The Dark Side of the Beautiful Game

We are about to enter the arena of the biggest sporting event on earth, the FIFA Football World Cup, where 32 teams will compete over 4 weeks, across 64 matches in the 22nd edition of the tournament, for the coveted World Cup Trophy.

 

A time where men become boys again, reminiscing over past Panini sticker albums whilst pinning up their world cup wall chart with Blu Tac stolen from mums’ Family Planner Calendar, not intended to offend, but I simply don’t remember ever trading player cards with girls in the 80’s, I’m sure that is all changing now, especially after the England woman’s brilliant win at the Euros!

 

A time of excitement, a time where there are 2, sometimes 3, games a day, a time to schedule school, homework, meetings, and social life around so we don’t miss a single game, diligently filling each result in on the walk chart as we go.

 

And the world loves it.

Author: Nicky Forster

Such is the pull of this event that I was recently asked by my 12-year-old son Fred, if he could have the day off school for England’s first game against Iran on the 21st of November, because in his own words,

“it’s a Monday Dad and we never do much work on a Monday, and all of my mates are being allowed to by their parents”

Trying to convince me that Mondays are the new ‘last day of term’, where no work is done at all, he must think that I was never a kid myself trying all the same tactics with my parents, the reasonings don’t seem to change much over time, I wonder if they still use, “the dog ate my homework”, the reasons don’t change, neither do the responses.

A slow despondent trudge upstairs followed my answer, reflecting his mood that I was the ‘worst Dad in the world’.

 

But although this a time of renewed optimism, where all nations believe that it just might be their year, there is a cloud developing over the stadiums of our nation, and I’m sure the rest of the world too, a cloud that threatens the main component of the beautiful game, and one that threatens its continuation, a cloud of mental health issues. So much so that I believe that we are on the verge of a mental health crisis in professional football. Tottenham manager Antonio Conte has recently criticised the football authorities over player welfare, saying that they schedule that the players are having to undertake in order to fit all of the domestic and World Cup games within the season is in his words, ‘crazy’ going on to say that “the authorities are not really worried about the welfare of players, the most important thing is that the show must go on”.

 

Stress affects us all, at different times, at different levels, with different results, and the reality of stress is that we often don’t talk about mental health in our workplaces until it’s past the point of help, a third of us now will suffer increased anxiety, stress or mental health issues within our lifetime, they are responsible for 30% more absences in the workplace than any other reason, 30% more, and the world of professional sport is not excluded.

 

Mental health is extremely complex, and I’m not for one minute saying that I am a specialist, but one thing we do know for sure is that we all have mental health, just like we all have physical health, some of us will suffer with poor physical health and some of us won’t, and some of us will suffer with poor mental health, while others won’t, what we also know is that nobody wants to suffer from mental health issues, nobody wants mental health issues to prevent them from living a life of fulfilment, nobody wants to struggle with the routine of life, nobody wants to find it difficult to speak about their issues, for fear that no one will listen, or will not understand, or will manage them out of their positions, the worry about support and a support system within an organisation is very real.

 

In the masculine world of mens professional football, players feel reluctant to talk about these issues for fear of losing their place and being thought of as mentally weak by their peers. Dressing room ridicule you would think would be another obvious issue, but I really don’t think anyone would look to embarrass or put a fellow team mate down, not in my time, nor today.

 

So, we struggle in & we struggle on, filling up our stress bucket more and more until we get to that point where we simply can’t cope and are forced to speak out and ask for support. Many are signposted to the GP and simply signed off for two weeks. I’ve heard a case recently where a junior lawyer was signed off by their GP and given medication after a consultation lasting no longer than two minutes, 120 seconds, signed off and given antidepressants, told to go home relax, watch some daytime television, with some tablets they couldn’t pronounce, do you know how scary that thought is . . . . .

. . . . 3 hours with Philip Schofield, it’s enough to drive anyone mad.

 

Joke aside, the cynics will jump on the band wagon of mental health for footballers with the view, yeah, they must be stressed in their big houses, driving their big cars on 100k a week, but mental health issues do not care about wealth and materialistic items, suicidal thoughts are not lessened by a Bentley on the drive, footballers will always be thought of by some quarters as overpaid, overprivileged prima donna’s, but there are 92 clubs in the professional football leagues and I’d guess that the vast majority don’t drive Bentleys and are turning off their lights more often recently like the rest of us.

 

Let’s get another thing straight from the outset, I love the game of football, there is no better in my mind, over a 20 year period the game has given me some special moments, it has given me a life of memories and continues to provide for me with its learnings, it has taught me some of the most valuable life lessons which I use today in my coaching and speaking career. I love all the clubs I was honoured to play for, even the ones I am critical of in this article, and I am completely at peace with the individuals named in this article, more importantly, I am fortunate to be at peace with myself.

