Exclusive: Clubs are letting players down when it comes to emotional well-being, says PFA chief

Ben Rumsby
Aaron Lennon's case highlights football's growing problem - Everton FC

Clubs on Wednesday night stood accused of failing to do enough to look after their players’ emotional well-being after it emerged that Aaron Lennon had been detained under the Mental Health Act.

The head of player welfare at the Professional Footballers’ Association claimed that some teams needed to do more to meet their “duty of care” obligations and revealed that more current and former players than ever were coming forward to seek help.

Michael Bennett joined Nigel Clough, the Burton Albion manager, in suggesting that clubs prioritised their players’ physical well-being at the expense of their mental health.

“For me, personally, the PFA are doing what we’re doing and kind of leading the way in regards to that,” Bennett told The Telegraph. “But you want then to get the clubs to buy into the process as well, because they’ve got a duty of care to their players in regards to that.

“You know what my argument is? They do a lot of work on the physical aspect of things, getting players physically fit to perform on a Saturday and a Tuesday – whenever – but not enough is done on the emotional side. I’m trying to speak with the clubs, to get them to be aware of that and see what they can do to aid that.”

It emerged on Tuesday night that Lennon, the former England winger, had been admitted to hospital for assessment two days earlier after being spotted near a busy thoroughfare next to the M602.

The Everton player’s plight drew a wave of sympathy from within and outside football, with his representatives confirming on Wednesday that he was continuing to receive treatment for “a stress-related illness” with the support of his club.

Nigel Clough agreed that players need to be better looked after Credit: Dave evitts

Bennett told The Telegraph that the PFA had reached out to the 30-year-old, having been given no prior warning he may be suffering.

Clough, the son of legendary Nottingham Forest manager Brian, who fought a long battle with alcoholism, said: “There is enough money in the game now to make sure players are looked after. 

“It’s preventive as well, because people should be going into clubs and talking to players, managers and medical staff to ask if there are any worries. Heart-screening is brilliant, that’s a physical thing, but you want the mental side to be dealt with, too. It shouldn’t have to get to this point. It should have been identified earlier. With all the money available, it shouldn’t get to the stage where someone is detained under the Mental Health Act. That’s far too severe.”

The PFA created a welfare department five years ago, as well as launching a nationwide network of counsellors to provide support to its members. Bennett revealed that the numbers using the service had increased “year on year”, with 62 current and 98 former players doing so last year. The number of counsellors has risen over the same period from 28 to more than a 100.

Bennett said he expected the number of players coming forward to grow, saying: “Obviously, when you raise awareness to our members in regards to the support we offer them, you’re going to find that people are going to come forward.”

He said the PFA was now offering “welfare and well-being workshops” to clubs, adding: “We’ve come a long way in a short space of time.”

Lennon is far from the only footballer or sports star to experience mental health issues, with a 2014 study commissioned by global players’ union FifPro revealing as many as one in four suffered from depression or anxiety.

Physical well-being is much more important to clubs than emotional well-being Credit: Getty images

FifPro Division Europe president Bobby Barnes, who is also deputy chief executive of the PFA, said: “What other job can you be in whereby your performance is assessed by the whole world every week? For most people in the real world, they perhaps get their performance assessed, whether it be an annual appraisal or perhaps with their boss, or whatever. But footballers are effectively appraised by their bosses and the general public every week, aren’t they – and in a not-too-comfortable scenario.

“If a player plays badly, the world is on his back and then he has a real pressure over the coming week to ensure he puts that right in his next performance.”

He added: “The world is changing and the world is evolving and I think, where we are now, is that people are much more open to the reality that footballers aren’t divorced from the real world and they’re subject to the same stresses and strains and problems as anyone else.

“I think people look at footballers and obviously look at the fact they are in this sought-after profession, but with that comes the extra stresses and the pressures of performance, of whether you’re in the team, whether you’re out the team, whether you’re injured, whether you feel as though you’re letting yourself down, letting your team down, letting your family down.

“I’ve always had a theory that footballers aren’t so much driven by the attempt for success but psychological studies have shown that a lot of motivation for footballers is actually a fear of failure. Sometimes, success is a relief more than a source of joy.”

The Premier League said it has been working with clubs to nominate a “mental health ambassador” who will be the main point of contact for their players in regards to assistance. Support will be available at all times from the League and the charity it is working with – If U Care Share, which promotes emotional well-being in young people.

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