Cam­bridge lead foot­ball’s men­tal-health cam­paign

League Two side are at the fore­front of the ‘Heads Up’ cam­paign aimed at rais­ing aware­ness and giv­ing sup­port

The Daily Telegraph - Business - - Sport - By Jeremy Wilson

For the first known time in Bri­tish foot­ball, ev­ery ma­jor gov­ern­ing body and league has come to­gether to sign a joint dec­la­ra­tion that aims to make men­tal health a pri­or­ity for clubs. In­spired by the Duke of Cam­bridge’s ‘Heads Up’ cam­paign, the cause will give its name to Satur­day’s FA Cup fi­nal and counts Cam­bridge United as fore­run­ners.

‘If you ask if some­one is OK, they will brush it off. Ask again and you might get a dif­fer­ent an­swer’

The grounds­man

It was on Aug 6, 2013 when the life of Ian Dar­ler, Cam­bridge United’s grounds­man since 1979, changed for ever. He was re­plac­ing div­ots on the pitch when he was asked to col­lect an ad­ver­tis­ing sign. He tripped on some card­board boxes and, although he can re­call fall­ing to­wards the sign’s sharp edge, “dark­ness then de­scended” and he was left with bro­ken teeth, no feel­ing in his right arm and ex­cru­ci­at­ing neck pain. He thought he had suf­fered a stroke.

“Every­thing fell apart,” he says. “I had seen a lot of things, in­clud­ing peo­ple clin­i­cally die in the sta­dium, and I had fool­ishly thought I un­der­stood men­tal health. I thought de­pres­sion was a bad day. Now I know that ev­ery sin­gle per­son can be af­fected.”

It was at a time, says Dar­ler, when there was no ap­pro­pri­ate spe­cial­ist help from within the club and he de­clined to the point that he se­ri­ously con­tem­plated sui­cide. He tele­phoned his doc­tor, broke down dur­ing that call and, hav­ing started out by say­ing that he just had to “man up”, came to re­alise that he needed pro­fes­sional help.

“That is when things changed,” he says. “I had be­come iso­lated at home – I found it im­pos­si­ble to get out of the house.”

Dar­ler was ini­tially set the task of go­ing to the shop ev­ery morn­ing – “I would wait un­til the car park was clear be­fore buying a pint of milk” – and grad­u­ally found his path to re­cov­ery. He is back full-time at Cam­bridge and pas­sion­ate about us­ing his own ex­pe­ri­ences to help oth­ers.

“What I have learnt is that, if you ask some­one if they are OK once, they will brush it off. If you ask a sec­ond time, you might get a dif­fer­ent an­swer. It is now a good, hon­est en­vi­ron­ment we have at the club and I have so much ad­mi­ra­tion for the Duke of Cam­bridge. Peo­ple will see the fu­ture King of Eng­land speak­ing about this is­sue and think there is no stigma now.” The fan

Match day at the Abbey Sta­dium and, min­gling hap­pily among the fans and iden­ti­fi­able by their lan­yards, are mem­bers of the Cam­bridge United Sup­port­ers’ Panel. David Bir­kett’s lan­yard, how­ever, is slightly dif­fer­ent. It also says “men­tal health of­fi­cer” and, while that part of his role is en­tirely un­der­stated, the po­ten­tial reach into a weekly gath­er­ing of thou­sands of sup­port­ers is clear.

“We are all fans of foot­ball, we of­ten sit down over a pint or a cof­fee, but don’t al­ways talk about the things that re­ally af­fect us,” he says.

“It’s a case of know­ing where to point peo­ple and be­ing there if they want a chat. Blokes espe­cially are of­ten not very good at open­ing up. Peo­ple do tell me things about their back­ground and we have al­most be­come good friends in the space of an hour.

“Some­times we will just talk about foot­ball. I have had men­tal health is­sues and I think I have a de­gree of em­pa­thy.”

Bir­kett had played semi-pro­fes­sion­ally, but dif­fi­cul­ties arose when in­jury forced him to stop at the age of 42. “I had a stress­ful job – it was work, work, work – and play­ing foot­ball was my out­let,” he says.

