Inspired by the latest Football Insiders podcast with Chris Kirkland, GARETH ROBERTS looks into football and mental health – and asks whether enough is being done to tackle an issue that is increasingly becoming more visible after decades of being the problem no player dared admit to
WHAT was once an all-too-rare drip has become a much steadier stream.
What was once an issue that was dealt with alone in the dark is slowly creeping into the bright light for all to see.
Footballers, and professional sportsmen and women in general, are speaking out more and more about their issues with mental heath, from stress to anxiety, from depression to suicidal thoughts.
Opening up, particularly from those in the spotlight with influence can only be a good thing. Talking about mental health should be normalised; the stigma should be stifled.
Mental health problems should be treated in the same way a physical injury would be – with the right treatment, with an educated response, with the right advice during and after and a path to self-help left clear for the future.
Yet while society has hopefully come a long way from trashy, misguided and unhelpful banner headlines like The Sun’s “Bonkers Bruno Locked Up” (a report that also labelled the former heavyweight champion “a nut”) when Frank Bruno was taken to a psychiatric hospital in 2003, questions remain whether enough is being done – including in football.
Some talk of mental health being “new” or “in vogue”, and in relatively recent times TV gob-on-a-stick Piers Morgan was continuing to chant the mantra that many of those suffering just need to “man up”.
Yet while the reactions have started to change, and the discussion has become more prevalent, the red flags have always been there. Perhaps it’s just that now people are more prepared to wave them.
Gary Speed’s suicide in 2011 – just hours after appearing on Football Focus – shocked everyone from his family to his friends in football to the world at large. Later, it emerged he had sent a letter to his future wife as a teenager talking of depression.
A couple of years earlier in Germany, Hannover 96 goalkeeper Robert Enke took his own life at the age of 32. He was tipped to be Germany’s first choice at the 2010 World Cup.
Despite previously receiving treatment for depression, he lied about the dark feelings that led to his death to friends and colleagues.
Other instances are less high profile but no less important. And thankfully some footballers do get help and go on to talk about it.
Martin Bengtsson might not jump out as a famous name to many but with good reason.
The Swede was tipped to follow in the footsteps of fellow countryman Zlatan Ibrahimovic, and after trials with Chelsea and Ajax, he joined Inter Milan as a 17-year-old.
Yet he struggled with the grind of Inter’s academy, eventually cutting his wrists in a suicide attempt. He later gave up his pursuit of a football career despite his obvious talents.
In the mini-documentary below he says: “They sent in a therapist. She was standing in front of me saying, ‘It’s so weird, you have everything you can wish for in life. You’re a football player in one of the biggest football clubs in the world. You earn a lot of money, you have a car’. And the last thing she said was, ‘you can f*** any model you want’.
“Somewhere there I just realised: Ok, this is actually how people look at a football player. This is their idea of their perfect life. And somewhere there it was so clear: this is not me. Football becomes the only way you value yourself – you’re only as good as your last game.”
FIFPro, the World Players’ Union, which combines 63 national associations, has carried out research that estimates one in three players suffer from anxiety or depression.
Sixty five per cent of players surveyed said it had affected their career.
From the pressures to make it, the pressures to succeed, worries over future contracts, anxiety around performances to the fact that, according to The PFA, the average length of a player’s career is seven years (and a player’s wage could drop by as much as 75 per cent when he stops playing), there are plenty of potential trigger points.
And unlike the words directed towards Bengtsson – not an uncommon stance – money and cars are not remedies for mental issues.
Neither is there a set profile for a sufferer. So while the traditional ‘man up’ approach undoubtedly prevails, it’s got little to do with being a man, or being hard, tough or anything else.
Neil Lennon was hardly known for being a shrinking violet when it came to playing football and was the first Northern Irish Catholic to play for Celtic.
Yet he was one of the first players to open up about depression, writing in his book Man and Bhoy: “It’s very difficult to come forward and talk about it, but … it is an illness, it’s like getting the flu or breaking a leg. It happens, and it can happen for no reason.”
More recently, there has been a steady flow of high-profile footballers publicly discussing their problems, from Steven Caulker to Justin Rose and Jose Enrique to Gianluigi Buffon.
Clarke Carlisle, Aaron Lennon, Paul Gascoigne, Stan Collymore, Andrew Cole, Michael Carrick – all have experienced mental health issues.
Carrick explained that feeling responsible for Manchester United’s 2-0 defeat to Barcelona in the Champions League final triggered his depression and while he told immediate family members, he didn’t feel he could tell anyone at the club.
He added in an interview last October: “Thankfully it’s talked about a lot more now, so hopefully if someone is going through the same they will come out and say it. The stigma isn’t there any more.
“People know they can talk about it, they won’t be judged and their career path won’t be changed just because they have been suffering.”
How much of Carrick’s perception is true though?
There remains a worry that much of the strategy to tackle mental health – in football, and in wider society – is of tick-box nature.
The PFA received high-profile criticism at the end of 2018, including from chairman Ben Purkiss. And mental health was one area said to need improvement to meet the needs of a modern footballer.
There is also the question of how mental issues are dealt with away from the top-level of the game. What about lower down the leagues? What about non-league? What about grassroots football?
Only a year ago, the BBC reported on a footballer that was taunted by players and fans after revealing his mental health struggles in an interview.
David Cox, who plays for Scottish League Two side Cowdenbeath, said he had been called a “psycho” and mocked about “slitting his wrists”.
Premier League clubs have previously appointed ‘mental health first aiders’ while the PFA has promised a review of its services.
The question is: Is that enough? And the answer is likely: no.
From top to bottom, young sportsmen and women need education about their emotions; to become aware enough to recognise problems – in themselves and in others.
But changing the culture will take time, effort and investment. Meanwhile, that very culture, and the coaching behaviour and techniques that perpetuate myths that speaking out is weakness, will likely continue.
In episode five of The Fan Agency’s Football Insiders Podcast, Gareth Roberts speaks to former Coventry, Liverpool, Wigan Athletic and Sheffield Wednesday goalkeeper Chris Kirkland about his struggles with mental health and why football should be doing more to tackle the issue.
If you are experiencing mental health issues, in the UK, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. You can contact the mental health charity Mind by calling 0300 123 3393 or visiting mind.org.uk.