In Good Conscience

Transient nature of football contributes to mental illness

During the fallout that followed Everton's 3-0 home loss to Chelsea last Sunday evening, no one so much as mentioned Aaron Lennon.

The winger was out of the picture. He had not played for Everton since Feb 11, and was something of a forgotten man at Goodison.

Officially, it was said that Lennon was injured. But right from the start of this season, the new manager Ronald Koeman afforded Lennon very few chances to be a part of the team.

At 4.35pm on Sunday, while Koeman was under media interrogation for the way his team succumbed to the champions-elect, police 50km away were called to a man in a tracksuit on a busy motorway in Manchester.

As the world very soon knew, the man in a tracksuit was Aaron Lennon. The police sectioned him under the Mental Health Act.

He remains in hospital because of concern for his welfare.

Everton winger Aaron Lennon has made just six Premier League starts this term and has not featured for the Toffees since Feb 11.
Everton winger Aaron Lennon has made just six Premier League starts this term
and has not featured for the Toffees since Feb 11. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

"It is a long-term problem," Koeman declared.

"He will have our long-term support. We will help him to come back."

The manager asked for privacy, knowing there is precious little chance of that in this day and age.

"What is important now is for him to be like he was. Life, health, are more important than football," the Dutchman said.

"It is best we keep it inside the club, the player and his family."

He is a decent manager. He talked at the same media conference of intending to see out his contract at Everton, while not denying that his ultimate ambition is to coach the team he once starred for, Barcelona.

Players, even at their peak, face the reality that every turn of the managerial wheel challenges their worth to a new manager who is hired to change things.

Meanwhile, Koeman must select the players he thinks best serve Everton, and discard those who may not suit his style, or the shape he is trying to build.

Football is a vulnerable, transient career.

Koeman did not sign Lennon, any more than Mauricio Pochettino did at Tottenham, where the winger rose to an England international career.

"He was someone who played here for nearly 10 years," said Pochettino. "Of course Tottenham care about him. The players, the staff and everyone here care about his situation."

Spurs are enjoying their best season in half a century. The best, and the worst of times because, two weeks ago, everyone at Tottenham had to come to terms with the sudden death of Ugo Ehiogu, a coach who died of a heart attack at the training ground.

The physical stress of a 44-year-old coach, a former England player.

The mental stress of a 30-year-old winger, Lennon, who, possibly, is facing the fact that his greatest attributes - speed and attacking instincts - are in decline.

That might be why Pochettino, and now Koeman, didn't pick him.

Players, even at their peak, face the reality that every turn of the managerial wheel challenges their worth to a new manager who is hired to change things.

Sport is ephemeral. Lennon himself said recently that he would not sulk at being left out. He did that in the past, and it never helped.

He sounded so mature. He has known, almost from infancy, that people in football will covet you, while some will look at the slender, wiry, 1.65m and 62kg frame and think him lightweight.

Decades ago, that happened to Garrincha (the "Little Bird"). Some described him as a talent on a par with Pele, alongside whom he starred at the 1958 and 1962 World Cups.

When Garrincha declined and died of alcohol poisoning at 49, hospital staff did not recognise him. They pinned notes to the foot of his bed that said "name unknown".

Garrincha was at least spared the 24/7 global media of our times.

"One day you are king, the next you are zero," opines Slaven Bilic, the manager of West Ham United.

"With social media, you even know what the fans in New Zealand think about you. Before, that wasn't the case."

Bilic is, like everyone, trying to respond to Lennon's situation.

"The clubs are trying," Bilic said, "but everyone that is involved in football should do more."

Just in football? Prince Harry started a new wave of public speaking when he said last month that he sought counselling to cope with the bottled-up emotions after the death of his mother, the late Princess Diana.

According to the Professional Footballers' Association (PFA), one player came forward to seek help because of the Prince's words. The PFA say there are 62 current players, and 98 former pros, seeking professional help in that way.

Some have uncomfortable memories of Clarke Carlisle, the former PFA chairman who attempted suicide because of depression in 2014. It was Christmas week and Carlisle somehow survived walking into an oncoming lorry on a motorway.

After the Lennon story broke, Carlisle said: "Mental health issues are as indiscriminate as any other illness.

"In Aaron's case, I am saddened as he is a former colleague and a friend of mine."

They played together at Leeds United, where Lennon was recruited at eight years of age and became the youngest player in the English Premier League at 16. Leeds sold him for a knock-down £1 million (S$1.82 million) after becoming so destitute that Spurs could exploit them.

Lennon had little option in the matter. But Carlisle knew first-hand how fast and tricky Lennon innately was.

Now setting up a charity to tackle mental health issues, Carlisle writes in The Guardian that Lennon's case did not shock him.

"The single most annoying question I hear on this is how can someone who is a millionaire be depressed?" he says. "He is no more immune to mental health issues than he is to flu or diarrhoea. He is a human being so whether he has millions in the bank is irrelevant.

"Aaron is in the prime demographic. Suicide rates last year peaked for young black males between 30 and 45."

Males who, in football, are susceptible to having their definition abruptly questioned, either by the next managerial change, or by some troll on so-called social media thousands of kilometres away.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 06, 2017, with the headline 'Transient nature of football contributes to mental illness'. Print Edition | Subscribe