The Beautiful Game & The Mental Struggle

“Hi boss – yeah, no….no….we lost it.”

It was the 23rd of October, part of the way through the first half of the season. Things had been going great for me professionally, I was scoring goals for fun and at home we were so excited to be expecting another baby.

It was our second time experiencing the 12 week scan, with our other little one nearly 2, but it never seemed less surreal. A lubricated, sterile appliance giving you a window in to see the little life you’ve created together. Except this time there was no-one occupying our window. There was no euphoric feeling of excitement and love. It was emptiness. “I knew it, I knew something wasn’t right” she said, slumping her head down in anguish. We held eachother as the midwife cleaned her up and helped her off the bed.

We were in shock. The next hour or so was a whirlwind of talking heads telling us what was best for us.

We went home that night, switched off all the lights and slept. And that was how it felt for the next few months. Dark rooms, quietness, sobbing, staring into space.

The boss was excellent, he told the press I’d injured myself and would be out for a couple months. I was so lucky I had such an understanding man in my life. Compassion was his middle name. I suppose looking back I didn’t realise quite how lucky I was.

3 days into the New Year I was awoke by my phone buzzing on the bedside table. Confused we both dived out of bed and made for the kids room until we realised the source.

It was the boss. “Sorry son, I know it’s late. I’ve got some news and I don’t want you to read it on the internet or get a text from one of your mates hearing it in the chippy” Half asleep or not, I knew it couldn’t be good after the long pause and deep breath. “We’ve had a bid for you, a big one. Big boss is saying it’s too good to turn down.”

So that was it. I was out the door. I didn’t really want to leave but having chatted things through with my wife and having seen the figure I was being offered a week to play a sport I loved, it was a no brainer. Look at it as a great opportunity to further my career whilst cementing our families future, I thought.

Things started out well. Although I was adapting to a new style of playing, I wasn’t the only one. The team had brought in another big name signing at the same time. We quickly gelled which made settling in all the easier.

After a month or two, whilst racking up some decent results with some decent performances, I felt myself becoming frustrated. I’d been successful as a main target man and goalscorer when they’d bought me but they’d started playing me on the wing, instead putting this new fella up top. A flamboyant signing with a reputation for the controversial. Pink hair, ambiguous sexuality and a massive following online. A marketers dream. Maybe shirt sales were more important than results.

I would sit at night watching film of myself, watching film of the top players in the league, trying desperately to improve myself. It wasn’t long before the media were questioning the price tag they’d paid for me, not to mention the sly digs from supposed team mates on social media. Footballers aren’t the smartest bunch, it’s not hard to decipher who the thinly veiled song lyrics were targeted at.

It was at this time that I approached the new gaffer. I let him know that I was struggling to adapt to this new position and the new style of play. That we’d lost a baby the previous year and I was feeling overwhelmed. I asked for some time off.

“Time…off?!” he shouted in broken English. He began to laugh and slid a piece of paper under my nose with the remaining fixtures of the season on it. “You score goals, we win games and then…..time off.” With that he smiled, nodded his head and walked out, leaving me sat at the table, my head in my hands.

I finished the season, then had to pull out of the 4 international games over the summer. I was gutted, but completely run down. I spoke with my old boss a lot over the summer, he was great, giving me some encouragement and even having the respect for me just to leave the air quiet when I asked if the chairman would bring me back. “We’ll see mate” he would say.

Injuries kept racking up once the season began again after the summer. Little niggles were keeping me out week by week and very quietly I became relegated to a substitute role.

It was during this time that I witnessed the gaffer walk through the changing rooms after a game, stopping to say something to my mate who had joined at the same time as I had, emerging from the showers. Things looked to be getting heated between them when suddenly the gaffer grabbed a boot and rattled it on the guys bare toes. The room fell silent as we all looked on, stunned. Nothing further was said and the gaffer just walked on through the changing room as if nothing had happened.

The guy never returned for a month. The press had a field day of course but nothing came out about it. I think everyone was too scared to even saying anything. “Not worth jeopardising that wage, mate” said one teammate to me. Was it not?

By the end of 2017 I spoke to a sports psychologist recommended by my old boss. He said they’d helped him when he’d been going through a particularly tough time and he had no doubt they’d get me back on the pitch feeling my old self again. He was right. They helped me to put in steps to challenge the worries I had. I was working harder in training, I was back on the pitch, scoring goals and creating chances. I felt like my old self again.

But, not for long.

