THE SECRET FOOTBALLER: Football must learn to care for minds as much as hamstrings

The Secret Footballer knows too well that depression can take root with no regard to profession or income...

All the suspense got sucked out of the Premier League story before the final pages. Spurs flatlined at West Ham handing Chelsea the silver.

In the northeast, tragedy and comedy continued to mix. Hull, Boro and Sunderland will leave the theatre sharing their regrets and a taxi. They will be replaced by Newcastle United arriving like a fat man in a limo. The scene when the fat man slips on the banana skin is next year’s deja vu.

The more vital drama is taking place outside the white lines.

On Tuesday, Aaron Lennon of Everton was sectioned under the mental health act. Hopefully this intervention will mean two things. The first serious steps on the road to wellness for Aaron and the continuation of a process that nudges us past the point where social media cretins ask what exactly a rich footballer has to be depressed about.

When mental health issues sandbag people they do so with no regard to profession or income. Footballers enjoy many privileges and perks but they emphatically do not work in an environment which has any real understanding of mental health.

I have struggled with depression for a long time. There were many, many days when I would sit alone out on the training pitch after everybody had gone in for their banter and their showers. I would sit and wish I could be anywhere else, preferably under the earth I was sitting on. I was always left out there. Dismissed as just being a bit odd.

There was a period when driving to training my arms would physically ache to turn the wheel and send my car careening off a certain bridge. On other days I would tuck myself in between two large lorries on the motorway and hope that we would all have to brake suddenly. My death amidst all that cold metal would look like an accident. That would be easier for my wife and kids but that wasn’t a major consideration.

I can’t ever make up to my eldest son for all those times I begged him to go away when he came to me tugging at my hand to take him to the garden to play or just to lift him up. I couldn’t. I would drive home from training and just sit in my chair in the lounge and stare at the wall. Semi-darkness. No television. No noise. Hours and hours and hours. That was Daddy. That was husband. That was me.

It wasn’t something we ever talked about. It was just “that way you get”. Sometimes my wife would step between me and my chair. She would take me out into the light, amidst people. We would do normal things for a little while. Shop. Walk. Have lunch. I could think of nothing else but getting back to that chair. It cocooned me in my blackness. No matter how hard she tried, no matter how much it broke her heart I always retreated to that place, that chair.

On Saturdays, I came to hate the football and to hate the crowds.

I’d try to stick to the middle of the pitch well away from the borders where I could hear the mockery and oaths. My game declined to the point of comedy. I actually fell over the ball one day. The worse people expected me to be, the worse I got and the less I cared.

The first time that I told my manager that I was suffering with depression was a big moment in my life. I was on the edge of tears. He took it all in nodding slowly. You can’t imagine the sense of release. I was saying the words. Somebody was listening. Maybe something would be done. I didn’t know what but something. Finally, he spoke.

“If at any time you’re not feeling quite right upstairs, then you must tell me.”

The tears welled again. He understood. Then he continued. “Because we have other players that can play.”

Finally, one day a GP who worked with the club I was at just called me over in the physio room and asked me how long I had been suffering from depression. He could see it in my eyes, my movements, everything about me. It was screamingly obvious.

If I hadn’t been in that room, if he hadn’t been watching me curiously I doubt anybody in football would ever have noticed. I would have been branded “difficult” and left to rot.

This week when Jurgen Klopp was asked about Aaron Lennon, he requested that people stop asking and said that such things were private. I understand his point in that there isn’t much we can learn by asking Jurgen Klopp about the situation, but I do think he was wrong.

Football clubs talk about footballers’ physical troubles all the time. Updates on hamstrings and cruciates and broken limbs and strains are part of the business. Ditto stomach bugs, fevers and viruses.

By saying that mental health issues are private and off limits, we contribute to the stigma and we let football off the hook. It is no more Aaron Lennon’s fault that he has a mental health issue than it would be his fault if he caught flu. Clubs take steps to help their players avoid the flu though and if you catch the bug they send squadrons of medics in to make you better.

‘Something upstairs?’ You are on your own.

Football looks after its employees well in almost every respect except mental health. There is no network, no safety net, no prevention, no support if you are suffering. There is no culture yet of talking about it. By not talking about the issue, football perpetuates the taint.

I was always afraid to go and talk to somebody because I knew that no matter what was said to my face the whispered word that would always go around between clubs and managers and coaches was that I was a decent player but more trouble than I was worth.

People would make supportive noises and say that it was bloody sad but nobody would sign me.

Football must learn to care for minds as much as hamstrings

Aaron Lennon has been playing first team football since he was 16 years old. He has his international caps and he has his money, but again depression doesn’t study your CV before it visits you.

Everton are one of the more enlightened clubs in football. That a player had to get to the stage of being sectioned before anybody in football noticed or intervened says all you need to know about how far we have to travel.

At Everton right now, Seamus Coleman has a broken leg, James McCarthy has bad hamstrings, Aaron Lennon has a mental health problem and so on. Let’s treat them all the same and wish them all full recovery. The work that goes into keeping hamstrings healthy after injury should be matched as a matter of course with the work that goes into keeping a young man’s mind well.

  • Pieta House, Cork: 021-4341400; Samaritans: 116 123; Aware: 1800 80 48 48; Childline: 1800 66 66 66


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