UTD Unscripted: It's time to talk

Saturday 10 October 2020 09:00

Retiring at 28 through injury, it took me a bit of time to get over bitterness about football.

I didn’t watch it for many years. It was probably only 18 months or two years ago that I came across some acceptance that I did achieve a little bit in my football career. For years there were too many regrets, but now I’m proud when I look back.

For me, there are two outstanding high points of my time at United: winning the FA Youth Cup and making my first-team debut. The Youth Cup was talked about all the time and the importance of it to the football club was underlined to all the players. Manchester United prepares you well for it so, by the time it came around, we were all ready. To win it in 2003 and score in the final was huge for me.

When I really evaluate my career, though, reaching the first team — even just playing a few short minutes in our League Cup win over Leeds at Elland Road in 2003 — was the biggest achievement. It’s something nobody can ever take away from me. Looking back now, I am pretty proud of it.

It was a unique game because the gaffer was up in the stands through suspension and Alan Smith, who was at Leeds at the time, threw a bottle towards his own fans for getting on the team’s back. It went into extra-time and Eric Djemba-Djemba scored a late winner for us to make it 3-2. I came on during extra-time. It was a full house at Elland Road and I’d been getting dog’s abuse from the fans while I warmed up, but I had no nerves at all. I got a telling-off at the end because I was on our byline and flicked the ball over Ian Harte’s head. Luckily I pulled it off — if I hadn’t then I think I’d have been released the next day — but I got a telling-off afterwards. In fact, I also got a b******ing off Nicky Butt too for a bad pass, so I had a couple of tellings-off, but that didn’t compare to the feeling of walking off the Elland Road pitch victorious after my first senior appearance.

I was at United for seven years in total, from 15 to 21, and I’ve got so many great memories from that time. The club were great with me as a player and great with me after I finished playing. I’ve joined the Former Players’ Association, so I’ve always been made to feel a part of the club. I still go back to United now. I still speak to a number of lads who were there at the same time as me too and, whether they made loads of appearances for the first team or didn’t make a single one, they’re still built the Manchester United way. There’s just something about the place. When you bump into someone from United, it’s almost an unspoken thing that you recognise in each other.

There were so many little things to remember from my time at the club — one that stands out in my mind and still makes me laugh is that I didn’t eat butter for 10 years because of Gary Neville. My body fat had gone above 10 per cent and he’d found out about it, so when he saw me putting butter on my toast he screamed across the canteen to let everybody know that my body fat had gone above 10 per cent. I literally did not eat butter again until I’d finished playing. That always lived with me. If I saw butter, I was scared to death of it.

I used to think Gary was on my case all the time, but it’s only when you look back that you come to appreciate that he was just trying to make you the best player you could be, for the good of the club. He was driving me on. It was the same for other lads too. Gary just had that drive, that want for everyone to be at a standard, and it was only after I finished playing that I realised he was doing us all a huge favour.

Eddie Johnson says

“There are two outstanding high points of my time at United: winning the FA Youth Cup and making my first-team debut. It’s something nobody can ever take away from me.”

At the time, I was as you’d expect of a teenager. In the youth ranks of football clubs, especially one the size of United, there’s a lot of enjoyment and energy. I lived up to the expectations of the environment. I was one of the liveliest players around the academy dressing room, always the loud one, always the joker.

That was the mask I wore.

That was my way of not letting my team-mates know what was going on.

Sometimes I could get to the training ground, be in a good mood, train really well, play really well for a period of time, but then if I had a bad game — even if I played well but missed a couple of chances — that would really knock my confidence. It would take me a good couple of months to turn it around from there because it would have snowballed.

The cycle was always the same: I miss a chance, then the thoughts follow later.

I’m not good enough to be here.

I’m going to get dropped.

The manager’s not going to like me.

I’m going to be released.

My career will be over.

I’ll be the lad who went to United and failed.

I just couldn’t get a grip on it.

If I’m honest, I struggled with the pressure of being at Manchester United and living up to those expectations. I’m from Chester which, although it’s a city, it’s more like a village in the sense that everybody knows everybody else’s business. I was in high school when I signed for United, so it was in the local newspapers and so on, and that carried a weight with it which I don’t think I dealt with well.