It started with a little thing, I think I got a kick on the shin during a game, it hurt but you got these kinds of things every game. It wasn’t until I realised I’d been sat in the changing room after a game poking and prodding at it until I was the only one left in the room. I was still in full kit, bar my shinpads and boots.

From there, it was a mole on my face, a shaky hand after chopping some vegetables, sore legs after training, sore legs after missing training, sore heads, migraines, swollen glands. Each day brought a new ailment. The medical staff would shake their heads and exchange glances as I would walk in with a new imaginary complaint.

Before long I was sat in front of the gaffer again. He was shaking his head, grunting and grumbling looking at a sheet of paper raised in front of him.

“If…you can’t play…” he said to me, in his best South American broken English “…then you don’t mean anything….to me.” Charming. With that he got up and moved to the door, he turned to look at me “Listen!” he belts out pointing his fingers into his ears “you get better….you play….you score. It’s good. You don’t. You go.” And with that, the door was slammed shut.

I couldn’t bring myself to keep going to the clubs medical team, I felt like I’d burned my bridges there. I was surprised they didn’t have a poster up of me with ‘Boy Who Cries Wolf’ emblazoned across it.

So, I called up my old boss and asked to speak to the medical team there. As usual, he was as gracious as ever, he didn’t even question it and made me an appointment. I was prescribed some medication to help me deal with the phantom injuries, recommended a counsellor to talk to and given some breathing exercises to do. It worked wonders. I wasn’t cured by any means, but I did stop feeling like I was going mad.

Beginning to feel like my old self and having not played consistently in sometime between being injured and being dropped I decided to ask to leave, look for a fresh start. Rather than have another fun filled grunt-off with the gaffer, I decided to speak straight to the chairman. It wasn’t a decision I’d taken lightly, as I sat outside his office like a naughty schoolboy, my stomach was in knots thinking about what I was going to say.

“Leave?” he snarled, his top lipped curled so hard it was practically inside out. He giggled to himself. “Leave?!”. Nope. You owe this club, my friend.” He weaselled at me. “You owe us performances and you owe us goals. You’ve got a contract and you’ll be here until it expires, I don’t care what imaginary thing is wrong with you next. Get out. The next time I see you it better be on that pitch”

It wasn’t too long after this, following a string of bad results, that a new manager came in. It’s fair to say I wasn’t gutted to see my old mate, the wordsmith, given the boot.

The new guy seemed reasonable. He was meeting with all the playing staff one-to-one to get a handle on everybody. Smart, I thought. I didn’t want to string him along so I told him straight out I wanted away. Unfortunately, after the January transfer window came and went with no bids for me (or so they said) I agreed to see things out until the end of the season the following summer.

Easier said than done.

By March I was going out of my mind. I was being played in midfield, we were underperforming and being visited by Mr Chairman after every match to be told in no uncertain terms that if we didn’t achieve a top 4 league position then the club’s future would be at stake. No pressure then. It was at this point that I decided to talk to the new gaffer again to tell him about my struggles. That I was still unhappy, I hated playing in midfield and I told him about the support I’d been getting privately. I didn’t get the response I was hoping for:

“Listen pal, you’re playing a pivotal role in this team, you understand? I’m putting my neck on the line every week playing you and you’re in here saying you’re struggling with your feelings or something? If you leave, we don’t make top 4. OK? Simple as that. If that’s everything then I’ve places to be.”

I’d had enough, by this point I wasn’t even bothered if I got fired, I just wanted out. As I walked to the car park I flicked my phone out my pocket and opened twitter:

We’re told society wants men to talk about mental health. They want men to open up. But really, nobody wants to hear it. #hadenough #fireme

I switched my phone off, cranked up the music in my car and drove home, my head in a raging fire of bliss. I spent the rest of the night playing board games with my wife and kid and watching Netflix. Just as I was heading up to bed my wife flicked on the 24/7 sports channel, front and centre was the gaffer stood at the front door of his home, his face illuminated in flashes by the hundreds of photographers surrounding him.

“Any statement by any of our players on social media does not reflect the views of our football club. We take the matter of mental health incredibly seriously and we wish all our players and anyone associated with our club to be treated with dignity and respect. Thank you all.”

I barely slept that night. I flitted between anger, regret, resentment but the common theme was worry. Despite the temptation, my phone stayed off, I couldn’t bring myself to switch it on and become immersed in the inevitable circus. Instead I ate and watched game footage of myself. It helped.