He be­came a post­man and, as well as his role with Cam­bridge, is now coach­ing var­i­ous teams.

“Foot­ball is a great way of mak­ing some stresses go away and, if you have fel­low sup­port­ers to talk to, all the bet­ter,” he says. The player

Leon Davies has been at Cam­bridge since he was eight and is now a first-team reg­u­lar, but what he calls the “ruth­less” na­ture of foot­ball be­came starkly ev­i­dent when he re­cently looked at an old pho­to­graph of his un­der-10s team.

“I am the only one left,” Davies (left) says. “It made me ap­pre­ci­ate that I’m still in the game. Peo­ple will say, ‘You’ve got it easy’, and we do what we love, but it doesn’t mean that play­ers don’t get the same stresses. Some are good at putting on a mask. That’s the scary part. You can talk to some­one for a year, think there is no prob­lem, and then find out they are re­ally strug­gling.

“When I was 18, I would strug­gle with dis­ap­point­ment and un­cer­tainty. If I made a mis­take, I found it dif­fi­cult to for­get. I didn’t want to be por­trayed as a weak player. I thought if I said how I felt it would have an im­pact on my se­lec­tion.

“I wanted to keep it in my head and it was not long ago that I re­alised it was the wrong thing to do. There’s been a big change in the last three or four years and I see a lot more peo­ple open­ing up to other play­ers and staff mem­bers.”

The Covid-19 pan­demic has cre­ated sig­nif­i­cant ad­di­tional chal­lenges. “I know quite a lot of peo­ple in that boat of be­ing out of con­tract this sum­mer,” says Davies. “You know your last pay cheque has come in and you have no job. I can’t imagine how hard it is.”

Davies now tries to be there for his team-mates, past and present, and also works with younger play­ers in schools and the academy. “I want to stress how im­por­tant it is to be pos­i­tive and kind,” he says. The di­rec­tor

Go­dric Smith is not just a di­rec­tor and life­long Cam­bridge fan, but also the chair­man of Heads Up, the Duke of Cam­bridge’s cam­paign that seeks to use foot­ball to nor­malise con­ver­sa­tions about men­tal health.

“There are some dev­as­tat­ing statis­tics,” says Smith. “Sui­cide is the big­gest killer of men un­der 40 and there can still be a ten­dency to keep quiet and carry on, to never ad­mit weak­ness or show vul­ner­a­bil­ity.”

Smith’s first job af­ter leav­ing univer­sity dur­ing the 1980s was in men­tal health cam­paign­ing and, for family rea­sons, it is an is­sue that has long been of per­sonal im­por­tance.

“The shift from then to now has been huge, but there is still a long way to go,” he says. “The con­ver­sa­tion is chang­ing to a recog­ni­tion that we all have men­tal health, just as we all have phys­i­cal health. It has been pri­ori­tised here from the board down over the last two or three years and I am proud Cam­bridge United have taken a lead­er­ship po­si­tion within foot­ball.”

Prince Wil­liam, he says, has thrown him­self into the cam­paign.

“To have ev­ery part of the game sign up to this dec­la­ra­tion and give a com­mit­ment, in black and white, that says men­tal health is as im­por­tant as phys­i­cal health, is a very big mo­ment. The Duke is an au­then­tic foot­ball fan, but can also talk openly in a per­sonal way. His lead­er­ship

has been pretty ex­tra­or­di­nary.” And the key mes­sage? “It be­gins with talk­ing,” says Smith. “Like every­one there are some sit­u­a­tions I can still find stress­ful and which make me anx­ious. I have learnt over the years how much talk­ing can help. It’s the sin­gle big­gest thing peo­ple can do to stop what might seem rel­a­tively small is­sues turn­ing into some­thing more acute.” The man­ager

For Mark Bon­ner, Cam­bridge United’s new 34-year-old head coach, what might once have been per­ceived as a trade-off be­tween play­ers be­ing open about their men­tal health and foot­ball’s of­ten ma­cho cul­ture no longer ex­ists.

