#009 – The Best Job in the World?

A brief examination of mental health in football.

“Let’s talk about facts” an exasperated Rafa Benitez cries out during a press conference in 2009. He was just the latest in a long line of managers to be rattled by Sir Alex Ferguson’s famous mind-games. Benitez, Wenger, Mourinho and of course Kevin Keegan all would have ‘loved it’ to see the Scotsman knocked down a peg or two. But at the start of a new decade, it’s mind-games of a different kind that can still plague football. Players and staff alike unable to cope with the demands of the professional game and copious talent falls into the land of footballing obscurity. Although recent years have seen an improvement in the understanding of mental health issues and resources have become available to those that need them, it is still a relatively taboo subject in the footballing world and this needs to change. So, I say to you “let’s talk about facts.”

  • 1 in 5,355 high school players will play in the MLS in USA. (elitedaily.com)
  • 180 out of ~ 1.5 million youth footballers in the UK will make it as a Premier League player. That’s 0.012%. (businessinsider.com)
  • Between January-May 2019, 355 professionals in football accessed therapy. (bbcsport.co.uk)
  • Three quarters of suicides in 2018 were by men (gov.co.uk)
  • Hate crimes in the Premier League rose 66% from 2017/18 to 2018/19. (bbcsport.co.uk)

At any level of the footballing hierarchy from grass roots to grandeur, these stats make for damning reading, their implications likely to unsettle any prospective player.

In 2006, the name Michael Johnson would likely stir a flutter of excited chatter amongst Blue Mancunians. The then 18-year-old was putting in a plethora of promising performances and earning himself Under 21 appearances for his country. Johnson soon attracted media attention and, as is always the case with promising young Englishmen, he was heralded as the strong central midfielder who would lead England to greatness. 

Former team-mate Joey Barton claimed Johnson “had the world at his feet.”

But such pressure and attention is likely to take its toll on a young man and Johnson was one such player who couldn’t cope with the weight on his shoulders at such a tender age. Who could blame him?

Johnson had defied the odds to become one of the 0.012% of young lads who gets to play in the Premier League and yet by January 2013 Johnson had been released by city and had already been arrested twice for drink driving. Michael Johnson now works as an estate agent in Urmston.

It becomes increasingly clear that the mental health problems threatening the footballing world are multifaceted. Great swathes of young men who dream of nothing else and then don’t make it, are met with the crushing realisation that they are criminally underprepared for a world outside of football. And those that do make it, are thrust into the public eye to face whatever slurs and scathing criticism are deemed warranted by their audience.

Writing for the guardian in 2017, David Conn called academy rejection and the loss of identity that comes with it “football’s biggest issue.” Regrettably, the size of this issue does not appear to have waned in the years since.

Most prospects are hoovered up by academies from around the age of 8 meaning their formative years are spent believing it will be their destiny to earn money with the ball at their feet, they are blissfully unaware of the harsh reality that engulfs them upon reaching 16. If a path to the first team or reserves is clear then the players are offered a scholarship programme till they are 18 and they have become a professional footballer. If not, and it’s most often not, the dream is over.

It is important to note that since the Elite Player Performance Plan (EPPP) was introduced in 2012, the players who make it onto the scholarship programmes from 16-18 are much more closely monitored both on and off the field and advice is given to them at each stage of their careers meaning they are better educated and in touch with themselves. It is hoped this would diminish the impact of mental health troubles they may encounter in the future.

However, for the players that don’t make the scholarship grade, more has to be done by clubs to safeguard their former academy players. 

Joel Darlington (20) and an unnamed 16-year-old failed academy player tragically took their own lives after battling mental illness directly arising from, in Joel Darlington’s case, a persistent injury hampering his career progression and academy rejection in the other instance. 

Where were the support structures in place from their clubs to help these young men deal with the emotional turmoil they were experiencing? It doesn’t seem like an unfair demand for adequate support structures to be in place to help young men deal with the rejection of not making it as a footballer. Especially for those clubs with larger revenues in the Premier League and the Championship. At the very least the leagues themselves could employ officers in charge of academy-reject support.

It’s easy for journalists to be accused of virtue-signalling or making empty demands when it comes to these issues. However, I think it’s crucial for these questions to be asked and a discussion entered into.

Many young men and women dream of being professional footballers. From primary education onwards, top of the list of the classic ‘what do you want to be when you grow up’ questions sits professional footballer. Mostly met with wry smiles from teachers who have seen it all before, it seldom becomes more than a dream. But those who come so close suddenly have it all to lose. They have lost enough already. Clubs – don’t let the lives of your former players suffer when they can’t kick the ball for you. You have a duty of care. They deserve more.

If you have been affected by any of the issues raised in this article please find whatever avenue you need to and talk about it. You are not alone!

NHS mental health website including helplines for those in need: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/stress-anxiety-depression/mental-health-helplines/

Published by georgepitches

I'm an aspiring football writer in my first year of university, studying International Business at the university of Liverpool. As current European champions, there's nowhere more exciting to be a football fan.

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