Clarke Carlisle on his road to recovery and Leeds United

Nearly two years after his suicide bid, the former Leeds United defender is staying positive.

By The Newsroom
Wednesday, 12th October 2016, 7:11 am
Updated Tuesday, 25th October 2016, 7:59 pm
Clarke Carlisle is backing the YEP's Speak Your Mind campaign to get people talking about mental health. Picture James Hardisty.
Clarke Carlisle is backing the YEP's Speak Your Mind campaign to get people talking about mental health. Picture James Hardisty.

There is a four-inch long scar running down the left side of Clarke Carlisle’s head and another, smaller one across the bridge of his nose.

That aside, it’s hard to believe this is the same man who deliberately stepped in front of a lorry on the A64 near York two years ago this Christmas.

He himself has admitted it’s “amazing, bordering on miraculous” that he’s alive.

Clarke Carlisle leads the way in training during his spell with Leeds United.

But if the outward evidence of his suicide attempt is tough to spot, the bigger question is about the mental scars that drove the former Leeds United player to want to end his life.

Ask him about his progress and Carlisle is upbeat. “I’m incredibly good,” he says.

“What are we now, some 20 months since coming out of psychiatric hospital and it’s been a heck of a journey. But it’s wonderful. I’m in a really good space.”

It was during his four-year stint with Queens Park Rangers that Carlisle’s alcohol abuse, triggered by his fragile mental health, became too big a problem to ignore.

Clarke Carlisle leads the way in training during his spell with Leeds United.

A turning point came on the day in 2003 when his manager Ian Holloway ordered him off the team bus for still being drunk from the night before. He sought help and successful spells at Leeds, Watford and Burnley followed.

But the true nadir arrived after his retirement from football. Two days before he hopped over the central reservation on the A64 he had been charged with drink driving. Having lost his job as a pundit for ITV, he found himself at rock bottom.

It wasn’t the first time he had tried to commit suicide and Carlisle, once dubbed the nation’s most intelligent footballer, knows there’s no quick fix, that his road to recovery will be “eternal”.

“There’s a lot of personal responsibility on maintaining that and as with anything it fluctuates,” he says, choosing his words with the surgeon-like precision you would expect from someone who enjoyed a successful run as a Countdown contestant.

“But I am aware now of my fluctuations and what to do as and when they arrive.”

To that end he has created coping strategies, what he calls his “toolkit”.

“Just like with your physical health when you’re slightly under the weather you might just need a Lemsip or a couple of paracetamol, the mental health equivalent is that I might just need a hug or a chat.

“So I have a council of people around me who I love, who I trust, who I’m brutally honest with and vice versa, and I’ll go to them. If it gets to that point where physically you would go to your GP, I go to see either my counsellor or my consultant psych to have a proper chat with them.

“When I used to feel fear, or sadness, or anger, or anxiety, I would drink, or gamble, or immerse myself in a computer game to avoid it,” he says. “Now the first thing I do is I acknowledge it, then I try to identify where it’s come from and do something that will counteract it.”

His strategies include long walks and runs, listening to Classic FM and, he laughs, “having a smoke of my pipe”.

His life has changed a fair bit over the intervening period too. Now separated from wife Gemma, he has a new partner, a new home and a new job. Last week he moved house from Cattal, between Harrogate and York, to Preston. Alongside public speaking engagements he works for the University and College of Football Business at Manchester City’s Etihad stadium, putting together workshops and seminars for business executives.

But his biggest goal is to continue highlighting mental health issues, something that drove him during his tenure as chairman of the Professional Footballers’ Association.

We are speaking before he goes on stage in front of business leaders at the Healthy Minds for a Thriving City event in Leeds. One of the event’s supporters is Asda, and Carlisle wants every employer to start taking mental health seriously.

“We’ve now gone beyond the point of trying to raise awareness,” he says. “The vast majority of society and business acknowledge there is something to be worked on.

“Now it’s about sharing best practice and getting out the ideas that work. It might be easier for larger organisations to do, but there will be something we can put together that everyone can have access to.”

He wants to see mental health first aiders in every workplace – and more action by government.

“It should be mandatory that we teach this in primary schools because 50 per cent of all mental health issues are in situ before the age of 14.

“Our Government, at the last Budget, reduced mental health research funding. But it doesn’t mean that we have to conform to what they don’t enable us to do. I believe that grand scale change on this issue comes from the individual, and that has a butterfly effect.”

Clarke on social media...

“When we went to school, you had beef, a bit of name calling and maybe some physical stuff, but once you went home you left it behind.

“Now the physical side of bullying has almost gone. The psychological and emotional manipulation is rife and your child can’t get away from it because they go home to what should be their sanctuary, and it’s there via social media.

“Not only is it a different strain... it’s 24/7.”

Clarke on Leeds United...

“I think they’re in a better place than they have been for a number of years but still nowhere near where Leeds United should be.

“What can I say really? After being at the club and this amount of time in Yorkshire I know how much the club means to the people around it.

“So to have someone controlling it who in my personal opinion doesn’t treat the club as the treasure that it is and doesn’t seem to give credence to a supporter’s perspective, that pains me.

“Especially when there’s no pay off in terms of success or stability, or even seeing the youngsters come through because once they’ve played 40 games they’re off.

“I feel sad for Leeds supporters and hopefully they’ll get someone or some group at the helm who respect the club as much as they do.”