I’m not for a moment going to wonder what drove Wales boss Gary Speed to, apparently, take his own life last weekend.
There is a huge line in the sand that no-one outside his nearest family has any right to cross. So I’m not about to go there.
But what is interesting – having observed the football ‘industry’ at work for the last 20 years – is the manner in which the likes of Robbie Savage, Shay Given and Craig Bellamy reacted to the news of Speed’s passing. And, indeed, closer to home, City’s Andrew Crofts.
Because – to a man – their feelings of loss, bewilderment, shock and gut-deep sorrow will have been right from the heart; raw emotion was on display last weekend.
And I think there’s a point that many a punter needs to grasp here – in the sense of recognising just how close the ‘Band Of Brothers’ that is any professional dressing room gets during every ten month ‘tour of duty’ they do year in, year out.
It’s something that Darren Huckerby’s book will bear out; for over the course of a full, professional season – and the two months of pre-season that heralds it – you spend more time in the company of your team-mates than you do with your wife and family.
That, I suspect, is particularly true of anyone who plays for a club competing in Europe – or in the Football League; where Tuesday games follow hard-on-the-heels of Saturday matches. Where life revolves around coaches, hotels, planes, training and games.
You are in the company of your playing ‘pals’ on a pretty much 24/7 basis; with little or no room to be yourself.
You are herded from one dressing room to the next, from one airport lounge to the next, from one hotel room and reception to the next.
Two dozen fellas, effectively living their lives on top of each other week in, week out. With the tedium and the banter only broken by the odd, 90 minutes of adrenalin-fuelled action when you all go ‘over the top’ together.
For me, the more you come to recognise the lifestyle that these players adopt from the age of 16 onwards, the only comparison is with a tour of duty in the Armed Forces.
The close-knit camaraderie, the close confines in which they train and ‘fight’, and the manner in which they ‘let off steam’ on a Saturday night after that sudden, intense period of action – no office job, teaching job or other ‘civilian’ profession comes close. A firefighter, perhaps.
You can – quite easily – swap a ‘squad’ of blokes for a dressing room of footballers; with obvious caveats. Football isn’t life or death – whatever certain managers like to claim.
A tour to Helmand clearly is. Footballers don’t put their lives on the line; nor do they lose limbs in the service of their grateful country. I know that.
It is the manner in which both professions live their lives; the deep and lasting bonds that develop in the course of those years together that is of interest. The way in which a group of men are forced to eat, sleep, train and ‘see action’ together is not dissimilar.
And nor, I strongly suspect, is the sense of dislocation and disconnection when such bonds are broken and players return to ‘Civvie Street’ – when that sense of belonging, of closeness, of always being able to rely on your mates is lost.
Ask most professional footballers and I would suspect most of them would say the same – in the course of those ten months, they will get to know their fellow team-mates better than they do their wives or girlfriends. As would your average squaddie.
They experience more highs and lows; they share the same space for that much longer; they are pushed that much harder as a group and individually both physically and mentally when ‘at work’ than whenever at home; and all in the wholly unforgiving environment of a professional dressing room or barrack room where any sign of weakness or frailty is seized on for ‘banter’.
They are tough places; faint hearts don’t last long – conformity reigns.
Which is why players feel so close to someone like Speed. He was ‘one of them’; they thought they knew him – knew him better, maybe, than even his wife. Because he was in amongst them, day after day, season after season. They saw the ‘real’ Gary Speed; the one in the heat of battle.
Or at least they thought they knew real Gary Speed; that – I suspect – was where the real shock lay; if anyone had seen any demons, it would have been them; those that had been where the real physical and emotional intensity lies – deep in the dark heart of that professional football dressing room.
It is all credit to Stan Collymore that, of late, he has slammed his troubled heart on his sleeve and asked for help and understanding; how bleak the world can appear for a man – most punters would presume – who ‘had it all’ as a hugely well-paid professional footballer.
It is a very, very intense business. And as the money, the rewards, the spotlight and the pressure to deliver mount, one that is getting harder, not easier, to survive.
Little wonder that football is littered with those that seek refuge in a bottle or a bookies – that way they find a temporary release from a game that all-often now borders on the merciless.