Football, Prince William and Our Mental Health: Tackling a bastion of bravado

TV review: Soccer’s ‘man up’ culture belongs to the Stone Age, as too many players know

Heads Up: Prince William at Everton with Séamus Coleman, Tom Davies, Jordan Pickford, Dominic Calvert-Lewin and Theo Walcott

Heads Up: Prince William at Everton with Séamus Coleman, Tom Davies, Jordan Pickford, Dominic Calvert-Lewin and Theo Walcott

 

When Frank Lampard, the former England international and current Chelsea manager, makes his appearance in Football, Prince William and Our Mental Health (BBC One, Thursday), he talks of the sport being “stuck in the Stone Age” when he was playing, the expectation being that players ‘man up’ in the face of any personal issues, not least mental-health problems. And he only retired four years ago, so he isn’t talking ancient history.

That, then, is largely the reason why the prince has chosen soccer as the vehicle for his Heads Up campaign, believing that, although it’s getting better, the sport can still be an unforgiving bastion of bravado where there isn’t enough sympathy or understanding for male players who are struggling with depression in particular. He probably could have chosen any sport, though, soccer being far from alone in its failures on that front.

But Marvin Sordell would attest to the game still having a long way to go, the former England under-21 international, whose career prospects had once looked so bright, retiring from soccer a year ago, when he was just 28. Once he was struck by depression, he says – his lowest point was a suicide attempt in 2013 – he found little support from the soccer people around him. He believes that revealing his mental-health problems contributed to the petering out of his career. The expectation, again, he says, was that he should man up.

At Sands United, an amateur club set up by Rob Allen after the death of his young daughter, the men are encouraged to talk about the impact the loss of their loved ones has had on their mental health

But others who feature in the documentary have made soccer their saviour, like the group of men who play for Sands United, an amateur club set up by Rob Allen after the death of his young daughter. Many of his team-mates have suffered similar tragedies and, like Allen, have struggled to cope with the pain of their loss.

“Yes, our children aren’t here, but it doesn’t mean we don’t want to talk about them any more or hear their names,” he says. And so, at the club, the men acknowledge their loss and are encouraged to talk freely about its impact on their mental health, while the team marks the anniversaries of the deaths of their loved ones, rather than allowing them to slip by without comment.

The programme, commissioned by the BBC as part of its programming for Mental Health Awareness Week, sees Prince William touring Britain to meet some of these men who have endured long and lonely battles but, through their common passion for soccer, have, for the first time, found the kind of support structure they need.

Appropriately enough, for a programme shown during lockdown, the documentary concludes with a Zoom meeting between the prince and several of the men he has met, all of them pining for the return of soccer. Mind you, as an Aston Villa fan, the prince has probably enjoyed the break.

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