Co-written with Lewis Pangratiou
As a footballer, you face euphoric highs in your career and devastating lows. The game can cause a strain on players’ mental wellbeing. Add in ongoing issues off the field, and life can start to feel very difficult.
The FA have recently implemented the Heads Up campaign, spearheaded by The Duke of Cambridge, which aims to use the popularity of football to make an important change on the conversation of mental health.
Former professional footballer Liam Hughes, once of Cambridge United in the English Football League, has been an advocate for mental health following his own, very serious battle.
Hughes missed out on a dream opportunity to play against Manchester United at Old Trafford in an FA Cup replay in 2015 due to injury. This, alongside an already difficult past following the loss of a dear friend at an early age, meant he started to find it extremely difficult to cope.
“Things weren’t really going well at home so football was an escape for me then. But when that goes wrong and you lose that escape if you like, your world starts to fall inwards and you start to implode.”
After leaving Cambridge United at the start of 2016, Hughes played for eight clubs in three years as he tried to ignore his ongoing troubles. Unfortunately, this only offered a distraction but didn’t get to the fundamental root of his problems and, in fact, only made matters worse.
“When I was at Darlington [in 2018], I was turning up to training drunk and on drugs. I was drink-driving all the time.
“Self-harming was something I did a lot when I was drunk. I literally had physical fist fights with myself and came out with black eyes. All the emotions I had bottled were coming out in different ways and I didn’t understand it.”
With the support of his partner, he made the brave decision to check himself into rehab in January 2019.
“It was either start 2019 as I finished 2018 and end up in a grave or check myself into rehab, and, luckily for me, I did the latter.”
Hughes truly felt he had nothing to lose. Positively, after being closed off for so long, he went away from his comfort zone and started to open up. Though he was still mentally and physically exhausted, he realised it was ok to be emotional and understood that he had to tackle his problems head on in order to make necessary, life-saving progress.
Although his recovery is still ongoing, he is thankfully in a much better position. He continues to speak out and wants to inspire others in a bleak place to do the same.
“I will tell my daughters about this period of my life. I do feel they have a right to know about this period of my life, and I like to think they would be proud of their dad for what I have been through, overcome and what I stand for now and the changes I’m fighting for daily. I want them to grow up knowing it’s ok to talk.”
The Mental Impact Of Being Released
Hughes faced challenges during his career but football has the power to consume an individual’s darkest thoughts from an early age. Fred Burbidge, 20, was released from Tottenham Hotspur aged 12 in a way that is unimaginable for someone that young.
“We got offered the chance to have either a meeting [for the decision of whether to keep us at the club], a letter through the door or a phone call. You had to let them know what you wanted. I asked for a meeting and got no response.
“Two weeks later, I had a letter addressed to me as a 12-year-old through the door and the first four words were: “We’re terminating your contract.” At the age of 12, it is a bit of a hard one to take and it was a bit sudden. I didn’t have a clue that it was coming.”
Burbidge struggled to come to terms with the decision. Feeling inadequate, he lost his love for the game.
“It didn’t sink in for a couple of hours and when it sunk in, obviously I just felt like I wanted to quit football. I didn’t want to play football anymore. I hated it. I didn’t feel good enough and this is at the age of 12.”
Keagan Cole, 21, who played for West Ham United until the age of 16 alongside the likes of Reece Oxford and now-England international Declan Rice, has called for clubs to do more for released players.
Cole moved secondary schools midway through his education to live away from his family in pursuit of his dream. West Ham did initially help with his footballing progression after his release by setting up trials with Sheffield Wednesday and Colchester United.
They also let him train with his former team-mates until he had finished school. However, he believes they could have supported him a lot more long-term.
“There should [always] be someone inside the club that tries to help you find another club – just putting your name out there and giving you the best chance of getting a scholarship or even more.
“Once I left West Ham and the school work was done, I never really had contact with anyone, manager or staff in terms of how I was doing. [They never asked] have I found a club? Is there anything they can do to help?”
Burbidge and Cole are now very good friends and teammates at semi-professional side Potters Bar Town. Having had a few years to digest their varied experiences, they feel they are on the right path in life and maintain that talking to each other throughout their struggles is massive for confidence.
“I think we get each other through the tough times [at Potters Bar], and I think that’s the main thing to do. I do believe in myself and I think that’s a massive thing: self-belief,” said Burbidge.
All of these stories show how detrimental the fear of failure can be too oneself. Thus, Hughes has taken the initiative to set up Wisdom And New Direction (WAND), a programme which aims to be proactive and increase support for others through the power of discussion.
“I still don’t think people are comfortable to talk in that environment, and that’s why I set up WAND. If you expect players to openly talk about their issues you are setting them up to fail, whereas if you get somebody taking initiative and being proactive and sharing their vulnerability, you get more back.
“People hear it and go, ‘Oh my god, that happened to me,’ and then suddenly there is a long queue of people coming up to talk to me.”
Distressingly however, statistics show there is still such a long battle ahead. The male suicide rate is at its highest in the UK since 2000, with a rate of 16.9 deaths per 100,000 recorded in 2019; and the need for greater understanding of mental health in football is just as high as ever, particularly after the tragic news about former Manchester City academy player Jeremy Wisten.
We must all recognise the severity of what’s going on, understand how everyone reacts to situations differently, and help people who are struggling so that they know they are not alone.
And, if you ever do feel that way, speak out in your own time. If you’re uncomfortable doing that publicly, please contact WAND on email@example.com or call 07510 025851.