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The Ben Smith column: Footballers are fragile too

The harrowing news of Gary Speed's tragic death has bought the issue of depression in football back into the spotlight.

At the moment the details around his death are a mystery and could well remain that way. To an outsider he seemed like a great guy who had everything. He was dashingly handsome, intelligent, articulate and universally respected by his peers.

Personally I am sceptical whether his apparent suicide was down to depression. He seemed like the sort of level headed guy who would have, if he had a problem, sought therapy.

Irrespective of the circumstances of Gary's death there is no doubt that both past and present players have struggled with depression. In recent times we have suffered the heartbreaking deaths of the German keeper Robert Enke and Rushden and Diamonds Dale Roberts.

There have also been the attempted suicides of the Italian International Gianluca Pessotto and the German referee Babaki Rafati alongside the much publicised struggles of Stan Collymore.

One in 10 suffer from depression

Statistics say that one in 10 of us will suffer from depression at some stage in our life. There are many reasons why people who are vulnerable too such an affliction would find that aggravated in the world of professional football both while actively playing and once they have retired from the game.

For your average supporter that may seem to be hard to understand. However let me try and explain...

Football is a game of highs and lows. Unless you play for Manchester United you are likely to have a lot more lows than highs. A lot of managers talk about keeping a feeling of equilibrium. They try to stop their players getting too high win they win and too low when they lose.

However in reality they feel the ecstasy and despair as much as the players do. In fact they'll tell you they feel it worse and often struggle to conceal those emotions. I've lost count the amount of times I've seen a manager on a Monday morning skulking around looking like a bear with a sore head!

Everything at first team level at a football club is geared around winning. The result on a Saturday will dictate the whole atmosphere around the training ground for the next week. If you win you can almost feel the sense of relief.

Sigh of relief

Everyone takes a big metaphorical sigh of relief and relaxes for a few days, especially during the early part of the week and then when Thursday comes round starts re-focusing for the next game.

On the other hand if you lose there is a sense of doom and gloom that engulfs the place. This feeling doesn't really get lifted until the next win.

As a player you will normally sit at home and sulk on Saturday night and Sunday, re-running the game through your head wondering why you did some of the things you did.

On Monday you will have the video nasty. When I was at Hereford we used to sit in the dressing room on a Monday morning waiting for the dreaded instruction to go into the board room. That place meant one thing, a b*****ing!

We would sit there in silence watching our performance. If you were really unlucky Graham would put your mistake on super slow motion. A mistake that took about two seconds in real time would be slowed down to take about a minute. For someone as slow as me it made my reaction to tracking a runner, or in my case not tracking him, look even worse.

Constant criticism

Every now and then you might get a reprieve as Graham never quite did master the technology and no one was going to help him! This is not to mention the constant criticism that top players can receive from the press and supporters when there respective teams are under performing.

Imagine the pressure of the bottom of the Premier League when relegation cost tens of millions of pounds.

Another issue which could trigger depression would be when a player is coming to the end of their career. You suddenly go from being an integral part of the group both on and off the pitch to a squad player. Suddenly your friends and colleagues are having success which you no longer feel a part of.

There is also a real ignorance and stigma attached to depression. Depression is not an illness that cares about whether you are a multi millionaire doing a job you love. If someone gets engulfed by clinical depression, which is often a chemical imbalance in the brain, their personal circumstances are irrelevant.

This lack of knowledge is illustrated by 'traditional' managers such as John Gregory who once asked what Stan Collymore had to be depressed about as he was on £20,000 a week. Comments like that are not going to encourage players to confront their demons.

Macho environment

As I'm sure you can imagine a football dressing room is an intensely macho environment. The general topics of conversation are football, women and what you got up to the weekend not necessarily in that order.

Players don't often sit down and talk to each other about how they are feeling whether that is with their peers or their manager. There is also the feeling that if you discuss such issues with the manager it may affect your selection for future games.

If you are a current player who is brave enough to talk to someone at least there is then a support network that you can tap into. When players retire they often become isolated and have nowhere to turn.

A football career can often end abruptly. Suddenly a player has no reason to get up in the morning. They can't replicate that adrenalin buzz they used to get every Saturday and the feeling of importance that went alongside it.

The sense of camaraderie is also gone. Friendships in football are a strange thing. When you are at a club you build up these strong intense friendships. Once you leave the place you always insist that you will stay friends and keep in touch. However, very rarely is that the case.

Feeling of separation

You soon drift apart. I have played for many teams and made a lot of friends yet I probably only have four or five players who I have kept in constant contact with.

This feeling of separation can often lead to players falling into a spiral of despair and seeking solace in recreational activities that will only make the problems worse. This is an issue not only suffered by footballers. Recently the boxers Joe Calzaghe and Ricky Hatton have struggled when trying to fill the void left by retirement.

These footballers and sportsmen may seem superhuman and bullet-proof when they are performing there chosen sport.

However, deep down they are just human and maybe even more fragile than us 'normal' people, as distressing and upsetting as the struggle and deaths of these athletes are if they raise the awareness and help lift the stigma of depression then the loss of these sportsperson in there prime will not be in vain.

If you are on twitter follow me @bsmudger7


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