Only A Game? - Like it or not, depression exists in football

Vincent Pericard.
Vincent Pericard.

I interviewed a well-known local doctor a few years ago about depression. After discussing the realities of the condition I asked the doctor for his own opinion on depression - his answer will remain with me forever.

The doctor said that having examined and treated patients with depression for the best part of 25 years, he would much rather be diagnosed with cancer than with depression.

Gary Speed.

Gary Speed.

When I thought about what the doctor had just said it soon became clear why he’d much rather be a cancer patient than someone battling depression.

Cancer, and many other illnesses, is viewed by society as a physical illness - it’s devoid of any other interpretation - you either have cancer or you don’t, it’s that simple.

Depression is very different. A person with depression could be the fittest, most healthy person alive but inside their head they are just as ill and as in need of help as the cancer patient.

Depression is real, it’s killing hundreds of people every year and it makes way for no-one, even footballers.

Robert Enke.

Robert Enke.

Stoke City might never reach the final of the Champions League but I believe their decision to actively tackle depression to be even more important than any match winning goal.

French-Cameroonian footballer Vincent Pericard joined Stoke in 2006. The former Juventus striker spent three years at the club before brief spells at Southampton, Millwall, Swindon Town and Havant & Waterlooville F.C. Pericard announced his retirement from professional football earlier this year aged 29.

Depression was the reason why Pericard decided to walk away from the game he loved. He says that his depression came on him all of a sudden when he moved away from family to play football professionally in Italy and in England. Loneliness was one of Pericard’s biggest hurdles but with nowhere to turn for help, his depression worsened until he’d eventually had enough and decided to retire.

Pericard knows all too well about the horrors of depression and in a bid to tackle the condition head-on he has set up a not-for-profit organisation called Elite Welfare Management.

Pericard’s company is designed specifically for footballers with depression and it provides them with the opportunity to talk about their condition and seek out the help and support that they need.

Stoke City are the first Premiership football team to work in partnership with Elite Welfare Management to address depression and they should be commended.

One in four people will suffer from depression at some stage in their life - footballers are no different.

I have written a few columns conveying my disgust with the lavish and crass lifestyles of many footballers but just because you have plenty of money in the bank and playing for one of the biggest football teams in the world does not guarantee happiness.

As Jeff Buckley sings in a song written by Joe “Red” Hayes and Jack Rhodes, the world’s richest man is not the man with the most money, it is the man with a satisfied mind.

Former Crystal Palace and Norwich City forward, Leon McKenzie once scored a goal against Manchester United. On the pitch, McKenzie was the epitome of bravado and hubris but off it, he was depressed and his thoughts took him to very dark places.

McKenzie revealed in the past how his depression was so bad that he once tried to take his own life by consuming 40 pills. McKenzie, to this very day, admits that he is lucky to be alive but footballers like German international Robert Enke and Wales manager Gary Speed were not so fortunate.

It’s never been proven that Speed, who was 42 when he took his own life, was depressed but there’s no doubting that it was plausible.

Robert Enke, who once played for Barcelona, took his own life when he walked in front of a train in Hanover. Enke suffered from depression for the last six years of his life and found it impossible to cope when his daughter Lara died in 2006.

This notion that depression is not real is insulting and should be challenged every single time it is voiced. Those ignorant enough to think that depression ‘is all in the head’ and that it’s a condition exclusive to the weak really want to wake up and smell the coffee.

Whether you’re a footballer, on the dole or working in your dream job, you are vulnerable to depression. It’s an illness like cancer, M.S. or diabetes.

If footballers like Pericard, McKenzie, Speed and Enke are to ever have a chance of realising peace of mind then the attitude pedalled by the ignorant has to be kicked into touch.

Former Liverpool and Aston Villa striker, Stan Collymore, approached one of his managers to tell him that he was depressed. Collymore’s manager replied ‘go out and score a hat-trick and you’ll be fine’, if only depression was that simple...