Men’s football is getting better at addressing mental health – but much of the problem remains unseen
By Will Magee
While professional footballers have started to speak out about
their mental health struggles more frequently, those in the lower
reaches of the game are often unheard or overlooked
Ask someone to identify the main factors behind adverse mental health in men’s football and, chances are, the responses would go something like this: intense pressure to perform, injuries, falling out of favour, criticism in the press, abuse on social media and struggling to adapt to life after what is, in a relative sense, a short career. All of those would be valid answers, but then so too would these: insecure work, juggling multiple jobs, providing for a family and worrying about how to pay the mortgage.
Most people, unwittingly or otherwise, see only the top of the football league pyramid. That’s no surprise, really, given that Premier League clubs can pull in tens of thousands of fans each weekend and millions of television viewers worldwide, while non-league and grassroots clubs usually attract crowds in the mid-to-low hundreds. Nonetheless, professional football is only the tip of the iceberg. The base of the pyramid is far wider than the top; there are hundreds of clubs and thousands of players at the bottom, holding the whole edifice up.
Most people see football as a financial dreamland and, certainly where the Premier League is concerned, that’s understandable, even if there has been increased scrutiny on the shocking number of former pros who have gone bankrupt thanks to bad investments, addiction and exploitation. In the lower reaches of the league pyramid, however, players often face a precarious financial existence with many of the same pitfalls and pressures. They are also more likely to suffer in silence.
In the Premier League and the Football League below it – that is, the three other fully professional divisions in England – discussions about mental health have gained momentum in recent years. Players have increasingly found a platform to speak about their problems, with the machismo culture of the nineties and the general omerta which went before gradually making way for a more open environment.
In that sense, football reflects society: it still feels relatively recent that the stigma attached to poor mental health started to crumble, not that it has fallen away entirely. Football was also jolted by the loss of Germany goalkeeper Robert Enke in 2009 and Wales manager Gary Speed in 2011, both of whom had suffered with depression before they died.
While reactionary sections of the media often take a prurient approach to mental health issues affecting athletes and celebrities, there has been an incremental drift elsewhere towards more responsible reporting. In 2017, speaking to The Guardian, then-QPR defender Steven Caulker revealed that he had struggled with depression, anxiety, gambling addiction and alcohol abuse. The following year, Tottenham star Danny Rose spoke about how a serious injury combined with several family traumas had left him depressed for an extended period. Other players and ex-pros who have spoken about their struggles with mental illness over the last few years include Chris Kirkland, Marvin Sordell, Billy Kee and Kevin Ellison.
Professional footballers shoulder enormous amounts of stress and, contrary to what some seem to think, money is not a cure-all for their issues; sometimes, quite the opposite. After significant external pressure, the Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA) seems to have slowly grasped the extent of the problem over the last decade.
They have reported an increase in the number of players asking them for mental health support over the last few years, including a survey in May which found a significant number of current and former pros were suffering with depression and anxiety during lockdown. While the coronavirus pandemic has led to mental health issues across all sectors of society, the structured and social nature of life as a footballer – seeing teammates on a daily basis, training then matchday on a weekly cycle, the season following its own yearly calendar – has been thrown into disarray, leaving many feeling vulnerable, fearful and alienated.
For those who aren’t members of the PFA, however, there is not the same safety net. Where professional clubs might be able to afford sports psychologists and specialist mental health support – not that all of them are in a position to do so – the vast majority of non-league and grassroots clubs do not have the necessary resources.
Semi-pro players are often on short-term contracts or pay-as-you-play deals, meaning that they face job insecurity at the best of times. When last season was suspended owing to the pandemic, many had to deal with being furloughed or made redundant from their day jobs while football – usually a secondary but significant source of income – also cut them loose.
While some might say that the pressure is not the same in non-league or grassroots football as it is in, say, the Premier League, that is to ignore the reality of life for lower-league players. Many are youngsters who have been rejected from prestigious academies and are desperately battling for another chance in the professional game. They still run the risk of serious injury, but without a dedicated medical department to look after them. They still face intensely personal criticism and abuse, both on social media and in person.
Combine that with the financial realities of the lower-league game – especially in the time of coronavirus – and it can make for a harsh landscape. Unlike their professional counterparts, though, the majority of non-league and grassroots footballers do not have a platform to talk about their mental health issues and, for many, that means feeling unheard and overlooked.
While football, and sport in general, can have enormous benefits for people’s wellbeing, there are still unspoken issues beneath the surface. Professional football has got better at addressing mental health, but there is a danger that much of the problem remains unseen.