An attempted suicide, early retirement, and a damning assessment of football’s duty of care to players with mental illness - former Premier League footballer Marvin Sordell speaks out.
“There had been so many previous points where I had felt so low and had suicidal thoughts, up to the point where it was multiple times a day and it felt like it was just part of my thinking,” says the 28-year-old, speaking exclusively to Yahoo Sport UK.
“One day I just reached breaking point.”
Rewind to 2010 and it’s difficult to foresee the dark cloud that would prematurely end Sordell’s career, having burst onto the football scene so promisingly.
In just his third season as a professional footballer and following two successful loan spells at Wealdstone and Tranmere Rovers, the 18-year-old was thrust into the limelight, becoming a regular starter for Championship club Watford.
It was a stunning start to his career, and 27 goals in 83 appearances led to a big-money move to the Premier League with Bolton Wanderers and a place in Great Britain’s football squad at the London 2012 Olympic Games.
But behind the scenes, Sordell was struggling with his mental health, something the London-born footballer would continue to battle with throughout his career and would ultimately lead to his retirement at a relatively young age.
“I think I’d hit a high quite quickly in my career and it was only then that things started to unravel and I was unsure of my emotional state,” explained Sordell.
“I was in a really bad place emotionally. I struggled with confidence and even though I had been picked to be part of an elite group of players in an elite competition at the 2012 Olympics, I still struggled massively with confidence.
“I found it difficult being in that environment. I felt separated, I didn’t think like I belonged because of my confidence levels. Because I was in such a bad place I couldn’t enjoy it for what it was and push forward.”
In 2013, Sordell attempted to take his own life.
“It was a very dark period, the lowest that I had ever reached,” he added.
“On the day, I hadn’t planned anything. I hadn’t gone about thinking this is the time, this is the day. I was on the way to bed and didn’t expect to wake up. I did and to be honest I didn’t feel any better, I didn’t feel like I had a new lease on life, I didn’t feel like things were going to get any better.
“I just felt numb really, I didn’t feel anything. It didn’t give me a boost of any kind. It didn’t make me feel like I could go again, I just thought I would carry on. Carry on trudging along in life because if I can’t even end it properly then I don’t really know what to do.”
Before the failed attempt to end his life, Sordell had already seen a doctor about his state of mind. The ex-footballer gives a damning account of the way mental health is dealt with at football clubs.
He continued: “I had been really down and couldn’t understand why. I was seeing a doctor and the doctor recommended I go to the Priory and I said, I can’t just go to the Priory because I am a footballer.
“My club wouldn’t say, ‘yeah you can go and take two weeks out’, they had paid a lot of money for me and paid me good wages so that was not going to happen. I would have to just concentrate on football and that was difficult.
“I mentioned to the Professional Footballers’ Association that every club should have a mental health professional of some sort. Whether they are employed by the league, or by the PFA, or an independent governing body but they can’t be employed by the club. Players know, not think, they know if they go to their club with a mental health issue then they’re seen as a disposable player and it will be used against them. Fact.
“These things that happen, whether it is bullying, racism, clubs using things against players, people just see it as part of football and that is what we have been told growing up. ‘You need to be tough, you need to be thick skinned, brush it off, whatever it may be’ that is just the game. In most jobs, HR would say, ‘that isn’t right’. But most clubs don’t have HR departments.”
Sordell added that the number of professional football players struggling with mental health issues is larger than he imaged, and after revealing his own battle with depression, he has had other players contact him for advice and support.
He said: “Footballers with mental health struggles are a lot more common than I imagined.
“When I first spoke out about my struggles with my mental health I had a player contact me and he said he had been going through the same thing but for him it was harder because he had spoke to his club and he had a couple of months left on his contract. He was a player that was playing at his club, he wasn’t seen as the star man but was still playing and featuring regularly.
“When it came to contract renewal time they gave him a rolling month-to-month contract. The club said they couldn’t be sure if he could play in front of a crowd.
“For him, playing in football was his coping mechanism, and so for them to use it against him, without supporting or consulting him, for me that sums up the football industry.
“If that player came out with his story to the media it would make headline news and then it would be forgotten and he wouldn’t get a club again. So it wouldn’t be worth his time. If you are a disposable player in the club’s eyes then eventually it will be swept under the rug. That is what football is like.
“Football is a game that is still catching up to other sports and to society. Football has the resources to be able to bring in mental health professionals very quickly, it’s just down to whether they want to.”
Football is a ruthless game according to Sordell, and the life of a footballer at the top level and lower down the leagues can lead to mental health problems.
The former Burnley striker played for 10 clubs in his career and has experienced the highs of Premier League football but has also played in the lowest professional league, giving him a well-rounded view of the struggles experienced by players.
