Depression is a horrible, confusing and misunderstood affliction. Not only does the settling of a dark cloud over the mind have a rubberising effect on the emotions, blowing the most ridiculously tiny considerations out of all proportion whilst shrinking everything that matters to mere triviality, but it also is also a condition that still, even in the twenty-first century, can feel mildly embarrassing. With no physical symptoms apart from those brought about as a result of its debilitating effects (which can be easily be explained away to oneself in other ways, if one chooses to), it’s easy to convince yourself that there’s nothing wrong with you, that you’re just feeling a little down, that you should, as many, many other people would be happy to tell you, given the chance, “pull yourself together.” You can ask me how I know this if you like. Just be prepared for a very long answer.
We’ve been here before, of course, where we find ourselves this afternoon with Ray Wilkins. Having departed his position at Fulham earlier this week – football, no matter what else we might think about it, hardly has a reputation as the most sensitive employer in the world, and this is something that extends to many supporters, as well. We howl tirades at individuals on a Saturday afternoon in a way that we would never consider in any other area of our life, and having given more or less no consideration to how our abuse might affect them. Hopefully, we might think (because the majority of us are sensible, thoughtful, reasonable individuals), it just becomes white noise after a while. They put it up with it from us every week. They must be used to it by now, mustn’t they?
And that’s just for ninety minutes, once or twice a week. The machismo of professional sport and the sensitivity of mental unwellbeing make for uncomfortable bedfellows. Anybody who has been involved in professional football for any period will have their own stories of its own particular flavours of cruelty, whether inflicted in front of others in the semi-secrecy of the training ground or completely behind closed doors. No-one ever thinks of anything but winning, and in comparison with the adrenaline rush that comes with lifting a piece of silverware on a balmy afternoon or evening in May the feelings of those cast aside in the headlong rush towards that memorable moment are always likely to be fairly low on many people’s list of priorities.
When I read the story of Ray Wilkins yesterday morning, of his battles with depression, alcohol and, more recently, with ulcerative colitis, my mind involuntarily jumped straight to the worst case scenarios, to Robert Enke, to Gary Speed, to Dale Roberts and to Justin Fashanu, and to other part-forgotten tormented souls, such as Hughie Gallacher, Dave Clement, Alan Davies and to John Lyons, professional sportsmen for whom the burden of life became just too much. For every one who does take his own life, though, there may be a hundred or a thousand who don’t quite reach that feeling of hopelessness. They live with it, most likely keeping their pain internalised, or they seek help. Wilkins, thankfully, is seeking help.
By way of an aside, Ray Wilkins was a wonderful footballer. Consider this goal against Belgium at the 1980 European Championships, for example. Poise, elegance and calm on a day that was otherwise lacking in any dignity for English footballer whatsoever. Committed whilst seldom being over-aggressive – one moment of hot-headedness for England against Portugal at the 1986 World Cup finals which saw him sent off notwithstanding – and was possibly the finest passer of the a football of his generation, it seldom felt as if he ever quite got the recognition that his quality as a player deserved. It was certainly recognised in Italy, where, having captained Chelsea at eighteen and then won the FA Cup with Manchester United, he spent three seasons with Milan, before going on briefly to Paris St Germain and Rangers and the returning to England.
Under the circumstances, however, to discuss his qualities as a player seems almost inappropriate. Indeed, even to mention that he might also be one of the nicest men that English football has produced over the last four decades doesn’t seem quite right, somehow. What matters is that he has recognised and is seeking treatment for his problems. Equally notable have been the comments seen over the last twenty-four hours wishing him all the best. The gales of rage that blow around football ground between three and five o’clock on a Saturday afternoon are unlikely to subside, but away from matches themselves we should take a moment to consider how much progress has been made when we hear of a professional footballer struggling with difficulties of this nature. Perhaps, just perhaps, we’re making progress in the right direction.
Get well, soon, then, Ray. A fine footballer, a better coach than he will likely ever be given credit for, and, more importantly than anything else, a thorough decent man.
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