“I think sometimes we forget these guys are human.”
This was Pep Guardiola’s response when asked about the individual errors that cost his Manchester City side in their 3-2 defeat to Norwich City at the weekend. He’s absolutely right.
Largely due to the media megasphere, footballers are painted as perfect, fabled, almost mythical individuals that we watch from afar but can’t get close enough to touch. In reality, they’re no different to you or I. The further down the league pyramid you go, that becomes easier to see, but it applies to elite-level footballers too.
The majority of players don’t set out to become famous. They either love football or happen to be very good at it; in most cases it’s both. Fame is a by-product of this, and as a result, so is the open opportunity for their every move to be scrutinised. That’s not what they sign up for, nor is it something anyone should have to deal with.
That’s not to say they should be immune from criticism. We make comments on The Tilehurst End about Reading players’ performances each week in our ratings. A lot of analysis, whether that be in written form or on television, is focused on where players could do better. But there’s a difference between evaluating what a player does on the pitch and unwarranted personal abuse.
This is one of the downsides of social media, where players are arguably the most accessible in the modern game. This can work very well in some scenarios. We want players to be accessible, and fan interaction and the exhibition of personalities are huge positives.
But, equally, having a presence on social media can leave players exposed and vulnerable. Not necessarily just to trolls, but to attention seekers who don’t take time to consider the ramifications of their words. It’s an issue that former Reading midfielder David Meyler suffered with while out of the Royals’ team last season. The Irishman told The Athletic:
“I drank excessively at weekends after a game. Everything started to affect me that bit more. The American comedian Kevin Hart says the popular thing now is negativity. I started to read social media comments more closely. I took stuff to heart. Doubt crept in. When I joined Reading last season, I was not playing. I took it home with me.
“What me and my my wife went through [three miscarriages]... we endured a year other couples won’t go through in 50 years. I imagine she questioned me. Doubt set in with football. I was training, giving everything and getting nothing back. If I’m not involved, what is it I am doing? People thought I cared more about gaming, but I was desperate to play. All I ever dreamed of was being a footballer. Do you know how difficult that is? You are paid to be a footballer and not playing. It is a sense of worthlessness.”
Meyler’s story - that of loss, anxiety and worsening mental health - needs to serve as a reminder that footballers are not exempt from any of life’s cruel workings. It is heartbreaking to read and isn’t something you would wish upon anyone.
It is crazy to think that some supporters criticised him for not caring about Reading simply because he played video games. There was a naivety to those comments. An ignorance and insensitivity. You never know what someone is going through.
In an open and honest recent interview with BBC Radio Berkshire, former Reading striker Dave Kitson said:
“Football makes you expect the worst. You open up the newspaper, you expect the worst. You don’t win a game, you can expect the worst. No one really has any sort of sensitivity around what you might be going through. I even saw some stuff that people had written about my family, how are they getting dragged into it?”
One of the biggest untruths in football is that players have no excuse to be unhappy as they earn a lot of money; their lives should be rosy and perfect because they have a high salary, drive a flash car and live in a big house. Those things are somehow seen as a solution to any personal or emotional problem. Kitson debunked this myth:
“What I’ve learned is, there’s a lot to be said for being happy. If there’s one truism in football, money does not buy you happiness. It just gives you so many more problems.”
Kitson’s own story is testament to the fact that being at the top of your game doesn’t make you untouchable by demons. Opening up about his struggles with mental health, the 39-year-old recalled his lowest moment in pre-season 2007:
“I’ve probably had it [mental health issues] since I was 13 or 14 and it just got steadily, steadily worse. It actually culminated in South Korea when we went there on the Peace Cup tour. On that tour, I just completely fell apart. I absolutely lost the plot. I had to confide in Brian [McDermott]. Brian then told Steve [Coppell], but we didn’t know how to deal with these things. Now we’re a lot better at dealing with this, we know how to sort this stuff out and get players help, but back then no one said anything, let alone had to deal with it.
“I think if you ask my wife certainly, because she’s seen the worst of me, she would say at that time she talked me back into playing football. I’d quit. I’d told Brian that that’s enough for me. I think I was 27 or 28 and that was enough.”
At the time, the striker was arguably at the peak of his career. He had scored 26 goals in two years as Reading had first won the Championship with a record points total before finishing eighth in the Premier League. Depression doesn’t care one bit about that.
Kitson, who said he “take[s] an awful lot of medication to get through the day”, continued:
“I’ve got a million regrets and I’ve tried to keep them in a little part of my head locked up, and I don’t know where the key is. But every now and again they come out, and that can send me off for a long time - a week, two weeks, something like that and that can be a very, very bad place to be.”
“I had one very simple piece of advice from my father who just said: ‘Dave you’ve got to keep yourself busy. It’s like a shark - if you stop moving, you’ll die’. He knows me very well obviously and he’s right. If I’m left to my own devices and I’m left in that dark place and I’m not busy, there’s no telling what I might do to myself and I really mean that.”
It’s a poignant thing to hear from someone who was and still is a hero to many Reading fans.
The statistics are now well-publicised but harrowing nonetheless. In the UK, men are three times more likely than women to die by suicide, and it remains the single biggest killer of men under 45. Footballers are of course included in these numbers.
Dave Clement, father of former Reading manager Paul Clement, committed suicide at the age of just 34 after suffering a serious leg injury that doctors feared could end his career. German international goalkeeper Robert Enke committed suicide after struggling to cope with the death of his young daughter. He was 32. Dermot Drummy, 56, committed suicide six months after losing his job as manager of Crawley Town. Their fame and stature didn’t protect them.
Organisations such as CALM (Campaign Against Living Miserably), Samaritans and Mind, the EFL’s official charity partner, do some fantastic work on dealing with mental health issues. We, as fans, can help too. Take a minute to think before commenting on a footballer’s social media post, otherwise the term ‘supporter’ becomes merely trivial. Our relationship with players doesn’t need to be so estranged.