'You’ve just got to crack on' - a question for football as Leeds United's Stuart Dallas plays through emotional pain barrier

Stuart Dallas has been playing through the emotional pain barrier for Leeds United because in this game the show must go on, and that’s a problem.

By Graham Smyth
Saturday, 30th October 2021, 4:40 am

It’s not a problem of Leeds’ creation, nor one of Dallas’ creation and perhaps it’s not even a major problem for him but certainly some of the language used around his situation suggests football does have a problem.

At Leeds, Dallas has often been cited as one of those willing to strap himself up and get out on the pitch, no matter what. He gets on with it. When he limped out of the game before the October international break he still reported for Northern Ireland duty a couple of days later and that came as no surprise whatsoever. He gives his all, does his best every time for club or country and puts side before self. None of those things could ever be disputed, not with the career he’s managed to carve out and the positions of leadership he holds within the Leeds and Northern Ireland dressing rooms.

Not only that, he’s a good person. He reaches out to fans who are struggling and puts time in for worthy causes. On Thursday night, a short while after opening up on the recent tragic loss of a best mate in what had to be a draining BBC Leeds interview, he put in a surprise appearance at the Leeds United Foundation’s disability football session.

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All of this does not paint a complete picture of Dallas the man but it goes a long way to explaining his popularity with team-mates, staff, the media and supporters.

That affection in which he is held only increased when he revealed that for weeks on end he has been dealing, privately, with grief, all the while playing football for Leeds in the Premier League. What’s more, the news of his friend’s death came while Dallas was isolating in a hotel room and suffering from Covid-19, so he was literally locked away with his pain, unable to be present with loved ones and fellow mourners. It was another example of the spiteful, cruel situations that have arisen since the pandemic became our reality. What was previously unthinkable and unnatural has become normal.

Dallas knows he’s no different from most people, so many have suffered loss and been restricted in their ability to process it due to guidelines and protocol. ‘Part and parcel of life,’ he called it. But unlike many of us, who could take even a little time out from work to breathe, to think, to heal or just to be sad, Dallas felt he had to ‘crack on.’

“In football, when something like that happens, you don’t get time to grieve,” he said.

PLAYING ON - Stuart Dallas has been playing through grief for Leeds United after the loss of a close friend. Pic: Getty

“You’ve just got to crack on. We’re here to do a job. I represent a lot of people when I play for this football club and I don’t want to let anybody down. It’s important that you just continue to crack on and just play through it.

“No matter what’s affecting me personally, I’ll just crack on and maybe look back on it in years to come and think that it was the wrong thing to do, but for me at the minute it feels like the right thing.”

Marcelo Bielsa and Leeds, keenly aware of the situation and monitoring it closely, respected Dallas’ wishes, so on he played.

“When episodes of these types happen, the best interpreter of each person’s reality is that person themselves,” said Bielsa.

“We respect Dallas’ decision to want to participate, not only did we respect it but we gave it a lot of value and we acted in consequence.”

Structure and routine can be helpful when grieving, they can serve as a distraction or bring a grounding sense of purpose to emotional turmoil. If that was the case for Dallas, and Bielsa was entirely right to leave the decision to the player, then maybe Premier League football was helpful.

Mental strength and the ability to withstand and overcome adversity are traits that have built his career, as Bielsa pointed out.

The problem would be for Dallas or any player to feel like he had no option but to get on with it, that pushing onward, always onward is strength and any alternative is weakness. For him to even consider that any action he chose could ‘let anybody down’ is very sad indeed. It’s a sad indictment of football and how it conditions players.

“As a footballer you’re brought up to not show any weakness,” said Anton Ferdinand earlier this year, discussing his own grief.

Nigel Martyn has spoken of losing a baby to miscarriage just before a game but feeling aware of external expectation that he still needed to play.

Dallas’ close pal Liam Cooper had only the purest of intentions when he Tweeted that his team-mate had ‘dealt with this like a true professional’ because he simply wanted to praise his friend and show solidarity. We compliment strength because we want to say something positive and make people feel better and because we’re impressed with how they’ve coped in difficulty, yet there’s a real sadness in the thought that ploughing on could be the professional response demanded by the game. It shouldn’t be an expectation, implicit or otherwise.

The outpouring of love and support that greets any revelation of loss in the game – if he didn’t before, Dallas will know now how loved he is in Leeds – is good to see, but does this industry have the grace or the space for players to stop?

Dallas played on, through grief and Covid recovery, and his performances faced judgement that could bear no consideration of his circumstances. Had Dallas simply disappeared from the squad, Bielsa would have been put in a difficult position, facing questions on the Ulsterman’s whereabouts.You can, of course, brief the press off the record, but team news questions are only ever the ones supporters themselves will be asking. Every player’s potential involvement in a game is a talking point and even if the press aren’t asking why they didn’t play, the questions will come directly to the player’s phone on social media. And then of course there’s gossip.

“It’s easy to pick up on a rumour or have false allegations, it’s easy for these things to grow arms and legs,” said Dallas this week.

The irony of a journalist suggesting that we don’t always need to know everything is not lost on this correspondent but it’s difficult to see, in today’s rolling coverage of every cough and spit, for which there is a very real demand, how any top-flight footballer could quietly rest in a private moment, never mind a private week or two.

Dallas has no question to answer here. What he needs, he knows best. There is a question for football though, for those in it and around it. The show will always go on, but must grieving players?