Robins fan Neil Evans was crushed at the departure of Ling for health reasons. Here, the writer and commentator opens his heart about his personal battle with mental illness and gives insight into the difficulties of balancing depression and a career in football.
I never really wanted to write this article, if I’m honest, but recent events at my beloved Swindon Town compelled me to do something.
As most of you will no doubt be aware, Swindon manager Martin Ling recently resigned his post for “health reasons” after just 57 days at the County Ground. Later it became apparent that Ling was aware that he was beginning to relapse into the depressive illness that had led to him leaving the Torquay United job just over two years earlier.
As a fan, I was gutted that a club legend had left in such sad circumstances.
It also affected me personally because I have been struggling for some time with my own illness.
The weekend before the news was announced I was due to do some commentary on a game, but had pulled out. The reason? I could not motivate myself to do the research; I wasn’t excited or enthused about the job. In short, I wasn’t well enough. So, when I heard the news about ‘Lingy’, a part of me felt even more crushed.
Ling, after leaving Torquay, had described his illness as like a “coffee stain” on his CV and had feared he would never get the chance to manage again. So it was to Swindon chairman Lee Power’s credit that he was given a chance to get back into management. The League Managers Association (LMA) are also offering support to Ling and his family at this difficult time and one can only hope that he will be well enough to get the opportunity to pursue his passion again in the future.
I can certainly relate to the frustration and distress that this indiscriminate illness causes. The odd bit of writing, for me, feels as much as I can manage when I know I can do so much more. Depression robs you of so many things: energy and self-confidence to name but two. I also suspect that my own “coffee stain” will prevent me from becoming the reporter/commentator that I am capable of being… but that’s not the reason for this piece.
After Ling’s departure, I was disappointed that a number of fans lacked empathy. Comments like “he couldn’t hack it” or “he let us down” are very easy for the cyber-experts to say… just be thankful that you’re healthy enough to be so heartless. One local media piece even appeared to suggest that his departure was linked to losing two successive away games.
To be fair, the vast majority of reactions have been great (even from fans of bitter rivals) and that is a hopeful sign for the future – an indication that, perhaps, social attitudes towards depression are changing.
It’s also encouraging that a number of high-profile players and coaches have been able to open up about their struggles in a manner that would have been unthinkable even five or 10 years ago. Lee Hendrie, Stan Collymore and Karen Carney have provided candid accounts of the difficulties they have faced. But it must be so much harder for those in the public eye within football to talk about mental health issues. The FA and the PFA are much more aware of mental ill health than they used to be; they have been working with suicide prevention charity If U Care Share to ensure Premier League clubs have a dedicated officer to help spot mental health issues in young players and signed up to the Mental Health Charter for Sport and Recreation. But there is still much to do.
I have worked when I was not well enough to do so and have learned the hard way that it was the wrong choice. I also have to admit that I’ve been as guilty as anyone in judging someone’s on-field behaviour without knowing the full facts. Thankfully, I’ve had the chance to apologise to her (she knows who she is), although I remain blocked on Twitter – no more than I deserve.
There is no better sport than football because of the range of emotions experienced as a fan (often within the same 90 minutes). It’s been a welcome distraction, maybe even therapy, from day-to-day life. However, as fans we ought to take a little time to empathise with the pressures that managers and players face today. These people are human beings with their own complex lives and problems.
As Collymore has shown, having a mental health issue isn’t a barrier to a fulfilling and successful career, but the more support we can offer the more success stories there will be.
If football is about nothing else, it’s the hope that “dreaming is believing” – as Lionesses boss Mark Sampson says – not just for the beautiful game, but for life itself.
Read more by Neil Evans here!