Most little boys dream of playing football at the very top. People see the lights, money and fame of professional football.
What they dont see are the tears and the life-changing circumstances that happen: divorce, losing loved ones, missing loved ones and, in my case, injury.
I played football in every English league and scored in every league but I struggled with constant injuries, including breaking and dislocating my ankles, rupturing my thigh and also my Achilles.
Then aged just 33 years old, I tore my hamstring. My life changed when I walked out of that hospital.
I was forced to retire and it took me two years to accept. When football is all youve ever done, you become used to being part of something and having a routine. It gives you purpose. Kit is laid out, boots are cleaned, physio is there when needed and doctors are on call.
You put all your dreams into it and you have the opportunity to go on to be something great… and then it all stops.
After my final injury, all that was gone. In the weeks that followed I was drawn into a place of darkness. My mind was wrecked with embarrassment, vulnerability and numbness. I felt helpless and ultimately lost without football and in an act of desperation, I tried to take my own life.
Whether injury comes as a result of wear and tear from playing since childhood, or simply an unlucky tackle and thats it, you cant prepare for it. When youre in love with something and its taken from you, not by your own choice, it can destroy you.
Young players who arent prepared for that can be hit really hard. It can lead to mental illness as the dream ends.
Football stops caring about you, and that monthly wage stops coming in. When youre no longer any use, clubs will say goodbye and wont keep in touch to ask how youre doing with your next career. Youre only relevant if youre present and doing well.
If a young player is constantly getting injured, consider what he or she might be going through rather than considering them weak for not living up to expectations.
The statistics about male suicide dont lie. According to The Samaritans, men in the UK are three times more likely to die by suicide than women, and the deaths among under-25s increased by 23.7 per cent to a total of 730 deaths in 2018.
Suicide is an issue for all men, but in football culture, there is a fear that managers, coaches or teammates will think youre weak when youre going through something. It could put you at risk of being dropped, and this discourages young male players especially from speaking out.
Ive spoken frequently since my suicide attempt to spread awareness and understanding. I knew I had to fight back, so I did something out of the ordinary and took up another sport – boxing.
The different dynamic meant I was always able to stay fit. I went on win an international Masters title, before retiring at 39 years old – retiring happily, this time, because it was my choice.
In my experience, the Professional Football Association (PFA) support young players as best they can, but I found it can differ from club to club. Purely from my own experience, Crystal Palace and Norwich are particularly good.
Football has become a business. The money is remarkable – obscene even – but the players are still human beings. Players who have long-term injuries are too often forgotten and they are at risk even if they dont seem to be. I was a fantastic actor, I fooled everyone, yet I was planning to end my life.
I will continue to spread awareness, because we still havent progressed far enough in terms of mental health awareness, not just in sport but in most high pressure environments.
I regularly speak at businesses of all types, from law firms to construction companies, and I see first-hand that there is more to be done.
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