actually surreptitiously revolutionising what the role of a future monarch looks like to something that is more human and more progressive.
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Can you imagine the Queen ever sitting down with a journalist in front of her trusty bar heater in a cavernous drawing room stuffed with Old Masters and admitting she had seen a therapist? Can you picture Charles twiddling with his signet ring as he strode across his fields of organic lupin awkwardly revealing he had depression?
William (and Kate and Harry’s) mental health fight reflects just how keen he is to push the envelope for the things he believes in.
So why couldn’t William’s adaptability and willingness to quietly change the status quo extend to the role of ‘the spare’ to his heir?
This week a new biography, Finding Freedom, hit the shelves, purporting to offer the Sussexes’ version of how their historic exit from being working members of the royal family came to be.
Penned by authors Omid Scobie and Carolyn Durand, Finding Freedom offers an alternate, widely sympathetic view of the events of the last few years. Padded with a litany of extraneous details and written with all the nuance of a Mills & Boon novel, the book does shed new light on a few moments in recent royal history.
One of those is the photo shoot for the official family portrait to mark Charles’ 70th birthday in 2018. When the shots were revealed, they were quite touching, filled with what (looked at least) like genuine affection.
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Except, the reality per Finding Freedom, was far different.
A source told the authors that planning the shoot was “an absolute nightmare.
“The boys can be hot and cold with their father,” the source is quoted saying. “Neither William nor Harry made much of an effort to make themselves available.”
By the time these images were released, stories claiming that William and Harry were feuding had hit the headlines, with an increasing number of reports suggesting that things were far from chummy behind the gates of Kensington Palace.
Barely 14 months after Charles’ birthday and the Sussexes sensationally made a dash for North America and a new life.
The picture that Finding Freedom paints is of Harry and Meghan aggrieved that despite their popularity, they were forced to take a back seat to other family members.
“While they both respected the hierarchy of the institution, it was difficult when they wanted to focus on a project and were told that a more senior ranking family member, be it Prince William or Prince Charles, had an initiative or tour being announced at the same time – so they would just have to wait.
“As their popularity had grown, so did Harry and Meghan’s difficulty in understanding why so few inside the palace were looking out for their interests.”
Part of the reason for this, according to this book, is that elements inside the palace felt threatened by Meghan and Harry’s burgeoning global following, claiming: “There were concerns that the couple should be brought into the fold; otherwise the establishment feared their popularity might eclipse that of the royal family.”
The problem with trying to ‘bring the Sussexes’ into the fold were the very limited roles on offer to them.
Traditionally there is a very, very clear binary distinction between the heir and the spare/s. You are either one day going to see your face on pound notes and will have a navy at your command or you are expected to dutifully open scout halls and municipal leisure centres for the rest of your life, never grumbling about your lowly lot.
For Harry and Meghan, the choice was stark: Accept their second string placement or refuse to play the game at all.
With the couple now living in their newly purchased $US14.6 million ($A20 million) Santa Barbara home, we know how this particular tale ended.
However, looking at that shot of Charles and his sons and their families, I keep thinking, why didn’t the royal family – why didn’t William especially – find a third way?
As with Heads Together and his very personal admissions about his own mental health, William is making his role as a future monarch entirely his own. In that vein, why couldn’t he have fashioned some sort different ‘spare’ role for Harry?
Why couldn’t the royal machine find a way to imagine a new sort of professional dynamic between the direct heir and his brother?
Contrary to popular belief, while the house of Windsor might outwardly seem like an immovable, lumbering beast, it is actually an organisation driven by a willingness to evolve.
The Queen fixed trucks during WWII; she embraced TV long before other leaders to directly connect with her people; she insisted on getting behind the wheel and taking Saudi Arabian King Abdullah – who refused to allow women in his country to drive – for a spin in 2003.
In 2012, she changed the rules of primogeniture meaning that female descendants were no longer shunted down the line of succession. (If William and Kate’s first born had been a girl, no matter how many brothers came after her, she would have been Queen.)
Then there’s Charles who has been banging on about environmental issues since such things were the sole province of hippies and lentil enthusiasts and he got into organic farming despite being widely mocked at the time.
William, especially with his work on mental health, is following in their covertly progressive footsteps, driving an agenda based on the values and issues that he passionately cares about.
So why couldn’t he have applied that spirit of subtle, occasional radicalism to his brother’s role in the house of Windsor?
Only one of them is ever going to be king but that doesn’t mean that Harry had to suffer the same ignominious fate as Prince Andrew and Prince Edward, two men (at least prior to the Jeffery Epstein scandal) destined to be doughy, balding pinstriped footnotes in royal history.
If only ego and hurt, on all sides, hadn’t entered the equation. If only William and his team had shown greater empathy for Harry’s frustrations. (Diana, Princess of Wales resolutely raised her sons as equals only for the cold hard hierarchical reality to hit in adulthood for both of them.)
If only the palace machine had realised that pushing Harry (and Meghan) to the side with their myopic focus on Charles and William was creating the sort of highly combustible environment ripe for an explosive, destructive denouement.
This year, Charles will turn 73 years old making him perhaps the world’s longest serving apprentice. He has had decades and decades to think about what sort of reign he wants to have; to reflect on what sort of legacy he wants to have as a king.
Sadly right now, looking at those 70th birthday shots, the quasi-reigns of Charles and William represent a certain lack of imagination, flexibility, and compassion and that’s just heartbreaking.
Daniela Elser is a royal expert and writer with more than 15 years working with a number of Australia’s leading media titles.