Darren Eadie: Fighting depression in football

The former Norwich and Leicester star talks further about his mental health campaign.

Recently, I’ve been struck by former Norwich City and Leicester footballer Darren Eadie’s revelation of his struggles with depression and anxiety after retiring, and especially by his proposal to the Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA) that a retreat be founded to help current or former players cope with mental health issues. An ardent Norwich supporter as a teenager (and now), Eadie was my favourite player. A fast and skilful winger, I followed his progress from City’s youth system as he broke into the first XI during their memorable UEFA Cup run of 1993-94 and then became their star, scoring 17 goals in 41 First Division games in 1996-97, easily being voted their Player of the Year.

I would rave about Eadie until my classmates told me to stop, feeling vindicated in my claims that he would be “England’s left winger for the next decade” when Glenn Hoddle called him up to play for England in summer 1997. Eadie got injured in training and had to withdraw from the squad, which proved the story of his career, as he played in less than half of Norwich’s games in the next two years. After a strong start to 1999-2000, Norwich sold him to Leicester for £3m in December 1999, where his problems intensified – he played just forty times for Leicester until numerous injuries forced him to retire in summer 2003, aged 28.

Around the same time, attempting to manage my own depression and anxiety, I noticed Aston Villa striker Stan Collymore’s admission that he was dealing with clinical depression – and the response of his manager, John Gregory, who stated his disbelief that anyone could earn £20,000 per week and be depressed. Given his previous indiscretions, particularly having beaten his ex-girlfriend Ulrika Jonsson, Collymore struggled to find support from players or the press, but so did promising German playmaker Sebastian Deisler, and the issue was discussed less, excepting the continued problems faced by Paul Gascoigne. Then the sad deaths of Germany goalkeeper Robert Enke in November 2009 and Wales manager Gary Speed two years later forced the world of football to treat the subject far more seriously.

Since, various players, including Leon McKenzie, Richard Sadlier and Dean Windass have shared their experiences with depression, and Eadie is hoping to find ways to help footballers deal with the sport’s many pressures and handle their transitions into retirement. Believing it to be endemic – “six or seven” former team-mates from his eight years at Norwich contacted him about their depressions – Eadie recently met with PFA Deputy Chief Executive John Bramhall and former Charlton Athletic midfielder Mickey Bennett, who now works as a counsellor, to discuss the retreat.

“I’m waiting for the PFA to respond”, Eadie tells me, “but our meeting was very positive. I put the idea to their board, but there are plenty of processes to go through before it can be launched. We’re talking to clubs, the FA and the Premier League as well, trying to get them involved in a campaign. It’s slow, but they’re all willing to help.”

Inspired by Olympic athletes who thanked confidence coaches after winning medals, and realising that sportspeople have powerful voices, “more so even than politicians”, Eadie was motivated by gaps in the services for footballers. “It’s hard for the PFA to get current players to open up,” says Eadie. “Developing a different language is important – there’s still stigma around depression, and clinics, and players don’t often want to call national charities. So the PFA need to make initial contact and then get people to specialists.

“The PFA do fantastic work in getting ex-players into coaching or other jobs, and they’ve managed to get contracts to ensure that clubs look after players’ mental health, which is great. I’ve never criticised them, but when I plucked up the courage to get help, the PFA put me in touch with Sporting Chance [the clinic founded by former Arsenal defender Tony Adams]. I was told that they couldn’t help me, as Sporting Chance is for addiction, gambling and similar issues. They suggested I see my GP, which completely deflated me.”

Eadie’s retreat aims to help players avoid addictions by tackling the underlying issues. “It’ll offer rehabilitation for players with injuries – that’s often when these things start.” (Indeed, following his transfer to Stoke City, talented winger Michael Kightly spoke about his depression during 15 months out whilst with Wolves.) “Players are injured for long periods, missing the banter with their team-mates, sat in the gym wondering ‘When will I be able to go back?’ So we’ll have facilities for them, as well as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy to address slides in self-confidence, before it slips further, into depression. Above all, we’ll be receptive to what players want.”

During Eadie’s BBC Radio Five phone-in this week, ex-Portsmouth, Stoke and Cameroon striker Vincent Péricard explained the constraints of the competitive world – one where every public act is judged by colleagues, spectators and journalists. Péricard said he didn’t want to talk to team-mates about his depression as they might target his place in the side; he couldn’t tell his manager for fear of being dropped; nor his chairman for worry that he would be sold, or that his contract wouldn’t be renewed.

Whilst the influx of overseas players, managers and owners has led to positive changes in English football, Eadie acknowledges that, as Péricard suggests, there are specific challenges for players coming from abroad. Some clubs appoint player liaison officers to help them adapt to new cultures, away from family and friends, and handle the immediate pressure to succeed, but the precarious nature of their vocation can be unsettling. “I didn’t want to leave Norwich”, Eadie tells me, “I was happy there, enjoying my football and earning good money, but I was told that if I didn’t join Leicester, the club could go under.” (Norwich put out an emotional statement to disgruntled supporters following Eadie’s departure.) “I only went two hours down the road and I found it hard, so for foreign players it must be really difficult.”

One who really struggled was Cédric Anselin, a French under-21 international signed from Bordeaux to play alongside Eadie at Norwich in 1999. Also derailed by injury, Anselin had a traumatic time after leaving City in 2001: a short spell playing in Bolivia ended when he contracted malaria, and he struggled to return to football after moving back to East Anglia. This week, he told The Pink’Un that his wife once found him with a rope around his neck. Now, he’s helping Eadie with the retreat: like Anselin, Eadie recovered with the support of his partner, who helped him manage worries about their income after his enforced retirement.

“I’m not looking for sympathy, but there’s this media-led perception that footballers are all egotistical meatheads” says Eadie. “There are some bad eggs, but we’re mostly down to earth people who care about our families.” He hopes that the retreat, which will allow people to keep “one foot in football, and one outside” will help loved ones to cope as much as the players themselves – and that it can be the start of a significant cultural change.

Darren Eadie playing for Norwich City in 1996. Photograph: Getty Images

Juliet Jacques is a freelance journalist and writer who covers gender, sexuality, literature, film, art and football. Her writing can be found on her blog at and she can be contacted on Twitter @julietjacques.

Photo: Getty Images
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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.