Time for football to address mental health issues
The demise of Michael Johnson, the former Manchester City midfield player, will help to address another of the taboo subjects with which football struggles to deal: mental health. Johnson agreed a severance package from his £40,000-per-week contract with City when it became obvious that he was never going to revive his career. We hope he can revive his life.
He confirmed to the Manchester Evening News on Tuesday that he has issues with his mental health. "I have been attending the Priory Clinic for a number of years now with regard to my mental health and would be grateful if I could now be left alone to live the rest of my life. I am more disappointed than anyone, but that's the way it goes."
The football world should respect Johnson's honesty and, more importantly, back him in his fight against such a debilitating condition. We must never forget that mental illness affects one in four British people. It probably affects one in four footballers, too; it's just that the world of football still lives in a time-warp in so many areas, like homosexuality and racial tolerance.
I remember being impressed with Stan Collymore, the former England international striker, a decade or so when he confirmed that a large reason for his decline as a top-flight player was his depression. I remember being horrified when John Gregory, the former Aston Villa manager, said, "How can you be depressed on £29,000 a week?" From my dealings with Gregory, when I covered Aston Villa for the Birmingham Post, I grew to dislike him quickly. The facts are this: you can be depressed on £29,000 a week. You can be depressed on any salary. Wealth does not insulate you from mental-health problems.
Two years ago, Collymore used Twitter to disseminate his deepest feelings on the subject: “I am tweeting because the stigma around this illness suggests that us sufferers all of a sudden become useless, maudlin, and unable to function. Well, I haven't seen daylight for 4 days now ... but I've done a week of Talksport/Channel 5 prep work, a national newspaper column, all in the eye of one of the most challenging, soul destroying bouts of this cruel illness one could have. If you're poorly now, please see your GP, call a friend, and at least reach out to someone who can guide you through. If, like me, you've been there many times before, know this . . .It's bloody dark but the clouds ALWAYS lift, so do everything you can to help yourself through, open up to help, and the fog will lift.”
I hope those words provide comfort to Johnson, who was once the subject of a £10million bid from Liverpool but who suffered injury problems at crucial times and, when he slipped into decline, he was convicted of two drink-driving offences last September. Only he will know how much he suffered. Only he will know how much the expectations of his chosen career began to play havoc with his state of mind.
I hope the football world unites to help not only him but others who struggle with the vicissitudes of mental-health issues.