I believe that resilience is one of my enduring qualities, to play over 700 career games shows I was prepared to play through niggles, pian and emotional challenges, maybe we all like to think we are resilient, like most of us think we are good drivers even if we are not, but to a large part I have kept the wolves of mental health from my door, I do that with daily routines and habits, which help me focus on the things in life that are important to me. I am also institutionalised in the need to exercise daily having done so for 2 decades, I now run daily and although my body shows the scars of over 700 career games, I am lucky to be able to run still, many others are not so fortunate.

 

So, I’m not here to knock the game of football, just the business of football, and these are some of the different experiences that players encounter, that affect mental health.

 

I was lucky, as a striker I was in demand for much of my career, being headhunted by clubs for my services, so in honesty, I was not treated unfairly on many occasions, but in any career spanning 2 decades, there are a number of stories where the mental health of myself or others was affected.

 

My first was during my time at Brentford, playing well and scoring regularly got me an England U21 call up for the Toulon Tournament, this brought interest from clubs in higher divisions and one of these was Crystal Palace, news and rumours reported increasing bids but no deal was agreed, this was my first experience of press speculation and I found it unsettling, my form dipped, I was never spoken to by my club or manager, Dave Webb, a good man, one I still respect today, never told what was going on, it was simply get on with it until told otherwise, which the press told me when they reported Palace had bought Dougie Freedman instead. This annoyed, frustrated and saddened me as I thought that it was a good career move, but if my club wanted me then I was happy to stay, 12 months later I was told by Webb, “were selling you to Birmingham City, you can go, or stay and train with the youth team”, I asked why, and he replied, “because Carl Asaba is a much better striker than you are”

My first lesson in the harsh world of football

I never was told the fee offered by Crystal Palace, but I was led to believe it was in the region of £1.6million, Brentford sold me to Birmingham for £800,000

 

I was not the only one, Paul Davis, the former PFA chairman, a genuinely lovely man, during his time with me at Brentford was made to come into the main ground at Griffin Park on his own, to run round the pitch at 4.00pm every day, simply to break him and make him walk away from his contract with any compensation being paid by the club.

 

Fast forward 15 years when I was at Brighton and Hove Albion, a time I loved, I captained the team, an achievement I was hugely proud of. After a poor run of form, Gus Poyet was brought in as manager to replace Russell Slade.

By January I was top scorer having scored 13 goals, my contract was up in July, so I went to see Gus to seek clarification over a possible renewal, to be told that no new contracts were being offered due to our precarious league position, close to the relegation zone. I accepted that and left.

A week later club captain Andrew Crofts signed a contract extension.

Frustrated by this I went back to see Gus, to be told again there were no contracts, I gave the example of Crofts to be told, well that’s how it is.

At 35 years old with 3 children and wages for 5 months, I asked for some indication as to my future with the club, again to be told, not at this time.

I then asked if I was allowed to leave, to be told by Gus, “Yes, if you like”.

For me, that told me everything I needed to know.

My agent put out on the associated press that I was allowed to leave the club, a move which clearly irritated Gus.

I was asked to report to the pick-up point the following day for an away game against Leyton Orient, ironically walking towards the bus with Andrew Crofts, I was turned away at the door to the bus by Gus, saying “you’re not coming, see me in my office tomorrow morning at 10.00am”.

I walked away on my own, my only regret, I shouldn’t have let this happen, I should have got on the bus and fronted the intention to isolate me.

 

I turned up the following morning at 9.55am, after a 40-minute drive to the ground, to be told that Gus was off, he will see you tomorrow.

Let the games begin, I thought.

A pattern of this continued.

 

On one particular day I was trained with the first team for the first hour, after which we broke up for a drink, at that point the group was separated into two teams to play a small-sided game. After the teams were divided there was one player short on one team, I was stood on the side-lines and instead of being used to make the teams even, a youth team player was called over from an adjacent pitch to make the teams equal, I was then told to go over and see the Sports Scientist, Matt Miller, who was aptly named Stretch.

 

For 45 minutes, I was made to run various shuttle runs whilst the players enjoyed a fun, small-sided game. The purpose of the session was to physically beast me as much as possible in full view of the other players enjoying themselves. I never forgot Stretch saying to me prior to the running,

“sorry Foz, but I’ve gotta do what the Gaffer has asked me to do”

 

In these situations, I never showed my emotions outwardly, preferring to display strength and composure and I remember replying to Stretch,

“not a problem mate, let’s just get on with it, let’s just do it!”

 

I know that hiding these emotions of anger, hurt, frustration, sadness is not healthy, and I would spend time considering all of these emotions in periods of self-awareness and self-reflection, usually on my journey home, making sense of them in my own mind before compartmentalising them into mental folders for future use, in any business workplace this treatment would be discrimination and the employer would be culpable, but in professional football, it’s accepted.

