Gary Speed was a great man. A consummate professional and role model. Sam Allardyce, presently West Ham United’s Manager and the man who signed him for Bolton Wanderers was quoted as saying “To sum it up, if you had a daughter and she brought Gary Speed home you’d be delighted.” I think that’s the ultimate compliment you can pay a guy. To the average member of the population, he had it all. Legendary status by virtue of making the 3rd most appearances in the Premier League since its inception. As Manager of his native, Wales he has instilled a football philosophy pleasing to the eye. When he received the job in December last year, they were ranked 117th in the world. Now, they’re 45th. They were just beginning to do well and it’s generally believed that he laid the foundations of what could possibly be an appearance at a sanctioned international competition of note. That begs the question, what would lead him to take his life? He had made an appearance on the BBC show, Football Focus the day before and was generally observed to be in good spirits. There’s an assumption flying around that he was probably going through some form of Depression. That could possibly be the reason why a man with so much to look for would take his life.
In Britain, football is seen as yardstick for measuring masculinity. Until recently, the quality of football could be seen as representative of the dark ages with little aesthetic value and more emphasis on physicality. Small players who were adept at the type of one touch football that is synonymous with the famed La Masia academy was frowned upon. Those displaying sheer brute and aggression were preferred. Ashley Young, the Manchester United winger was interviewed recently by the Daily Mail and he recalled not being offered a professional contract as a teenager because it was felt that he was too small. It’s a mindset that has caused many an accident. Eduardo da Silva’s leg break? Ryan Shawcross on Aaron Ramsey? Ben Thatcher on Pedro Mendes? If there wasn’t such an emphasis on tackling hard, such would never have occurred. Typical playground culture. “You’re a man, stand up.” “Don’t be a sissy.” Such attitudes should not be found amongst 21st century minds.
Men are animals. The slightest sign of weakness is something that’ll be preyed upon and used in making one the subject of ridicule. This lends itself towards promoting a culture built on secrecy and silent suffering. People don’t want their insecurities out in the open 'cos they fear it’ll be used against them. The opposition could use such as ammunition to taunt. We’ll rather suffer in silence than let the world know what’s wrong. Behind that smile or bone up, lies so many doubts and worries but we prefer to keep such to ourselves. Imagine what it is like, in a sport like football stuck in the donkey ages where sexist attitudes are still rife. This is a sport with hardly any recognized homosexuals. Justin Fashanu, the first openly gay footballer was disowned and cut off by his brother, John and would later commit suicide (Not caused directly by stigmatization). Not to suggest there won’t be any closet ones. Paul Eliot, an ex Premier League footballer believes there are at least a dozen gay footballers in England but argues that they’re afraid to come out as a result of a fear of negative reactions. Max Clifford, the leading PR Consultant to celebrities in the UK is on record as saying he’s represented two high profile gay Premier League footballers over the last five years and advised them to stay in the closet because “football remains in the dark ages steeped in homophobia”. Imagine someone bucking this trend. He’ll be met week in week out with the words “Bloody Faggot” by wind up merchants like a Dennis Wise or Vinnie Jones. Imagine the crowd reaction every time they touched the ball. The tabloids would make their lives living hell in a bid to catch them in unconventional scenarios. Their every move would be jeered. Masking this in silence is surely not a dumb move.
As a people we’re guilty of turning our noses up to certain illnesses and health challenges. “Depression ko? Overhappiness ni”. An old classmate of mine once said in a group chat how he contemplated committing suicide the year after we graduated from high school as most of us were already occupied with our next academic hurdles while he was at home still contemplating what his next move would be. When he said it, I laughed to myself and thought “This attention seeking spirit is still in him”. For that, I apologize. Who am I to define whether he was seeking attention or actually meant it genuinely? That little incident encapsulates the stigma surrounding Depression. People who have it are scared to open up. People who don’t have it look down on it and find it difficult to empathize. That explains why sufferers find it difficult to share. We’re humans after all. We like people to feel sorry for us once in a while. We like to hear soothing words. We like assurances on our darkest days telling us everything would be alright and instances where it seems the world is coming to an end are mere challenges. In a mini essay via Twitter, Stan Collymore, a retired footballer and depression patient says “Patience, time, kindness and support. That's all we need. No “pull your socks up”, No “get out of bed you lazy git”.
They say life episodes hand us different lessons. Gary Speed’s demise teaches us many things. To always look beyond that smile for any signs of sadness or apathy amongst our loved ones. It ought to urge the football industry where so much is put at stake over little things to take a long look at itself and reflect with regard to how it views and treats conditions as such. News stories over the last two days would suggest there’s been some change. A leading sports clinic has said 5 footballers suffering from Depression have sought help in the wake of Gary Speed’s death. People like Collymore should be praised for standing up and assisted as they seek to return to full health.