Alan Biggs at Large: Hiding pain behind jokes and smiles, former Sheffield Wednesday hero Mel Sterland admits he is “rotten inside”

Mel Sterland
Mel Sterland

The words don’t fit with the face. It makes them even more chilling. “People see me on the outside all smiling and happy. . . but inside I’m rotten.”

The near-perpetual impish grin has gone in a flash. This is Mel Sterland confronting his demons. Seconds later he is what we would consider to be “himself” again, cracking a joke, chuckling merrily. Merrily?

Mel’s a guy I’ve known for well more than 30 years. Or think I have. Always a jack-the-lad character to me. But do we ever really know anyone?

To hear the former Sheffield Wednesday and Leeds United star talking, topically as it turns out and totally unprompted, about how he tried to commit suicide shortly after his playing career ended is a shock to the system.

It’s also a reminder that depression doesn’t discriminate between the rich and famous and the less well off.

Mel’s well-chronicled gambling habit disqualifies him from the rich category.

He’d admit he’s had more money than sense and this is no plea for sympathy, especially as he continues betting to this day, abeit in a much reduced fashion.

Outwardly he’s still the devil-may-care right back who rampaged down touchlines as the “Flying Pig” and later “Zico” (in reference to the great Brazilian) to win promotions with Wednesday and Leeds, the title at Elland Road under Howard Wilkinson, and, in between, the Scottish championship with Rangers.

We always visualise our heroes as happy people. Why on earth should they not be? But we should know better now, shouldn’t we? Gary Speed RIP.

There was never any reason to presume otherwise about a fine footballer and man whose even temperament was considered to be at the heart of his many achievements.

And now Clarke Carlisle, the former PFA chairman and among the most balanced and adept public speakers, opening his heart on the recent suicide attempt that left him crumpled on a dual carriageway.

What we don’t see is the crumpling inside.

With Sterland, what no-one could have guessed at the time was that he would drive to a Derbyshire beauty spot complete with a tube to connect to his car exhaust.

“All that stopped me was a voice in my head,” he recalls. “It said ‘don’t do it, Mel’ and it was the voice of my mother, who died when I was 17. I got out of the car and just burst into tears.”

Is this welling up again in answer to a question I’ve asked him?

No. This comes in casual conversation. Mel wants to help raise awareness of an illness that can afflict anyone in any walk of life, including those with apparently more than enough money and adulation to be beyond contentment.

We see also the apparent tears of a clown in the harrowing turmoil of Paul Gascoigne (“daft as a brush,” as Bobby Robson dubbed him).

And this in turn, considering all the other cases (Dean Windass, Lee Hendrie etc), must lead to a greater understanding of the spiritual and emotional void into which athletes can step after retiring into what might be termed normal life.

Most of us can’t understand what it must be like to be cheered at work or be booed out of the office; the incredible highs of scoring a great goal or the lows of defeat.

There has to be an addictive, drug-like element to achieving the former. And how do you replace it?

We have to listen to the Mel Sterlands of this world. And the world must listen to them.

Before they have need of that voice in their heads. And Mel’s plea to them: “Just speak to someone.”