So, ‘tis the season to be jolly. Joy to the world and fa la la la la, la la la la.
And I am in a pretty chipper mood at the moment. With 21 points on the board before Christmas, there’s every reason to be.
But with typical contrariness, I feel compelled to talk about depression in my festive column.
It’s hard to escape the subject at the moment, after all.
Since the shocking news of Gary Speed’s death, more and more cases have come to light: the Guardian’s Secret Footballer has talked about his experience of depression; Andy Morrison has revealed that he is stalked by the black dog; and, particularly upsetting for City fans, Leon McKenzie has spoken of his attempt to take his own life.
We shouldn’t really be surprised at the number of cases. It’s reckoned that one in four British adults will have mental health issues in any one year, so it stands to reason that there will be a lot of sufferers in the football industry.
All the same, there’s always a sense of shock when these cases come to light; the players’ situations can be difficult to comprehend.
It’s not a matter of money and status. Depression is an illness that takes no account of the amount of money in your bank account, despite John Gregory’s infamous comment when he was Villa boss that Stan Collymore shouldn’t be depressed when he was on £20,000 a week.
Nor is it about having what most supporters would consider to be a dream job: getting paid to play a game you enjoy. For the players, it becomes an occupation with pressures, anxieties and responsibilities like any other.
I think the difficulty of comprehension may come from the fact that for many supporters, football serves as a relief from depression – even as a treatment for it. The idea that football can be a cause of stress and depression for those on the pitch is one that does not always occur to us.
In his new book Vertigo: One Football Fan’s Fear of Success, Guardian writer and Spurs fan John Crace describes his ongoing battles with the illness and how football has helped him to cope:
“Football is our brief time out from all that, a time when everything gets sublimated to the common cause of getting to and from a match… We know we’ll get back to whatever else it is we’re worried about soon enough. So think of it like going to a health spa. Only without the pampering.”
Of course, he’s not the first supporter to talk about the beneficial effects of football in this context. In Fever Pitch, Nick Hornby tells how two late Arsenal goals against Spurs in a Littlewoods Cup semi-final replay marked the point at which his malaise receded:
“The depression that I had been living with for the best part of the 1980s packed up and started to leave that night, and within a month I was better… And there might even be a medical explanation.
“It could be that the monstrous surge of adrenalin released by a last-minute winner at Tottenham when you were one down with seven minutes left, all hope abandoned, maybe this surge corrects some kind of chemical imbalance in the brain or something.”
For my part, I’ve found that the benefit of watching football in low periods of my life has been that it takes me out of myself.
Depression sufferers turn in on themselves and can become self-obsessed to the point where they cannot see the impact this has on those around them; anything which pulls you out of this and makes you concentrate on something external – even for ninety minutes – is a huge help.
John Crace again: “There is no me; only football. It’s the most perfect time off, time out from myself.”
Footballers, of course, cannot see the game in the same way. If anything, it’s something they want to escape from for a while rather than escape to.
I’ve also found that being in a football crowd has sometimes helped me to feel and act ‘normally’ again. Falling into familiar behaviour, reacting and shouting like everyone around me, has made me feel less weird.
It’s kind of ‘rebooted’ my system.
Much has been written about the loss of identity of the individual within a crowd – but I’d argue that, on occasions, it’s where you can find it again.
Football also makes you look forward all the time. There’s always the next game to anticipate, then the one after that, then the one after that. Then the next season, which might, just might, be the year…
I also think that football helps to connect us with our youth, a period in our lives when everything seemed simpler and we had fewer worries. Even though I’m now fifty and twice the age of many of the City players, I still have a sense of being a small boy watching the men on the pitch.
And for those of us who no longer live in Norwich, following the team helps us to stay connected to the place where we grew up. Even on a wet Tuesday night in Wolverhampton, you can feel at home when you’re surrounded by ‘your’ people.
Perhaps only Christmas is as good at making us feel like carefree children again. I hope it has that effect on you.
I’m anticipating a happy one this year, thanks to my yellow and green antidepressants.
Norwich City. And fluoxetine.