How does football’s narrative have to change? Guest Blog by Phil McShane

Last week, the BT Sport channel repeated its excellent film ‘State of Play’, a documentary based on sports journalist and author Michael Calvin’s book ‘State of Play – Under the skin of the Modern Game’, published in 2018.

Calvin himself presents the documentary and looks for answers about the state of modern football. The diverse collection of voices includes male and female players, managers from club to international level, foreign coaches, university professors, a chairperson and a referee.
Calvin’s astute observations openly recognise that not all changes in football are for the better and he is not afraid to tackle difficult issues, such as racism, dementia and sexuality. Calvin also speaks to three players about the issue of mental health in football – a section of the documentary I found particularly intriguing and not just because of my links to Sporting Minds UK.
Before I go on, I think it is important to establish that I love football. I have watched the game and played the game all my life and still do both as regularly as possible. Sadly, and like the vast majority of people who play the game, the dream of playing professional football is exactly that….a dream. From the outside, it looks like the perfect job. Playing football for a living, fame, money, adulation. What is there not to enjoy?

However, how much damage is this narrative doing to the game and to the mental state of those who are ‘lucky’ enough to find themselves living-out the dream of so many? Calvin begins by talking to Lewin Nyatanga, a former Derby, Bristol City and Barnsley defender who made his international debut for Wales aged just 17 years and 195 days. Now 32, Nyatanga works as a personal trainer and has not watched a game of football since retiring aged 29. He openly talked about the damaging narrative and the total lack of balance surrounding attitudes towards being a footballer. He retired because he simply did not enjoy playing football. Although he admitted to giving his career every effort and acknowledging the positive elements of the game, Nyatanga also points out that “balance is needed, it’s not all roses…it is not perfect.”

Nyatanga is a former roommate of Gareth Bale, a Welsh international who went on to win the European Cup with Real Madrid. Even a player of Bale’s stature refers to the almost dehumanising elements of football. “You are told what to do, what to say, when to train, when to eat, where to go.” A point reiterated by Calvin’s next subject, Drewe Broughton. A veteran of 22 clubs in a 16-year professional career, Broughton talks of a “loss of instinct…a loss of who you are” and asks, “Where do you go when you have lost yourself?”

Since retiring, Broughton works as a high performance coach, supporting businesses and individual athletes in (as his website says) ‘understanding and overcoming what I know as the number one performance obstacle; fear.’
When discussing mental health in football more directly, Broughton read out part of a text message sent to him by an unnamed professional footballer. It was harrowing. “I can’t remember the last time I enjoyed playing a football match. I feel emotionally drained from football. I cannot be a failure come May. I can’t be bothered to get out of bed and train.” The player in question also bemoaned bad luck with injury and concerns about losing endorsements from a sportswear company – a stark reminder of some players’ reality and experience of ‘living the dream.’

Calvin asks Broughton if he thinks that mental health is the modern epidemic in football. Broughton believes that it is but interestingly points out that he thinks it always has been, that mental health issues in football have not just “suddenly popped up out of the ground.” He suggests that old traits within the game, the drinking and fighting cultures, may simply have masked deeper mental health issues, footballers feeling they have to ‘man up’ because “that’s what a man was.”
For balance, Broughton also refers to a friend of his, a footballer with over 600 professional appearances to his name who claims he ‘does not get it’ when it comes to mental health issues in football. Broughton admits to being “jealous” of him, claiming the player in question did not “overthink things.” Overthinking links to psychological problems, including depression and anxiety. Those who may claim footballers are incapable of overthinking things are deeply naïve.
Finally, Calvin spoke to former Watford, Bolton and England under-21 striker Marvin Sordell. After retiring aged 28, Sordell spoke openly about his own battle with mental health and attempted suicide. Calvin asked Sordell if football encourages the development of “emotionally stunted individuals.” Sordell replies diplomatically by saying it does “but not purposefully.”

Many of Sordell’s grievances echo those of Broughton and Nyatanga. He talks about an environment where you have to be a “real man”, a Terry Butcher with blood pouring out of the headband, someone who plays on each week ‘through the pain barrier.’ Anything else is “weak.” Sordell concludes by saying that in football, “you can leave yourself vulnerable to attacks on your personality if you show your real emotions.”

Very thought provoking. As I stated earlier, in the past I have been guilty of trotting out the tired narrative of ‘what have footballers got to worry about, it must be the best job in the world.’ Given the opportunity, I would still jump at the chance to do it and wish my ability allowed this to happen. However, the experiences highlighted above clearly show that one person’s dream is another person’s nightmare. In changing the tired narrative of the football ‘dream’, we can hopefully encourage players suffering mental health issues in football that they should not feel trapped in an environment where admitting you are is a sign of weakness. A sign that you are ‘not a man.’ Share the experiences of Nyatanga, Broughton and Sordell with youngsters coming into the game. Show them the balance. Now, I feel the balance is still wrong.

Phil McShane.
SMUK Associate.

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