I was depressed in my teenage years, but I didn’t know it.
For most of the time during what are meant to be the happiest years of your life, I was in survival mode, looking to get from day to day unscathed. I’d lie in bed wide awake on Sunday night in dread, knowing that the sooner I fell asleep, the sooner I’d be awake again, having to face yet another week. My social life, watching local football team Sutton United aside, was non-existent as I couldn’t find the energy to talk to anyone new. In hindsight, I was clearly struggling, but at the time I thought what I was going through was normal. If you’d said the words ‘mental health’ to me, I’d have looked at you as though you were speaking a foreign language. I turned 13 in 2011, barely ten years ago, but still a time when mental health was never really a concept talked about outside of a psychologist’s office.
I wouldn’t have bought a book about mental health when I was struggling. When you don’t understand a problem, you don’t really want to acknowledge it — it’s an alien concept and you don’t have the time or inclination to change that. However, I did buy plenty of books about football. That’s where my second book, Match Fit: An Exploration of Mental Health in Football, comes in.
Writing, unsurprisingly, was something I initially got into for the mental health benefits it brought to me. Having finished my exams in my first year of university I faced the prospect of months of nothingness ahead, months where my mind might start to play tricks on me. To avoid this, I channelled all my energy into writing about my memories of watching Sutton United in the FA Cup over the years. I’d never intended to have it published, but thought I might as well try once I’d put 45,000 words down on paper. The result was Six Added Minutes, which came out with Goldenford Publishers in November 2019. Having used writing to the benefit of my own mental health, the next stage was to try and help others with theirs.
My aim with Match Fit is simple — I want to use football as a means of normalising conversation around mental health. To do this, I’ve conducted interviews with more than 60 different people from the football family. Each of them bravely opens up on their own mental health story, whether they’ve struggled badly for years or just have the odd ‘off’ day. There are voices from every type of participant in the beautiful game, from former England internationals to those who play hungover on a Sunday morning. Each individual story is poignant and inspiring in equal measure.
Take the story of Grenfell Athletic, for example. The morning of 14th June 2017 brought shocking scenes to the entire nation as flames ripped through a high-rise tower block in West London. All in all, 72 people lost their lives, with virtually everyone in the community personally knowing one of the victims. Amidst the devastation, local man Rupert Taylor was determined to help however he could. He decided to set up a local football team for survivors and other locals to give them something to bond over and an opportunity simply to talk. When I spoke to Taylor, he explained that having the team to lean on had helped several of his players out of a very dark place. The team is still going today, a non-medical intervention to help a group of people deal with the psychological impact of one of Britain’s deepest traumas of the 21st century.
With regards to the top end of the football pyramid, Marcus Bent spoke particularly emotionally on his struggles to come to terms with retirement from professional football. Bent is well known by fans of the Premier League, featuring for eight different clubs in England’s top league. An athletic striker, Bent was unprepared for all the time he suddenly had on his hands when his spell with Indonesian club Mitra Kukar came to an end. Lacking purpose and feeling a void inside of him, Bent fell into an addiction to cocaine and hit rock bottom when he was arrested outside of his Surrey home. Much like myself, Bent did not have much of an understanding of mental health at this point, but help from Sporting Chance, a residential clinic specifically for professional sportsmen, helped him to turn his life around, as did the therapeutic experience of working in a charity shop nearby. The main thing Bent emphasised in our conversation was how keen he was to use his own experiences as a warning to other footballers, preventing them from falling into the same trap he did.
The chapter that resonates most with me is one that looks at how supporting a football team can impact upon your mental health. I’ve been a diehard supporter of Sutton United since I was just eleven years old and have always found the routine of going down to Gander Green Lane every other week something of a lifeline. I spoke to Alan Pringle, an assistant professor at the University of Nottingham, who has conducted extensive research into the topic. This interview was an intriguing experience, as if Pringle was able to read my mind and see all of my highs and lows on the terraces over the last 13 years. It can be hard to give an eloquent answer when asked why we are such big football fans, but Pringle would have no issue with this question at all.
All of these stories have one thing in common — they revolve around talking about mental health within a sport that is stereotypically macho and unforgiving. I hope the variety of different experiences encapsulated within Match Fit will help the reader acknowledge their mental health, be it good or bad. We all go through tough times at some stage of our lives, and even if we don’t have a diagnosed mental health condition, it’s important to talk and be kind to ourselves. If anyone reading Match Fit does feel they need help, then the book can hopefully act as a signpost and point them towards services that are there for them.
Essentially, this book is for the teenage me and for those struggling with their mental health who perhaps might not even know it. If it helps just one person, then the hundreds of hours I’ve put into the project over the last three years will all have been worth it.