I was looking through Twitter earlier and noticed some posts about ex Falkirk and Queen of the South player(among others) Chris Mitchell, and how he hid his depression from his family and friends, before sadly taking his life about 16 months ago. There is a definite expectancy in general life that men especially should sort themselves out, get on with it and cheer up. But I want to write about my own troubles in football, and how I think it affected my career. It's really sad that it came to such a tragic end with Chris, but it has encouraged me to speak out a bit about my own troubles.
I should start by saying I'm not suicidal, never have been and although I have almost certainly been depressed, its so tough to write about it and I have genuinely been wanting to for so long, but the irony is, to write about anxiety and nerves you have to overcome them, therein lies the problem.
I can pinpoint to the game the first time I ever felt nervous before a game. It was for St Johnstone in 2008 against Hamilton at McDiarmid park in my first season professional. I hadn't started a game since the new manager took over in October, then suddenly I was thrown in against top of the league, in an important game for us in February. I had never been nervous before and was always relaxed before games, but suddenly self doubt and anxiety crept in. Although I would try and tell myself I wasn't nervous, my body was telling me different. I felt physically sick, couldn't eat, could hardly speak to people, felt breathless and my legs felt heavy. These symptoms are all due to nerves, lack of self belief and anxiety. I honestly think that anyone who says nerves are good for you, has never been nervous. I can 100% guarantee, that the body feels better, the head clearer and everything is easier when you are relaxed before a game.
When I was 21 I was super fit and everyone who knows me will know that back then pace was the main part of my game, but on this day I was tired after one run, my legs felt like they were cramping up in the first half and I had zero energy . I had a bad game, and it was the beginning of the end for me. When I arrived at St Johnstone in May 2007, I was flying high with confidence after promotion with Queen's Park, and my pre season and early season form was good, I felt great and I was playing. The difference between then and 9 months later was incredible inside me, and I don't think I ever recovered.
This was the start of 10 years of this feeling and the start of what was essentially a downward spiral in my career with a small peak at Falkirk which we will get to later.
The football dressing room and training ground is a very tough place to be if you have any anxiety or depression, because it is a ruthless business where everyone looks after themselves, and also most of the jokes are about making fun of people. There is no place to hide on a training pitch every day, and when I was young and at Queen of the South I found it difficult. I remember feeling so nervous before my first game I told the assistant manager I was too nervous to play, but it was ok, I was on the bench. I hadn't eaten, felt sick and had no energy. It is the only time in my whole life I have ever told anyone I was nervous. As it turned out I came on for an injured player after about 15 minutes. It was probably the best way as I had no time to think about it, and I played quite well.
From then on though, I was nervous about every game. I was sick several times, once on the pitch during the warm up and it affected my performances regularly.
The worst thing about it is that it becomes a never ending downward spiral. I lacked confidence and doubted myself a lot, and that in turn made me play worse, which made me doubt myself more. One time I remember calling in sick the morning of a game because I felt so bad. I felt ashamed doing it and I lay in bed all day feeling awful. I used to see people who were arrogant and full of confidence and wish I had that in me, I know I would have been a better player, but I think it just wasn't the way I was.
After 3 years at Queen of the South, my contract wasn't renewed and for 6 weeks I had no deal. I was resigned to stopping full time football, but luckily I got the chance to train with Falkirk. After the initial nerves at training and in my first game, I soon found myself feeling better and that is down to 2 things. The manager was absolutely perfect for me, he was full of praise, knew exactly what I was good at and he used me in a way that suited me perfectly. The second thing is the squad was younger, and the dressing room much friendlier. It coincided with the best spell in my career for those 8-9 months, almost injury free and playing every week.
The second year was a different story. Hamstring injuries had ruined pre season for me, and although I did get into the team by September, I wasn't playing as well. I remember coming back from another injury and I was playing my first game after a few weeks training. I felt fit and was due to play right back. However due to so many injuries and weeks missed I felt really nervous that day, and in the first half I got hammered by the winger. I had jelly legs, no energy, sore head, all the usual symptoms. I remember the manager saying my fitness was a disgrace, and it probably looked like that, I wish I could have told him the truth.
Two days later at training I did 10*400m in 70 seconds, 1 to 1 rest on my own and then hill sprints with the res of the team . My fitness was very high but my anxiety was the issue. I hardly played again for Falkirk, apart from a decent spell in February/March, and I knew my time there was coming to an end. My old problems had returned, or never gone away really, just hidden under the surface.
I have learned to deal with the feeling over the years, but they never really go away. I can force food down before games and I can relax sometimes, but the truth is I was never the same player again. I never ever felt carefree and confident like I had when I was 19, and it resulted in part time football and dropping down the divisions.
In the years since then injuries have been a problem, my pace has gone, and although I still had the appetite to train hard and try to get back to a good level, my body didn't let me. I lost confidence, I felt anxious every weekend and even some training sessions. I felt unfit every Saturday even if I was as fit as I could be. I could never produce anything like the form I wanted, and even if I was training well I never gained confidence. I've seen many players I played with go on to higher levels and even become internationals and I honestly feel that if I didn't have my issues I could have gone on to a higher level. It created huge self doubt, depression and many hours worrying and going over performances in my head. Now I am trying to come to terms with not having football at all as although I am 31, I can't love doing it when it makes me feel this way. I have dreaded games for nearly a decade, and that is the opposite of how it should be. I can relax at training and enjoy it, but never in a game and I am tired of that and don't want to do it anymore.
Looking back I wish I had asked for help, or at least spoken to a manager I trusted. But I didn't and I am sure that is normal for more than just me. This is my way of opening up and telling people my issue, and there are so few people in football that are an open book. It is a huge taboo mental illness, and in football I think if you show it you are just tagged as mentally weak.
People always say you get out what you put in to life, and football is the same. But if your mind doesn't let your body work the way it is trained to, then you won't get your rewards. Although I had a decent career, it should have been much better and I'll probably always think that and a forever regret it.
After finishing this, I read Chris Kirkland's article on the BBC, it literally came out as I finished typing. It is exactly the same as what I feel, everything about it. Irrational feelings, and it helps that other people have the same problems. I wonder how many hide it...
Read that article here
I have also been reading the book on former Germany keeper Robert Enke, it absolutely spoke to me in so many ways, so many similar feelings. It's a tragic story of a top keeper, but well worth a read for anyone else struggling with what I did.
A big thanks also to the Queen of the South fan, who made this video of my goals at the club. It made me feel better any time I was down, and helped me feel like a better player than I probably was! Probably half the views on this video are me...
To any manager that wasted me out at right wing, here is the evidence that I am a poacher.