Date: 12th January 2012 at 12:00pm
Written by:

Ever since I watched the 1986 World Cup Finals in Mexico as an 8 year old boy I`ve been passionate about football, it`s always been my sport.

Nobody in my family ever liked football, so I guess that at 8 years old, by comparison to most fans, I was a bit of a late starter. But once I took the bait I was snared forever. After brief flirtations with Bradford City and Everton I became a fully fledged Gooner after seeing them lose the 1988 League Cup final. Oh how different my life would have been had Arsenal actually won that day. I`m probably the only Gooner in the world grateful for that defeat.

I`ve always liked to watch other sports such as Formula 1, rugby or a bit of Snooker, but only as a casual observer. But then in 2005 I injured my back at work and had to spend a few weeks at home.

With little else to do I switched on the tellybox and started watching some cricket (The 2005 Ashes series to be precise) in the feint hope I might find some small amount of enjoyment, or at the very least be put to sleep for a few hours.

Instead what I found what an enthralling contest from start to finish, seemingly played by gentlemen, in a great spirit in front of an amazing crowd. I was transported back to 1986 all over again and fell in love with a new sport.

One of the stars of the show was a certain Andrew “Freddie” Flintoff. A huge beast of a bloke committed to his sport, with a drive to win and a passion for his country. He played his part to the best of his ability, giving his all but never overstepping the boundaries of respect between the Poms and the Aussies.

Indeed in one of the greatest sporting gestures of all time was an incident involving Freddie and fellow pace bowler Brett Lee. In the test match at Edgbaston the Austrailian bowler had dragged his team to within inches of a momentous victory with a mammoth 43 run knock, only for the Aussies to be undone by a Steve Harmison beauty with only three runs needed. As joyous celebrations erupted in the stands and on the field, Flintoff`s first action was to console the battling Lee who`d put on such a brave effort. Flintoff became an instant legend to me.

This playful, mischievous, driven, passionate, honest and committed sportsman was an inspiration to us all. Yet he carried with him a darkness he`d hidden from the public eye.

Last night (11th January) a program aired on the BBC entitled “Freddie Flintoff: The Hidden Side of Sport”. In the show Fred talked about his own fight against depression as well as getting to know the stories of depression from sportsmen such as Vinnie Jones, Ricky Hatton, Graeme Dott, Neil Lennon and Steven Harmison.

Big, tough guys with vivacious personalities one wouldn`t think it would be possible for them to have any reason to be unhappy, right? They`re at their top of their fields, they`re richer than most of us can ever hope to be and they have all the fame anyone could ever crave.

But they were/are depressed, almost suicidally so in the case of Vinnie Jones.

I was almost embarrassed to think about my opinions of sportsmen over the years. Shouting obscenities at players and referees from the stands, and justifying these actions with the thoughts that millions of pounds or hundreds of adoring fans should be more than enough to cancel out any abuse they hear on a day to day basis.

However hearing the deeply personal stories of these people we`d always considered unflappable, I`ve had my perceptions changed forever.

During the 45 minutes or so the program was on air I reflected on my own personal battle with depression I`d had over a number of years, the feeling of despair, abject failure and complete lack of desire to do ? well ? anything, and how tough that would be to cope with whilst being in the public eye on a daily basis, whilst having 30,000 people hurl abuse at you and having your every move scrutinized by the press.

Sure the millions of pounds in cold hard cash would make that massively easy to cope with if you were sound of mind, but trying to live with that and also with depression? I`d take complete anonymity every time.

Depression has long been considered a sign of weakness, when in reality it is a simple chemical imbalance in your brain, the inability to think in a way that benefits your body or is caused by a series of uncontrollable events in your life that seemingly becomes too much to bare.

Looking at the causes, is it possible to protect a human being from depression with money, fame or fortune? Of course not.

So maybe it`s about time we started being a little more thoughtful to our sportsmen and women? When was the last time you got on the back of Andre Arshavin or Mouranne Chamakh? Maybe giving some audible groans or shouting at them to “get a f*cking grip” or maybe even telling them to ply their trade elsewhere?

Of course it`s entirely possible that these two examples are just suffering in form, or indeed aren`t quite good enough to perform at this level (not that that is their fault either), but maybe just maybe, their lives aren`t quite as peachy as we`d all like to believe, and how is it going to feel to have people who wear the same colours as they do, shouting abuse at them simply for trying their best? And trying to cope with that on top of depression? That`s going to spiral out of control pretty quickly.

It`s all too easy to objectify these people as simple “sports stars”, but they`re made of the same elements as the rest of us and are subjected to the same vulnerabilities. One only has to look in the direction of the tragic Gary Speed to see how badly things can spiral out of control when a person just donesn`t get the help they need.

If anyone would like to watch the program it`s currently available to watch on the BBC iPlayer. Part of the program also shows Freddie visiting the “Arsenal in the community” project, part of which is to help people come to terms with mental health problems through the medium of sport and just gives us yet more reasons to be extremely proud of our club.