There were a lot of people from where I grew up who were nice to my face but — I came to learn — were desperate for me to fail. There was a level of attention that came with being a Manchester United player, and that’s true of the Academy, Reserves and first team. There’s a notoriety that comes with the job that other people don’t always take kindly to. I knew who those people were who wanted me to fail and, on one hand, I was trying to prove them wrong, but at the same time that increased pressure on me and it was affecting my thoughts, emotions and feelings and ultimately affecting my performance.

Wearing a mask around the place was so draining. As soon as I got home from training, I’d draw the curtains, turn my phone off, lie on the couch, put the TV on, sleep all afternoon, wake up, eat and go back to bed until the morning.

I’d ignore life until it was time to go back to the training ground. I could cope there.

I could take myself away from everything when I was just playing football.

I didn’t suffer from nerves at all while I was playing. I could have something go wrong during the game and I’d be fine until after the game finished. After that, those negative thoughts came back in, my mood spiralled and I just wanted to get home, draw the curtains and shut life out until it was time to play again. Football was my escape but also the cause of a lot of problems and I didn’t get a grip of it for a long time.

The club did put me into some talking therapy for a period of time, but the problem was that I didn’t stick to it. I’d speak to somebody for half an hour, feel alright and think the problems had gone away. I didn’t want to keep going back to the doctor, saying that I’d given up on it previously but felt like I needed to give it another go. It wasn’t something that was talked about as much then as it is now. I didn’t want the manager or the reserve team manager finding out. I went to the doctor but didn’t want to keep going back and making a big issue in case it would affect my chances of playing at the weekend, getting a new contract or whatever.

So I just kept it in.

Eddie Johnson says

“Gary saw me putting butter on my toast and screamed across the canteen. He just had that drive, that want for everyone to be at a standard. He was doing us all a huge favour.”

That led to my mental state spiralling out of control and I was just getting through as I could. Without noticing it too much, my performances were dropping, I went out on loan to Coventry at 18 and over the season I did okay, but when I look back my season was inconsistent. That mirrored my mental state. When my confidence was up, I was doing really well. If something knocked that, my confidence went instantly, my performances dropped and my head went straight away. I had to work even harder to get back in the team. That followed me throughout my career. I’ve been from the top to the bottom and it wasn’t my talent. It was what I was dealing with off the pitch.

I don’t doubt my talent for one second. I had enough talent, but when you’re at a football club like Manchester United, everyone has the talent. It’s not the talent that decides your progress. It’s the extra bit, the commitment, that gets you past everything. I listened to the UTD Podcast with Roy Carroll recently and he spoke about a similar thing to me, where he had ‘friends’ who took him in a direction he didn’t want to go in, but when he had his personal troubles those people were gone and he was left to deal with the aftermath himself. I had a bit of that as well which maybe affected my professionalism when I was at United.

I think my lack of professionalism started to affect my performances, and when that happened I struggled to keep a balance mentally. I was either massively high from having a good day’s training or scoring a couple of goals, or a bad day’s training would send me into a spiral.

The writing was on the wall for my United career in 2006 because I’d been on loan at Coventry for a year in the Championship, then at Crewe for a year in the Championship. Between those two seasons, Wayne Rooney had signed, Ruud van Nistelrooy was still there, Louis Saha was still there, so I was really down the pecking order at United. I’d played two years of Championship football so I didn’t want to go back to United, train with the first team and play Reserves football. I had the bug for senior football. After my year at Crewe I knew my time was up, it didn’t even get to the conversation of extending my stay at United. Even if they’d offered me a deal and I’d accepted it, I probably would have been out on loan again and I wanted to set some roots down. My focus was on getting back to Premier League football and I had a number of offers to go elsewhere. Even though they were League One, I joined Bradford because they were ambitious and I thought it was an opportunity to go, get a decent length run, play week in, week out and slowly — in my mind — Bradford would get back to the Championship and then, after a couple of strong years in the Championship, I’d either get back to the Premier League with them or people would see my abilities and a top-flight team would sign me.

That was the ideal.

I also thought that after I’d left Manchester United, some of the weight would lift off me. I’d still be playing professional football, so nobody could accuse me of failing; I’d still be earning good money, still sort of succeeding. I wouldn’t be that failure that I’m petrified of, that people want me to be. A bit of a fresh start, doing what I do.