 

A revered coach at Brighton said to me when I was going through the period

“You know the game Foz, great game, shit business”

 

I endured this for several months until one day, on deadline day I got a call from Charlie Oatway, the first team coach saying

“Foz, Charlton have come in for you, you’re going to Charlton”

I remember replying to him

“Charlie, let’s get this straight, I will go to Charlton if I choose to go to Charlton, and not because you’re telling me to go to Charlton”

Today, I regularly teach that taking control is an important part of looking after your mental health.

 

On my final day of training at Brighton’s Falmer training ground, I sat down on the grass after training with Gus, asking him why I was subjected to weeks of isolation, discrimination, and being treated differently from the rest of the team, he was honest that it was due to me wanting clarification over a new contract, which he could not give at that time due to my age, the treatment was a response to me asking to leave. I responded that I did understand, but he could have been honest with me from the start, told me a contract was unlikely due to my age, and that he still needed me, and I would have dealt with it and played for him, and the club I love, and left at the end of the season, i.e. it didn’t have to be this way.

I respected his honesty, shook his hand, and moved on. I have seen Gus several time since that day and I have enjoyed my time with him.

 

These are stories from my own career, some of which are over 20 years old now, they don’t relate to football now, well, they do.

 

My son Jake, who missed the whole of last season after sustaining an ACL tear in the final home game of the season before, was chomping at the bit to get started again this season and build his reputation up again, the clubs Player of the Season the year before, he was out of contract 8 weeks after injuring himself, and 4 weeks after having his subsequent operation.

He went from clubs, including Charlton, wanting to offer him a new contract on increased financial terms, to being out of contract and using a knee brace and cutches.

A tough pill to swallow.

Charlton did offer Jake a contract out of good will on reduced financial terms, which in fairness they didn’t have to do.

Fit again, he now wants to play week in week out, he has a renewed love for simply kicking a ball, brought on by a prolonged period on the side-lines, he has set some personal goals relating to games, goals and assists, he is desperate to wear the shirt again, his new manager doesn’t agree, he’s not been involved once this season in the league.

To be fair to Charlton, he’s not been treated like I was at Brighton, but the mental journey he has been on over the past 18 months is enough to test anyone’s resolve.

At no point do any of these clubs talk to the players or offer support about the mental impact these have on them.

I remain impressed by Jake’s ability to deal with these crushing blows.

 

These are just a few experiences in football that can lead to mental health issues, there are many more, social media, overtraining/playing, the constant pressure to perform, continuous scrutiny and judgements, injuries, loss of form, the list goes on.

To be fair, the game has come a long way, one of my former managers sold knocked off golf gear to the players from the back of his car, but were not there yet. Sports science has transformed players into physical specimens that now compare with any other athlete in the world of elite professional sport, the mental side for the individual players, has until recently been largely overlooked.

 

The pressures of my days as a player have been replaced with different pressures.

 

Now I’m not saying that the job of a professional footballer stands alone in its pressures, most if not all jobs come with their pressures, add in the stressors of our private lives and they can soon become overpowering.

However, the daily pressures of this fiercely competitive environment are different than working in an office, the highs are often higher and lows often lower for one thing. Some will not agree, but let’s look at one instance, you couldn’t stand and hurl abuse at an employee who was sat at their desk whilst working, calling them every expletive, throwing coins, being hugely personal and at times racist. Most people working in an office won’t pick up their mobile phones to discover more abuse on social media, judging them, criticising all aspects of their lives. Most people don’t have their salaries banded about all over the press, most won’t be photographed every time they leave their homes, or a bar or club, and most wouldn’t want any of these constant intrusions.

The pressure subjected to these young men and women often in their teens, is different.

 

Again, I mention the work of Drewe Broughton, the Fear Coach, a former player who I played against several times, not to align myself with him, I don’t know Drewe that well, but he is helping players find their authentic self, which is much needed. We need more like this.

The Worlds Cup is just another example of the mental health of players being placed firmly bottom of the mental health table, whilst writing this watching the Everton vs Leicester game on Saturday night, after another player limped off injured, this time Dominic Calvert-Lewin, Sky Sports commentator Jamie Carragher spoke of “its absolute madness to put a world cup in the middle of a season, an absolute joke”

 

The life of a professional footballer is an incredibly special one, one many would love to live, but it’s not without its associated pressures, and with everything thrown into the mix, I do believe that its becoming more difficult to manage.

 

Change will happen, it always has, and it always will, and its happening at a faster rate than at any time in history, but we have a choice, we can cope, we must keep up, we need to support these young men and woman.

 

We have a choice which is to choose to do nothing, to carry on as we were, not use this opportunity to make changes, and that’s okay if were not interested in helping these young athletes, but Einstein said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting  a different result, so if we want a different result we must make a change.

The question we should be asking is, are the authorities willing to change?

Or will it always remain a . . . . . great game, shit business

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Let’s do it!