David Prutton: Why facing up to mental health issues in football is so important

Chris Kirkland with David Prutton at Sheffield Wednesday.
Chris Kirkland with David Prutton at Sheffield Wednesday.
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As most of you probably know, Wednesday was World Mental Health Day and it’s pleasing to see the role football is playing in tackling and highlighting the issue.

There was a time not so long ago when talking about depression or anxiety felt contrary to the mindset of a professional athlete: that daft sense of bravado which all of have and which tells you never to show any weakness, however badly you’re coping.

Chris Kirkland in action for Sheffield Wednesday.

Chris Kirkland in action for Sheffield Wednesday.

What becomes apparent as more and more players open themselves up and tell their stories is that the real weakness, or the real damage, comes from not feeling able to talk to anyone.

I’ve been one of the lucky ones when it comes to mental health – people who know me might say otherwise in jest – but it comes pretty close to home when it starts affecting players you dealt with during your career.

Chris Kirkland, the former England goalkeeper, has been a bit of a pioneer in coming to the fore and speaking very frankly about the depression he suffered while he was playing. I was a team-mate of Chris’ for a time at Sheffield Wednesday and we’d known each other since our days with England’s Under-18s, when both of us were finding our way in the game.

It wasn’t that we were inseparable but we got on well and I’ve always classed him as a mate, someone I genuinely liked and respected.

In reality the biggest battleground for all of us is in our heads.

David Prutton

I had no idea he was suffering at all. Quite honestly, I was clueless about his mindset. Chris was a dedicated, committed lad who always worked hard and never caused trouble for anyone. Even now I can’t pretend that I saw hints of the strain he was suffering.

There’s a tendency to put your gameface on when you’ve got the four walls of a football club around you and I’ll say this about Chris: his professionalism was incredible given everything that was going on.

It might only have helped to a small degree but you wish now that you’d been able to help. You wish he’d let you see how he was feeling so you could have empathised and offered some support.

The irony of the time it’s taken for football to really focus on the subject of mental health is that there’ll be plenty of players out there who are relieved to see this is coming to the fore, because it strikes a chord with them. There’ll be plenty of players who are desperate to speak up themselves and are encouraged by someone like Chris leading the way.

I can’t speak for a person who was in his frame of mind but I can imagine that football, with all its trappings and perceptions, has a way of making depression or anxiety even worse.

It’s a contradiction, isn’t it? You’re in a fantastic job – as everyone tells you – and you’re earning sums of cash which set you up for life.

Okay, you’ve got to kick a ball about every now and again but really, it’s a fabulous profession (and I say this as someone who thinks yes, it absolutely is great).

From a mental point of view, struggling to cope with or enjoy something which is supposed to be readily enjoyable only makes things harder to bear. The insinuation, even if it’s only in your head, is that you’ve no excuse.

That you should be happy. You’ve got everything you want and everything you need so what’s the problem? If only we were all programmed that way.

I felt the ups and downs of football but never to extremes. And the older I got, the less I let it dominate my life. Having kids helped because my perspective changed slightly but I was fortunate that the sharp inclines and declines of emotion never got to me in a serious way.

If I played badly, I had another game coming up. If things went wrong well...things do go wrong sometimes. That’s not a talent on my part. As I said, it all comes down to programming and my brain happened to work that way. Others in football obviously found the pressure more difficult – and in some cases the stress they felt might have had nothing to do with football at all.

I’m in no position to get philosophical about this but it’s very much a case of there but for the grace of God go I. When it comes to football we’re fixated on what Gordon Strachan called the “big green rectangle out there” but in reality the biggest battleground for all of us is in our heads.

That’s where your narrative plays out day after day and if your thoughts are bringing you down, everything else surely takes on a different perspective.

The increasing number of footballers who are brave enough to speak publicly makes me think that this must be a pretty extensive problem across the game.

And why wouldn’t it be? Players would like to be invincible but none of us are and if society has a battle on its hand with mental health then professional sport is going to have one too.

The best thing we can do is face up to it. Like many things in life, mental health matters more than football.

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