But underlying issues were still there and I had two years of complete inconsistency at Bradford — after starting the first 10 games, my form dipped, struggles kicked in again and it would take me two or three weeks to get back even into a mindset before I started working towards getting my place back in the team. That was my whole time at Bradford. It wasn’t the fresh start I’d hoped for. Bradford actually got relegated into League Two at that point. I was out of contract and because I was one of the higher earners I was allowed to leave.

That was the first time I ever thought that football wasn’t for me. Time to hang up my boots and find a new way of life.

I was conflicted over what to do. Chester City offered me a contract, I went and played 10 games. The club weren’t in a great state, I was in an even worse state mentally and that never worked out.

That convinced me that it was definitely it, until I had a call from Adrian Heath, who had been assistant manager while I was at Coventry. He was manager at Austin Aztex in the US and offered me a route back into the game. I said I’d go over for a couple of weeks and ended up finding a new home out there, the chance to concentrate on my football and I had two years which were really good for me and resulted in me being bought by Portland Timbers in the MLS. I thought I was on the way back up, I felt better for a good couple of years being away from the distractions of home and that turned into a good move for me.

Eddie Johnson says

“I struggled to keep a balance mentally. I was either massively high from scoring a couple of goals, or a bad day’s training would send me into a spiral.”

I was doing well until the second week of pre-season, when I picked up an injury which knocked me for six. I struggled for form for six months, managed to get back into the first team, scored on my first start and then before the next game a complete accident rerouted things. We were playing LA Galaxy, who had David Beckham in their ranks, so I was really looking forward to seeing him again, but then I had the ball smashed in my face by one of my own players during the warm-up. A total fluke, but I had a concussion. I sat in the dressing room with no clue what was going on and had to sit that game out. Then 11 days later, having only trained once, I was back travelling with the first team. The manager asked me if I wanted to play, I said I did even though I still had a few issues, a few headaches, and 20 minutes into the game I was knocked out cold and woke up in hospital in Houston. That was my season over. I dealt with all the concussion issues for the next few months until I learned to live with them, then during pre-season for the next year, a goalkeeper came out during training, and wiped me out. I took a blow to the side of the head and that was my career over at 28 on medical advice.

For the first period of my retirement, a weight lifted. I stayed in the US for a while getting a little bit of treatment on my head, so it was like a little holiday. I hadn’t really accepted everything. Three or four months later I came home to the UK and spiralled majorly.

I was just doing anything I could to change the way I felt. Drink, sleep, anything to avoid life for the foreseeable. Anything would do. If it was drink, I’d drink a lot. If it was bad food, I’d stuff my face with bad food. If it was FIFA, I’d play all day and night. Anything I could do to occupy myself; that was the answer at that time.

Obviously that can’t go on forever. That’s when I went into residential treatment in the US for three months because I was in such a dark place. I didn’t know treatment was going to be the answer, but I called a former physio in the US who I’d spent a lot of time with, and I think I was on a plane within two days. MLS and the players’ union took really good care of me, with literally no questions asked. I got sent to a great place that was just what I needed at that time and helped me more with the acceptance that my playing days were done. I don’t know if we went deep enough to sort out some of the other issues, but at least I found some acceptance that football was done.

I came back to the UK and did the typical thing of moving into coaching. I was at Dundee’s Under-20s and first team for two years, and after that I went to work at KPMG on a programme aimed to help athletes transition out of any sport. We built a programme with them for players who wanted to study while playing or afterwards find something in the wider world away from sport. During that process, the EFL’s education arm put me in touch with Sporting Chance.

A lot of people will have heard of Sporting Chance because it was founded 20 years ago by former Arsenal and England captain Tony Adams, first and foremost because he had his own well-documented mental health problems throughout his career. He recognised that professional sport is a unique environment in mental and emotional terms, so those within the industry really need specialist support.

I now help out with their player engagement, to make players more aware of the services that they offer, why they would engage with us if they need to. I’ve got a broad job description and my favourite part is engaging with players. I’ve given talks to academy lads, Premier League squads, individual players and probably done well over 100 talks now. Sometimes players will stick around after a session and tell me about concerns they’ve got, if they might be doing too much of this or that.