Pale as a ghost and cranky with about 50 minutes of sleep in me I made my way into the training ground the next morning. Hood up, I avoided the press as I jogged past them, straight into the training complex. I was met at the door by the gaffer, stern faced, waiting on me. “My office” he spat.

Tail between my legs I slumped down in front of him. “Listen” he started, surprisingly softly. “I want to apologise, I said things I shouldn’t have and I reacted inappropriately. Can we try to get things back on track here?”

I couldn’t believe it. Dumbstruck I nodded “Yeah, course gaffer” I managed. “All I want is to win games and play where I can be most effective. I want to win here”

He smiled, a big puffy rosy cheeked smile. “It’s what we all want son” he said. I smiled, nodded then got up from the chair. He patted me on the back as I left. Just then, a thought hit me. “Uh, gaffer” I asked as I popped my head back in “will you be putting out any press release or making any reference online to this? It feels like it might make a good story, you know about mental health and all that?” The smile disappeared, the rosy cheeks drained to a pale grey snarl. “No.”

The same day I was contacted by a players union representative. Most guys tend to shun them and are wary about being seen to work with them. It can be easy for you to be portrayed as a bit of a problem child for clubs once you get involved with them so although in the back of my mind I knew I should be cautious, I was also still reeling from the gaffer’s change in tone about trying to publically reconcile.

They laid it on thick. It was what I wanted to hear. “You want out? we can help you, we know what you’ve been going through, we’ve helped other guys just like you.” They gave me examples, guys I knew, good guys with their heads screwed on. They privately wrote to the club on my behalf. The club reacted exactly how I thought they would and denied any knowledge of any issues I was having.

Another weekend of no football, I was privately suspended by the club until the end of my contract. They’d had enough of me. In the back of my mind, I knew they were playing games, but that didn’t stop me spending that weekend as stressed as I’ve ever been at their denial of my issues.

Come the end of the season the club website publishes a review of each players season, in previous seasons it had described me as a “goal machine” and “world class striker”. This season’s said the following:

Sadly off the field distractions resulted in a reduction in quality this year. Wherever he ends up next season he should work on remembering he’s not the only player on the team and not the only human on the planet.

We wish him all the best.

Nothing really shocked me anymore. Against my better judgement I tweeted a link to it with the following:

I’ve worked hard to try to better myself over the last 3 seasons but the lack of respect I’ve been afforded is disappointing. People want to talk about treating eachother with respect but when it comes down to it, all that matters to them is winning games. We’re all pawns in the chairman’s little game of chess. To him it doesn’t matter if it’s me or the next guy. That’s fine. But I came from a team where the people pulling on the shirt matter. The fans care. The staff care. You become a part of the fabric of the club. Not just a plaything for a 60 year old toddler to get fed up with if it’s not working. That’s the measuring stick I hold any future employer to and if no club can match that then I’m happy to hang them up – but I do know one club that can.

In response the club put out the following statement:

“There is no value in our great football club involving ourselves in mudslinging with former players. Both our chairman and manager are available should any player wish to discuss any personal or professional issues. We will not be commenting on this issue further”

My name trended online for days, I received over 100 media requests, some of which I took up. I gravitated to the ones that gave me an opportunity to speak up about my medical treatment and how I was treated by the club, not those who just wanted dished dirt to get clicks and views.

I resigned with my old club and old gaffer in the August of that year, a few weeks after my wife had given birth to our second child. It should have been one of the most joyous periods of my life but I often felt regret. And anger. And resentment. What had I done to deserve to be sat with this little gift in my arms whilst I contemplated what life would be like for my family without me? Tears trickled down my face, dripping onto his little head. I felt ashamed of myself.

Ashamed of getting involved with the nonsense. Ashamed of retaliating. Ashamed of not just getting on and playing football. I know I’m not to blame. I know that. But I can’t shake this feeling of resentment towards those people and that football club. I want the world to know what they really are. I want their world to come crashing down around them, I want them to have to experience what I did. And that’s when I feel ashamed the most. Because they’re just human like me. They’ve got kids and families too and they don’t deserve to be treated like I was.

I’ve started banging in goals. I’m back playing up front again. I’m happy on the pitch. I’m back changing nappies. I’m back singing nursery rhymes and being up through the night for the right reasons. I’m happy at home.

But still something niggles at me.

Still I hold resentment.

I need closure but don’t know how to get it.

Maybe writing this down will help.

I hope so.

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