Danny Hall Column: Clarke Carlisle’s case shows that footballers aren’t a different breed. They’re susceptible to mental troubles just as we are

Clarke Carlisle
Clarke Carlisle

The ink had barely dried on Clarke Carlisle’s revealing interview in The Sun last week when the comments, as disturbing as they are incorrect and inaccurate, began to emanate online.

Carlisle - a former Premier League defender still only 35 years of age - admitted he jumped in front of a lorry on the A64 last December, hoping it would take his life.

Sheffield Wednesday v Middlesborough.......GOAL...Owls fiirst goal scorer Steve Howard

Sheffield Wednesday v Middlesborough.......GOAL...Owls fiirst goal scorer Steve Howard

Obviously, it didn’t and Carlisle lived to tell the tale; his tale, of crippling depression exacerbated by gambling debts, another drink-driving charge and the news that his £100,000-a-year punditry deal with ITV was going. In his own words, he felt he had to die.

‘How can a footballler, with all his money, ever feel depressed?’ was the first comment I read on the subject and it struck me almost as hard as the photos of Carlisle, teary-eyed and scarred from his head injuries.

It was as callous as it was ridiculous. How can a footballer with money ever feel depressed? I’m no mental health expert but the answer seems pretty obvious to me; because they’re people.

Did anyone ask similar questions when Steve Jobs passed away in 2011? He was pretty wealthy, but pancreatic cancer didn’t care. AIDS didn’t take into account Freddie Mercury’s motors and millions when it claimed him in the early ‘90s. Like depression, they are illnesses.

Cruel ones at that.

But mental illnesses among the young, wealthy and those perceived as lucky enough to kick a football around for a living, remain commonly misunderstood. Celtic fans chanting ‘There’s only two Andy Gorams’, after the Rangers goalkeeper was diagnosed with schizophrenia, is number two in a slideshow of ‘The Funniest Football Chants’ on The Independent newspaper’s website.

Imagine that if it were sexist, or racist? Homophobic, maybe? Wouldn’t happen.

But, as football becomes an increasingly high-pressure environment, attitudes do seem to be changing and managers and clubs do seem to understand their duty of pastoral care towards their players.

After all, lavishing huge sums of money on young men - often from underprivileged backgrounds and maybe broken families, tough childhoods - elevates them to a level of wealth and fame beyond ordinary folk’s wildest dreams. But it also brings with it a culture of pressure and vulnerability that few of us would be able to cope with. There is a balance, and some cannot always manage it.

Because the life of a top-level footballer is virtually without compare, even ignoring the remuneration and the trappings and the hangers-on that come with it. What other profession on earth, besides sport, demands so much, both physically and mentally?

What other industry would train, condition and craft their players into peak physical fitness, and not apply the same importance to their mental state?

From an increasingly young age, these athletes are told how to train and play, and live. Move here. Stay there. Drink this. Eat that. (And, as Jack Wilshere is finding at the minute, don’t smoke that).

The monotony and intensity of the training-match-training-match cycle can prove too much for some. Or it could be the fear, knowing that one bad decision or tackle could take everything away from you. Only footballers know what it is like to be a footballer, yet the game’s ever-prevalent ‘macho’ image often drives down any feelings of anxiety or, indeed, depression.

Psychiatrist Anthony Clare’s book on depression in men says that they should place a ‘greater value on love, family and personal relationships and less on power, possessions and achievement, and look to find meaning and fulfilment’ in their lives. Which all sounds fair, except these are people who have been conditioned to chase power and achievement almost all their lives. Possession - whether of the ball or that league trophy - is their currency. That’s what gives them meaning and fulfilment.

In his own book, ‘The Secret Footballer’ admits that, from the outside, he appeared a lazy, rude, ignorant, self-obsessed, quiet and pretty obnoxious man during his career. And, knowing his identity, I can see his point.

But behind the facade, he struggled. His wife had to persuade him to go to training and when he was there, he’d count the minutes before he could return to a chair in his living room. His haven, his safe place.

There, he’d sit in silence until bedtime before waking the next day and repeating the cycle. Every morning, he thought about ploughing his car into the central reservation of the motorway.

Lucky footballers, eh?

I was unfortunate enough to see the first-hand effects of mental illness a couple of years back when a mate was diagnosed with generalised anxiety disorder. The warning signs flashed when he had trouble sleeping and couldn’t switch off. They burned a little brighter one night at work when he visited the bathroom 20 times in a five-hour stretch, just to be alone. It was a sobering moment; one which helped him realise his own mortality, and convinced him to get help. Just over 18 months on, he is now untroubled by the mental demons which meant he could not stay in his own office, and became dependent on medication. One day he’d appear the most carefree guy in the world. The next, he’d barely want to leave the house. If it could happen to him, it could happen to me or you. Or, heaven forbid, someone with money.

There are, of course, times when the money is entirely the problem. Especially when it’s all gone; rags to riches, to rags again. That is what Steve Howard, now aged 38 and formerly of Sheffield Wednesday, sees these days, on a day-to-day basis.

Howard, who represented Leicester and Derby during his 21-year professional career, is now the head of a property investment company called Platinum Capital Investments. Set up to prevent footballers going bankrupt as a result of dodgy investments, the venture is turning into a full-time job as more and more players are targeted.

“I think we all have to be aware of the problems and issues professional footballers face - mainly when the are playing, but increasingly more so when they leave the game,” Steve tells me.

“It’s becoming more and more apparent that these issues are becoming more and more serious. If significant action isn’t taken soon, then this problem is in danger of getting out of hand.”

As many as two in five players run into financial troubles after their retirement - and suicide remains the most common cause of death in men under the age of 35.

“I speak to players on a daily basis, and more and more of them are struggling when they come out of football,” Howard added.

“It’s not easy to make the transition from the football world, to the ‘real world’. I played professional football for 21 years and it is a very regimented way of life. When it stops, what does the player do? What do they do with their time?

“That is what a lot of players can’t handle, and is sometimes the start of the road to problems. But a lot of people forget that a footballer is just like any other person; they are affected by the same problems that everyday life throws at anyone, and aren’t immune just because they are paid handsomely for their talents.”

Like most of football’s problems, this will not be an easy fix. But depression is something doctors reckon they can spot in ten minutes, using a handful of questions. It may takes regular screenings and visits to clubs, or just a shift in culture and attitudes.

But football should be a passion, something to live for. But the so-called ‘beautiful game’ seems a little less beautiful every time it becomes a reason to die.