“It is cer­tainly not bi­nary,” he says. “We are work­ing with peo­ple first, and play­ers sec­ond. My job is get­ting the best out of peo­ple – al­low­ing them to be them­selves. Un­der­stand­ing and be­ing with them along the way is an im­por­tant part of that. Then you get more out of them; a bet­ter team, co­he­sion and unity.

“You can still be de­mand­ing of peo­ple, have high stan­dards and ex­pec­ta­tions, but treat peo­ple with re­spect, un­der­stand every­one is on a dif­fer­ent jour­ney, and try to help peo­ple and sup­port them through those in­evitable chal­lenges both dur­ing a foot­ball sea­son and life.”

Bon­ner has seen first hand how foot­ball has changed, but says that it is some­times “still try­ing to over­come that stigma” and only talk­ing about sit­u­a­tions af­ter the event. “We are mak­ing progress and we are re­ally am­bi­tious with where we take this,” he says.

The par­tic­u­lar pres­sures on a man­ager are unique and, as Bon­ner starts what can be a no­to­ri­ously lonely job, he knows that re­tain­ing per­spec­tive will be cru­cial.

“Win­ning, los­ing and draw­ing will all hap­pen,” he says. “In or­der to be suc­cess­ful, you know you have to be com­pletely com­mit­ted. On the other hand, you know this is a game. Mil­lions of peo­ple love it, but mil­lions of peo­ple are dis­in­ter­ested. It is not the most im­por­tant thing in the world. It’s just the most im­por­tant thing to a lot of peo­ple.” The men­tal health of­fi­cer

Dar­ryl Coak­ley can still clearly re­mem­ber the mo­ment, aged 20, when he was re­leased by Cam­bridge af­ter two years as a pro­fes­sional foot­baller.

“I was train­ing with the first team, had a meet­ing with the man­ager and then, the fol­low­ing week work­ing in the lo­cal Greene King in Bury St Ed­munds. I went from be­ing a pro­fes­sional foot­ball player to work­ing in a fac­tory within a week. It was re­ally tough, but I have learnt from my jour­ney.”

Coak­ley is now Cam­bridge’s men­tal health of­fi­cer – a rel­a­tively un­usual role still in foot­ball – and one that in­volves work­ing at all lev­els of the club and com­mu­nity. A par­tic­u­lar fo­cus is on man­ag­ing that tran­si­tion for those academy play­ers who are in­evitably re­leased.

Cam­bridge have what they call a “no sur­prises” mantra and pro­vide ed­u­ca­tion and life skills pro­grammes through­out a player’s time in the academy. There is also af­ter­care, with op­por­tu­ni­ties still to train, as well as weekly or monthly phone calls and access to video clips and data that can be shared with other clubs.

“You have an in­cred­i­ble sense of be­long­ing to a foot­ball club – it must not just be a trans­ac­tional re­la­tion­ship,” says Coak­ley.

Cam­bridge also de­liver com­mu­nity foot­ball ses­sions for lo­cals, drop-in ser­vices for young peo­ple and fam­i­lies to access pro­fes­sional men­tal health help and a “Mind Your Head” pro­gramme in lo­cal sec­ondary schools.

“There are three key mes­sages,” says Coak­ley. “That every­one has men­tal health; that we can train our men­tal health like our phys­i­cal health and that men­tal health is dif­fer­ent to men­tal ill­ness.

“It’s a strength not a weak­ness to talk about your feel­ings. We want to be at the heart of the city. We are try­ing to im­pact the whole com­mu­nity and the foot­ball club is in a priv­i­leged po­si­tion to do that.”

Stronger to­gether: (from left to right) grounds­man Ian Dar­ler, men­tal health of­fi­cer Dar­ryl Coak­ley, fan David Bur­kett, player Leon Davies, di­rec­tor Go­dric Smith and man­ager Mark Bon­ner

Good to talk: The Duke of Cam­bridge (bot­tom right), leads a video call with Tyrone Mings, Steph Houghton, David Beckham, An­dros Townsend and Carlo Ancelotti as part of ‘Heads Up’

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.