Football’s other fight: the demons between the ears

It’s been a good fortnight for Aaron Lennon. He played 45 minutes in a pre-season game for Everton in Tanzania, then scored a fine goal against FC Twente in a friendly in the Netherlands.

Aaron Lennon

Aaron Lennon warms up ahead of a preseason match for Everton Source: Getty Images

On paper, there’s nothing spectacular about it. Just one of a few thousand footballers getting himself right for the season ahead.

But for the 30-year old, just making it to the start line for the new campaign has been the biggest battle of his career.

Three months ago, Lennon was detained under the Mental Health Act in April and taken to a hospital in Manchester, where he was treated for a stress-related illness. It goes without saying that the continuation of his football career was in major doubt.

👊 | Great to see @AaronLennon12 back on the scoresheet! This goal put the Blues two ahead in Holland. pic.twitter.com/DWBRPmdXiQ — Everton (@Everton) July 19, 2017
However, the public reaction for Lennon was not one of awkwardness or ignorance – as it once might have been – but of total compassion. Perhaps the best example of that was an impromptu campaign by former England striker Andy Johnson (donating 10 pence for every retweet) that raised over £15,000 for a mental health charity.

The club has been extremely patient and supportive. There has been no inclination to get Lennon back any sooner than necessary. Depression isn’t like a sprained ankle; it doesn’t just miraculously “heal itself”. It requires a tailored solution for the individual, building a framework to manage his or her situation.

Contrast this with a decade ago. The club could have wiped themselves clean of Lennon and moved on without him. Or they might have thought it possible that he just needed to “toughen up”. All stick, no carrot.

Thankfully, the stigma around mental health is slowly being reduced in society and the football industry is wisening up to the facts.

It’s said a lot, but it’s worth repeating: footballers and celebrities are exposed to all of the same things we mortals endure. No amount of zeroes in the bank balance can soothe the demons within.

By no means is Lennon free of his troubles, and nor would you expect him to be after just three months. But it’s pleasing to see him integrated back into something resembling normality and continuing doing what he does best.

If nothing else, this period may buy him the time to figure out what he’ll do after his football career is over and how he’ll deal with what comes next. That’s a far bigger question than whether he can reclaim his first-team position this season.

The fact we now understand mental illness that much better has probably – if we are really honest with ourselves – only come because we’ve seen what it has done to some of the game’s greats.

Most tragically, the incidences of Gary Speed, Robert Enke and František Rajtoral, who all took their lives, shook us to the core. If a silver lining to such a black cloud exists, it may be that it has forced the entire industry to take an overdue look at itself. Maybe other lives have been saved as a result. We’ll never know.

On the outside, we see how the rewards of the game are so vast (money and celebrity) whilst ignoring the hidden personal toll (loss of privacy and relentless expectation).

Furthermore, don’t underestimate how many players who strive to be the best find motivation in the very things that come back to haunt them later in life: self-doubt, feelings of inadequacy, a desire to be admired. It is a harrowing paradox – especially when one’s career is over.

Aiding our understanding is that footballers themselves are getting braver about speaking out about their battles. We have come so far since Paul Merson opened up about his addiction to alcohol, cocaine and gambling in 1994. Yet as recently as last December, the erudite, clever and hugely-popular Clarke Carlisle stepped in front of a truck (surviving, thankfully).

Even in Australia, where our macho-culture has pervaded all sports, people are realising the importance of tackling mental health, largely thanks to some key figures speaking out.

Two months ago, Stuart Musialik talked to the Newcastle Herald about his battle with the black dog. It was painful to watch his fall; a magnificent talent who could have had everything. But you wouldn’t have known it at first – nobody bounced into training with a bigger spring in his step.

That was Stu’s mask. Only those who knew him closest knew the full extent. This is the haunting thing: not only does depression avoid discrimination, it morphs in different, unpredictable forms. If it’s tough for those around the player to understand, just imagine what it’s like to be in their shoes.

I know at least one ex-A-League player, one former commentator and one ex-Socceroo who all took their lives. That's already three too many.

It may be extraordinarily distressing to think of all this, but we cannot and must not ignore those in need. Depression and mental illness has always been a part of our society and always will be. The challenge is how we respond to it.

The fact we hear more about it now is because we’re better educated and more aware. Good first steps have been made, and it is pleasing to have come this far. But we still have such a long way to go. 

Support is available for anyone who may be distressed by phoning Lifeline: 13 11 14, Mensline: 1300 789 978 or Kids Helpline: 1800 551 800. 

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5 min read
Published 23 July 2017 at 10:22am
By Sebastian Hassett