Thursday, 1 December 2011

Blue in Exile - Football, Depression and Me

As football fans we’re all familiar with heart stopping moments; the gulp as Ryan Lowe’s shot zipped past Adam Collin’s post in the Sheffield Wednesday game, the sinking feeling as you walk away vanquished a losing finalist, the sunken shoulders of let down from a full back fresh from a two footed lunge.  Even still, ‘stop all the clocks’ moments, to borrow the phrase from WH Auden’s famous, forlorn poem ‘Funeral Blues’, are rare. Sadly, this Sunday saw one of them.

The passing of Gary Speed over the weekend was that rare thing in football; an incident that bonded fans of all clubs in common tragedy, a genuinely communal outpouring of grief and wonderment. Only once in my time following the game have I seen a similarly universal wave of good will and bonhomie upon the death of a lost fellow – that that man was the great Sir Bobby Robson perhaps touches on the level of standing in which Speed was held by his peers.

My friends and family will be quick to tell you that I’m a sentimental soul, but even I was shocked by my own personal reaction to the news.  The numbness I felt will linger for a long while, the wandering of my mind to his memory as I sought idle distraction continues to play on me.  I’ve mentioned here before that I followed Leeds United as a youngster – my first football shirt bore the legend ‘Speed 11’, the name of my favourite player printed across the back at a long forgotten sports shop at the foot of Ramsay Brow in Workington.  As the spontaneous, heartfelt reaction of the collected Swansea and Villa fans – breaking the billed minute’s silence – I had to leave the room to hide the bubbling over of my own emotions.

Many of you will have seen the Saturday morning tweets of Stan Collymore which were lent a spooky prescience by the events of Sunday.  For those of you who missed them they detailed the reasons for Stan’s unusually long absence from Twitter – namely the return of a depression which blighted his playing career and had again led to the turning upside down of a life; sleepless nights, lethargy and lack of self awareness. 

Those who haven’t been touched by the illness often struggle to comprehend depression and those who have it usually fail to describe it with sufficient erudition.  As someone whose been there myself I’d urge you all to place any prejudices to one side and seek them out; the ‘black dog’ described by Stan was eerily familiar.  If you who consider what you see familiar, or Speed’s actions selfish, I’d ask you to visit – better understanding is the greatest treatment for this awful condition.

Bookending the weekend came the news that Ronald Reng’s outstanding biography of the German goalkeeper Robert Enke - who, like Speed, was moved to take his own life - had scooped this year’s William Hill Sports Book Award. Returning to my earlier point it seems facile, but appropriate, to suggest that it now feels like core reading for those engaged with sport.

Enke’s story, that of Collymore and perhaps most chillingly of the ‘professional’s professional’ Speed, must also cause a pause for thought next time we raise a voice to question the sight of an underpaid linesman or call to task the ball skills of a blue shirted hero – of this, to again steal from Auden, ‘nothing now can ever come to any good’. Could it ever?

This weekend should remind us that, whatever Bill Shankly may have said, some things are far more sacred than football.

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