Stephen Caulker, Craig King & Football’s Mental Health Issue

by | Jun 30, 2017

It required a strong constitution to read Dominic Fifield’s interview with Stephen Caulker earlier this week. For anybody that has ever struggled with depression or anxiety, the language was all too familiar. The flirtations with self-destructive behaviour patterns. The feelings of worthlessness. The belief that, for all the evidence before one’s very eyes, that one is somehow “winging it”. It wouldn’t be suprising if a large part of the outpouring of sympathy for Caulker this week came about because so much of what he said rang so true for so many people. Mental illness of any sort remains one of our society’s last remaining taboos. To hear someone talking so honestly about it in public is not only extremely welcome, but also retains its capacity to surprise, such is the nature of that taboo.

There is, of course, one body that doesn’t come out of the interview with a great deal of credit, and that body is the weirdly insular world of professional football itself. For all that we’ve learned in recent years of mental health issues within the game – the suicides of Gary Speed and Robert Enke, the ongoing battles of Clark Carlisle and Aaron Lennon – Caulker’s story is so recent that it’s difficult to avoid the feeling that, for all the campaigning from the relative periphery of the game, at least some clubs and certainly some individuals have either specifically not been paying attention or have otherwise chosen to ignore lessons that should have been learned from the game’s very recent past.

It would be easy to focus on the indivuduals and clubs mentioned in the interview, and it’s certainly true to say that Queens Park Rangers, the Tottenham Hotspur chairman Daniel Levy, and Caulker’s own agent don’t come out of it smelling very much of roses. But the breadth of people mentioned right there – a club, a chairman, and an agent – hint at the extent to which an inability to to be able to manage players who do struggle with mental health issues most likely remains institutional. We probably kid ourselves that the publicity given to the stories of those such as Speed, Enke, Carlisle and Lennon can only lead to more enlightened attitudes, that this publicity must surely lead to better education. But perhaps we should also face up to the possibility that it may well not do.

That professional football is emotionally stunted is reasonably common knowledge. There seems no level of behaviour that some people won’t seek to defend on the basis that it’s “only banter” or part of “dressing room culture”. Infantilism sometimes feels as though it’s hard-wired into the professional game, along with the particularly toxic form of masculinity which places winning football matches above all other considerations to the extent that it borders upon being sociopathic and the relentless pushing of the agenda that mental health issues are some form of moral failing that can only successfully addressed by “getting over it”. These attitudes remain, of course, prevalent within society in a broader sense than merely this one particular game, but this doesn’t mitigate football’s inertia on the subject. Indeed, if anything, football’s high profile should act as a catalyst for governing bodies, clubs and everybody employed within it to act as leaders in fighting the stigma that still surrounds mental health issues in every single sense.

It’s not that everybody involved in the game is somehow unable to act in a compassionate manner. One less-reported story along similar lines to have been reported this week has been the semi-retirement of the Luton Town goalkeeper Craig King at just twenty years of age on account of a depression so fierce that it caused the young player to come to “despise the game”. This week he confirmed that he has opted not renew his professional contract and is instead opting to drop into the non-league game. One instructive story of how mental health issues in the game comes in relation to King in the miiddle of last season.

On transfer deadline day at the end of January, fellow goalkeeper Christian Walton was recalled by Brighton & Hove Albion, leading to a mini-goalkeeping crisis at Kenilworth Road. However, rather than throwing King – whose mental health issues were already known about within the club – in for a league match against Cheltenham Town, the club instead brought in an emergency loan player, Reading’s Stuart Moore, at the very last moment. Luton lost the match by three goals to two, but more importantly than that King was saved from having to play a match that he was not ready for, and he was fulsome in his praise for Club physio Simon Parsell and club doctor Paul Deeley in his statement confirming his departure from the club. This brief story certainly paints a far more positive picture of Luton Town than Stephen Caulker’s revelations of attempts to move him onto Moscow paint of either Queens Park Rangers or his own agent.

Professional football needs to grasp this nettle, and grasp it firmly. There needs to be be considerably better of education of illnesses related to mental health. But even this feels largely as though it would be treating a symptom rather than the underlying cause. It feels as though a large part of football’s dysfunctional relationship with mental health is cultural. Winning matters more than anything else. Indeed, in professional football, it’s only thing that matters. And this is something that we can all do something about. We have no control over what governing bodies, clubs, managers and backroom staff do, but as supporters perhaps it’s time that we all took a step back, reined in the inflammatory language, stopped taking each defeat as a personal affront, and actually supported our team and its players rather than castigating them should they fail – even if only temporarily – to live up to our lofty expectations.

We might not always be able to see it in front of us. That’s in the very nature of mental health issues. But they might be there, lurking silently in plain view, at all times. Every time a story such as that of Stephen Caulker or Craig King hits the headlines, social media is awash with messages of support for the player concerned, and rightly so. The following Saturday, however, we go back to contributing towards the very culture that has an effect on players such as this, an effect that very many of us have no way of understanding. The game needs to do more because, when it comes down to it, the truth of the matter is that football isn’t just a matter of life and death. It’s much, much less important than that.

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