SPEAK to enough people in football about the culture of care in the game, particularly those that have been around it for a long time, and you will likely experience the phrase “man up” – writes GARETH ROBERTS
Born out of machismo, it’s the misplaced idea that any problem, any ailment, any issue – physical or mental – can simply be conquered by being more of a man.
The flipside is that if you choose to seek help, admit your fears, or simply say you’re struggling, then you could somehow be perceived as less of a man.
Even looking in from the outside, it’s clear that much of football culture remains about confidence. Swagger is admired. Arrogance is valued.
Many managers have railed against it, yet big cars, big watches and a pop-star lifestyle prevails for many at the top of the game. You have to look the part and act the part. Always.
Then there’s “banter”. Much valued, much referenced, yet how much of it is healthy and how much goes over the line? Any pressure to conform to a certain unwritten set of rules can produce “outsiders” – and leave individuals isolated.
Throw in the other pressures – to perform every week, to earn a new contract, to deal with the scrutiny at every turn – and it’s easy to see why some footballers end up frazzled.
In 2018, The PFA revealed that a total of 403 players had sought PFA support regarding wellbeing in the last year, up from 103 in 2016.
While that represents progress in terms of players seeking help, the stark statistics that one in four people will experience a mental health problem in any year, and that over 10 percent of the population have depression at any one time, suggests many more will be suffering in silence.
Eighty four men take their own lives every week. In recent times a string of high-profile players and ex-players have detailed their struggles with mental health, including Jason McAteer, Chris Kirkland and Justin Rose.
Various campaigns, football-related and otherwise, have encouraged men to talk about their struggles as more move to tackle perhaps the starkest statistic of all – that suicide is the single biggest killer of men under 45 in the UK.
Many will look at footballers and wonder why it would affect them. They’re living the dream, right? Yet it’s a life that remains ruthless.
How do you cope with a major injury? Where is the next contract coming from? Then there are the personal issues away from the game that can mount up on anyone regardless of their wealth or ability to play a sport.
For all the encouragement to talk, mental health remains a mystery for many. If a player breaks their leg, there are people on hand who know what to do. Can the same be said if a player speaks out about a mental health issue? And what if it’s a team-mate confiding in you? What should you say? What should you do?
Burton Albion forward Marvin Sordell detailed his struggle with depression in a revealing interview with The Guardian saying it left him “dead inside”.
And in another interview with the BBC he urged football clubs to employ full-time counsellors. “As a player, you’re told what to do, what to drink, what to eat, your conditioning,” he said. “But when it comes to serious issues like mental health players are expected to go and speak to someone.”
“It’s something the Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA) and the Football Association (FA) need to address and even if it’s not someone directly employed by the club, it could be the PFA or FA, they need to be around staff and players on a daily basis.
“They are professionals and know the difference between someone having a down day and someone who is suffering from mental health issues. It could be groundbreaking.”
It could be and it should be. Because relying on men to spot the problems themselves – and do something about it in a sport where a stigma remains about being seen as “weak” – clearly isn’t an effective solution.
WHERE TO GET HELP
- The Samaritans operate a 24-hour service available every day of the year on 116 123. If you prefer to write down how you’re feeling, you can email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- CALM – The Campaign Against Miserably – operates a helpline for men in the UK who are down or have hit a wall for any reason, who need to talk or find information and support. They are open 5pm–midnight, 365 days a year. Nationwide: 0800 58 58 58. London: 0808 802 58 58.