David Preece: Not just footballers have problems, but we don’t have to handle them alone

Aaron Lennon
Aaron Lennon
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I had been in bed for three days.

It’s not that I didn’t want to get out of bed, I just couldn’t. I’d felt this way before but it had never been this bad. With time I’d learned to manage myself but this was different. Those 72 hours hadn’t dragged. I could have been in that bed for 72 days and it wouldn’t have seemed as long. Time din’t matter. Nothing did.

It was the June of 2015 and for the first time since I was 9 years old, there wasn’t a player registration form with my name on it anywhere. There wasn’t going to be any glorious comeback. No final swansong. I’d tried to rekindle the smouldering ashes of my career doing a 10 week stint out in Iceland to some effect but it was mainly a time filled with frustrations that were clearly getting the better of me. Yellow-carded four times in the early games and having to walk a disciplinary tight-rope in the last couple. No referee or striker was safe.

Now there was no football. Nothing to concentrate on. Nothing to distract me from my thoughts. Not that I was remotely capable of anything to outwardly focus on. Every thought stayed within the confines of my own head, sandwiched between the one previous and the one that came after. Every one of them blowing around like confetti with nowhere to go, which ironically made it difficult to think at all. Not rationally anyway.

Anything coherent was lost. The only way I can describe it is like the Dome in the final round of “The Crystal Maze” where the contestants are inside trying to grasp hold of the few gold tokens amongst the silver ones. It’s an exhausting, almost futile task and if you’re lucky enough to get hold of one, there’s no guarantee it will be a positive one. If that happens, the downward spiral of thoughts begin and it becomes difficult sequence to break.

For me the problem was coming to terms with the changes I was experiencing in my life. I was entering a process of bereavement, mourning the loss of not just a career but a huge part of who I was and I yearned to have it back. To have me back. After all, this new me, this football-less me, wasn’t someone I knew and I felt lost.

I was doing exactly what I wasn’t supposed to, spending much of this time stuck in the past, replaying situations the old me had been in over and over But there was a disconnection between the two and this void just couldn’t be filled. The only familiarity of this feeling was from the long periods I had spent out with injury and how I hadn’t coped with them. Not initially. Some incidents stick out more than others. Once when I had spent a long time out of the side at Aberdeen, I was on the verge of a recall due to an injury to Peter Kjaer who had pulled out of training on Thursday before a game against Hearts. I readied myself for my return only to fracture my thumb in Friday’s training and be ruled out myself.

The devastation was almost unbearable. After the all of the toil and patience to get back in to the side, I wasn’t up to facing with reality, so as soon as my hand was strapped up, I went straight to a hotel bar in the city’s West End and stayed there for the best part of three days, not able to even face up to attending the game itself.

It’s something I sorely regret because we were a close knit group of goalkeepers and youth team keeper Mark Peat made his debut that day and I wasn’t there to see it. It wasn’t until the fog had cleared that I could see I should have been there to support him. You just don’t think like that when you’re consumed by your thoughts.

The blessing with injuries is the feeling was mostly only ever temporary. Once you got beyond those first few days and the physio had mapped out a road to recovery, you had something to focus on once again.

This feeling though, this feeling felt like forever. An unshakable sense of loss that was paralysing me and I knew I needed help. I knew I had to talk to someone, so I picked up my phone and Googled the number for player support at the PFA. I couldn’t call though. I literally could not physically do it. It’s not easy to say this but all I did was cry. There was a lot of emotions there but mostly it was relief. A relief that I was finally taking steps to do something about how I was feeling.

Finally I did call. The conversation was brief. Matter of fact even. But I was told someone would call later that day and they could help me. That man was Mike, an retired-miner whose own second life had taken him down the road of helping those who had similar experienced.

Every Friday afternoon, I’d drive the 45 minutes to his home and we’d talk. Sometimes about football. Most of the time about everything else. He made me see exactly what I have outlined above, of the void that needed filling and helped my put my errant thoughts in some semblance of order, which is what I needed. Something which I think we could all do with now and again to bring some perspective back into our lives instead of allowing our brains to run away with us. Uncontrollably at times.

I’m not telling you this through some need to over share but in the hope that it might help. I lost a friend to silence once. Not the “S” word that some would call it but nobody knew what he was going through. Not to the extent that would cost him his life and I always wonder if he’d still be here if he’d told one of us how he was feeling. Maybe it wouldn’t have made a difference but the worst thing is we’ll never know.

There will be some players out there struggling to come to terms with retirement, injury or some kind of personal crisis. This isn’t only about footballers. There will be men and women of every age and walk of life who, for one reason or another, feel like they are struggling. People who probably feel like talking to someone is the last thing they want to do. I’m writing this to say they don’t have to “man up” and keep how they’re feeling to themselves. Talking things through with someone does help, whether they’re a professional, a friend or family and if you feel like you’re struggling to reach out. You’d be surprised how many people want to help.

We all have our problems, but we don’t have to handle them alone.