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monday - Steve Pope, sports psychotherapist
monday - Steve Pope, sports psychotherapist
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Football may be a funny old game but no one’s laughing at The Footballers’ Guidebook which is out to save players from seeing depression as a “sign of a weakness” in the alpha male-dominated industry.

The debate about mental health in football kicked off after Germany goalkeeper Robert Enke and young Rushden and Diamonds keeper Dale Roberts took their own lives.

A Life Too Short, Enke’s biography by his friend Ronald Reng, won the William Hill Sports Book of the Year award days after Gary Speed, 42, successful manager of the revitalised Wales squad and former Premier League player, was found dead at home.

Former Liverpool player Stan Collymore has also spoken candidly of his own battle against depression.

The 36-page booklet offers advice, helplines and case studies from former players Collymore, Andrew Cole, Neil Lennon and Paul Gascoigne. It was commissioned by Professional Footballers Association chief executive Gordon Taylor to raise awareness.

It includes a foreword by PFA chairman Clarke Carlisle, 32, former Blackpool FC player, Burnley defender and now Preston North End season loan player, who says: “Football is the beautiful game. This guidebook acknowledges the pressures and that professional footballers are human beings, not machines.”

Careers can turn on one false move as recent events at Preston have shown. The misery of relegation from the Championship has been followed by a relentless slide towards a drop which could see Preston face currently non-league but promotion-chasing Fleetwood Town in League Two.

Specialist sports psychotherapist Steve Pope, (below) of Blackpool, says: “That’s a dream scenario for Blackpool FC fans, but a nightmare for Preston.” Pope, who works as counsellor to players, including youth sides, in Blackpool and Fleetwood, endorses the new handbook.

His dad Gordon played for Blackpool. “I soon learned about the glory and the pressure, but it was a different type of pressure then.”

The former lawyer went on to beat the drug addiction which blighted his legal career and retrained after treatment as a psychologist.

“I wanted to give something back. I was uniquely placed to appreciate the pressures. We all deserve as many chances as it takes.”

Usually his role is to identify factors that undermine a player’s performance on or off the pitch.

With Fleetwood bidding for promotion as well as cup glory and the Seasiders able to boast an unrivalled record for Championship goals in stoppage-time – it’s clear both are holding their nerve.

“It’s all about keeping your heads up when the heat is on,” says Steve. “It’s also about learning how to let go without damaging yourself, your club or loved ones.

“At Fleetwood and Blackpool we monitor players’ mental health as to sleep patterns, nutrition, get to know their moods and what makes them tick, and ensure as best as we can that at 3pm on a Saturday they enter the game with a clear head.

“We manage issues such as anger, how to cope with relationship break-ups, and debt.

“We make them aware of the perils of drink, gambling and casual sex, continually monitor them and rectify any slips. I also do home visits, see their lifestyle, meet their family. It all helps.

“They are human beings as well as club assets. Footballers are portrayed as super heroes and encouraged to be warriors.

“This neglects the fact they are human beings. The pressure to deliver is excessive. They receive high wages but pay the price in the emotional stakes.

“They have a high rate of divorce, a high rate of depression when suffering a long-term injury, on being released from a club or at the end of their careers.

“George Best once said to me how do you compensate for not being a hero, in front of 60,000 people, on a Saturday afternoon? If you’re already an obsessive character you turn to alcohol and drugs – 40 per cent of footballers will face addictive issues..

“I see myself as a life mechanic. It’s my job to make sure Ferrari players stay on track. It is good that Clarke, who has faced his own demons, is PFA chairman.”