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.