I like that these people can relate to how I felt when I was dropped or injured or pressurised. I enjoy seeing the looks on their faces when I say that I couldn’t handle the pressure or couldn’t handle the expectation of my mates back home.

You can see the moment of realisation in their minds: that’s how I feel.

That’s what I get from it.

Eddie Johnson says

“Professional sport is a unique environment in mental and emotional terms, so those within the industry really need specialist support.”

I don’t do it for the money or anything like that; I do it because I can help someone think slightly differently about things. I used to think it was just me. I used to look around the dressing room and wonder how somebody looked so relaxed — why are they succeeding and I’m not.

I know now that it’s not just me and it’s my role now to make players realise that they’re not alone either. Knowing that I can make a difference and get players help is the reason that I do it. We’re quite low-key, some people haven’t heard of Sporting Chance or Tony Adams, who founded the charity, and they don’t know what we do. The charity has a 24-hour confidential helpline and can connect professional athletes with a therapist close to their home or club, or, if required, a space in our residential clinic for addictive disorders, whether they’re struggling with gambling, alcohol or other drugs. The message is simply that if they’re dealing with something they don’t feel right about, even if they just have a half-hour chat with somebody on the phone and never call us again, but they feel better, then we’re happy.

I know Tony well after working with him for the last couple of years and when you spend time with him, you get the sense of what really drove him to start the charity. He’d be the first to admit that the game has changed in the last 20 years, but the pressures and problems remain. We helped over 650 players last year and, especially with everything going on in the world at the moment, our services are more crucial than ever.

No players who come into football are just doing it for themselves. It doesn’t matter if you’re at Rochdale’s academy or United’s academy: you’re dealing with a high level of expectation from all around you; from your friends, family, school, city, even your country. You’re self-referring yourself into an environment where you’re putting yourself up for scrutiny and rejection and pressure and unique effects on your emotions. Some people can deal with emotions fine, some people just can’t. Rejection and failure were the biggest things that weighed on me.

I’m providing the role now that I could have done with 20 years ago. The game has moved on, people are putting services on more to encourage talking and engagement, so they know there are places to go if you’re not feeling great. At United, there are lots of great people who players can talk to, but if — like me — they’d rather take their concerns outside the club and talk to somebody else, we’re just an alternative; an extension of the club, but totally confidential. We recognise that it’s hard enough picking up the phone, never mind people finding out about it.

If you’re at Manchester United, people think life is perfect. They see the salary, the fame, the pleasure of playing football, and assume that everything is perfect. You’ve got everything because you play for Manchester United. That’s not true. Money doesn’t solve anything. Fame doesn’t solve anything. When players start getting attacked on social media, money and fame aren’t a shield for your mental health or your strength. Those blows land. The perception that you’re not allowed to have a mental health issue in football is still around in some sections of the public and that’s one thing that holds players back from being open about issues.

People also struggle identifying emotions. I didn’t understand that I was feeling pressure and fear of failure until I spoke to someone about it, but it’s difficult to spot. I think it’s a male thing a lot of the time and there’s a stigma of people expecting you to be alright. You’ve got everything because you play football. That’s not true though. Turn off the lights at night and you’re just you. You’re not a footballer. You might be in a nice house, but it’s still just you inside your head in one room. No matter how big your house is, how nice your car is, how much money you’ve got in the bank, it’s still just you and your thoughts in your head. Being in that place, if you’re getting abuse from the media or social media, it’s not an easy thing to take; I don’t mind who you are. It’s then all about being open enough to go to somebody and say that the abuse you’re getting is causing issues. Anonymous accounts leaving horrendous comments… luckily I never had to go through that.

I’m open and honest now, I’m happy to tell my story to anyone who wants to listen to it. I’ve been there and done a lot of work on my issues. It’s something I still have to work at and it’s not something I imagine will ever go away, but for a lot of people it would be difficult to be open and honest in public about feeling a certain way.

To anybody struggling, in or out of football, I’d just give one bit of advice: find a way to talk. Try to find someone that you can share something with, whether it’s a partner, parent, friend, someone on the end of a phone, whoever. If you can open up and talk about how you’re feeling… lifting that weight off your shoulders, no matter how big or small, can set you off on the road to feeling a little bit better. Being open and honest and talking can make a huge difference.