Sordell said: “I moved clubs a lot and very frequently as well and it is tough, having to move home year on year. You might be at a club for six months or a season and you think, potentially the club might try to move me on. If that is the case it is very difficult to say, ‘well I am just going to stay’. If you do that you’re probably not going to play at your current club and if you have two years left on your contract and don’t play for two years you might not get another contract, so you have to move.
“As well as that if you get offers from other clubs that aren’t local then you’re going to have to move home and move your family. I moved seven times in seven years and these are teams up and down the country every time. How do you settle?”
“That is why you get players who have been told to move out but say, ‘I’m not going to move, my family are settled and it wouldn’t make sense for me to move. I have a contract, you are going to have to honour it.’ A lot of the time these players are called mercenaries or money grabbers, but the situation is, if they move they are moving their whole lives.
Sordell added: “Everything is so instant in football so if you don’t click at a club straight away or be that player in a couple of weeks, people are calling for you to get out. It is very difficult in that period when you’re moving clubs, you are also moving home and trying to find somewhere to live.
“Unless you’re near the top of the game and can live a private life you just get on with what you’re doing. You have the media’s attention, the fans are happy with you and managers, coaches and clubs are fine with you, which is a very rare case, life can be very easy.
“But if you take someone out of that environment and go down a couple of levels where finances are different and contracts are different or to the very top where you’re in the public eye, then you can’t even do anything.
“Life can be very difficult, football is such a worldwide game and there is so much money in it. Everything a top player does is scrutinised, whether it is personal life, family life, on the pitch, training, you are in the limelight 24/7. At the other end of the spectrum, the players are given year to year contracts, they have to move all over the country because that is all you can get and you might have to leave your family and kids behind, or change their schools and sell your home. It is an unstable career.”
Sordell admits he is in a much better mental state now than he has been previously, as he finds ways to deal with depression.
Following 11 seasons as a professional footballer at the end of the last campaign, the ex-Bolton man decided that the time had come to retire from the game aged 28. For Sordell it was the right time to make a change in his life, a decision he believes many other footballers would also love to make.
Since retirement, Sordell has started his own media production company, a passion he discovered whilst still playing football. The former Charlton man has also linked up with Campaign against Living Miserably (CALM), a suicide prevention charity, where he is now an ambassador.
He added: “Slowly and surely I started to find coping mechanisms.
“I am in a much better place now because I know what I need to do when I’m feeling down. Since I have struggled with depression writing has been my biggest coping mechanism. It’s the best by far. It is the one where I know how to communicate and it is something I still do to this day.
“I have so many different hobbies. I have tried cooking a lot, played piano, learnt to fly, learnt languages and film making, which is something that has led me to where I am today.”
Sordell continued: “Sometimes the cause of depression is life. Whatever is happening in your life you have to figure out a way to break that cycle. I was just doing the same thing day in, day out. I was trying to find ways to break that and spark some enjoyment, some new emotions and feelings because if you are doing the same thing and you know the same thing every day is making you feel like that then you need to do something that makes you feel better.
“Trying to find coping mechanisms, being able to speak to people and communicate with people through speaking, writing, something creative, music, whatever it may be, just finding a way to get those emotions out.
“I have tried so many different things, I have changed so many different things, clubs, environment, level, things outside of football and I still find myself going up and then emotionally being brought back down.
“That was the common denominator - football, the game and the industry itself, there was a lot of things that contributed and made me feel the way I did, so I felt like now was the time to move on. I’m very fortunate that I can move onto something else very quickly. A lot of other players I have spoken to in the last few months before I even announced my retirement said they feel the same, they want to make this decision but they’re not in a position where they can. What do they do?”
September 10th marks World Suicide Prevention Day, and Sordell is raffling a host of former professional players’ football shirts as part of a seven day campaign, as a way of getting people to talk about their mental health.
“We are doing a shirt campaign and it’s a football shirt raffle. We are raffling eight shirts of some really big names to get people to talk”, Sordell said.
“It is an ice breaker, hopefully people will say, ‘CALM is a great thing, I didn’t know about them before’. It is a way of reaching out and engage people, especially men, because suicide is a lot more prevalent in men than it is with women, it’s the biggest killer for men under 45.
“CALM want to engage people who want to help others. Bringing people together is what they want to do. Men just don’t talk, and what will get men talking more than football shirts.”
“For me what CALM do better than most is to find ways to have the discussion about mental health and suicide prevention without really going too deep and being too heavy.
“I think them finding ways to engage people in a conversation. They see themselves as a movement rather than a charity, which I think is great because essentially all we want to do is help people help each other and find ways to get people off the brink and back on track really.
“It can be an arm round people, going to a festival or a concert, doing things that engage people to come together. For me, that is the strongest way to get people away from those dark places and towards the light.”
Lets Shirt Talk website: https://letsshirttalk.com/
CALM contact website: https://www.thecalmzone.net/
CALM Phone number: 0800 58 58 58
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