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This article was written on 27 Oct 2015, and is filled under Uncategorized.

The unbalanced love of Welsh football

When I had my breakdown, I can remember lying there, on my side, and hearing on the news that Gary Speed had killed himself. To the uninitiated, Gary Speed was the coach of the Welsh football team and his death made all the people who knew him and the wider football world suddenly start to talk about mental health. It was fleeting, perhaps, but it was also noticeable.

The people he had worked with on the TV highlights programme, Match of the Day, said that he was in the studio shortly before and seemed his usual, ebullient self. Members of his immediate family, as is often the case with those close to people who kill themselves, were shaken by the shock of what was, to them, a baffling event. And yet hours after Match of the Day and surrounded by his family, Speed had killed himself.

Suicide and football often have uncomfortably close links. Robert Enke, the goalkeeper for the German national team and Hanover 96 killed himself after a long coexistence with mental illness. Clark Carlisle, former head of the players’ union in the UK, is honest about having attempted suicide in the past and many other players, beset by problems with substance abuse, gambling or the decline of their careers, have walked a similar path.

Finding parallels between football and their own lives is something that supporters tend to do a lot. A bad year is often seen reflected in a relegation struggle and a good one with a promotion campaign or a cup run. Ultimately, it’s as tenable as wearing lucky pants on match day or believing that by going or not going to games you can influence the result, so I’m aware that what I’m about to say is similarly stupid.

And it’s that I identify with the Welsh team to a foolish degree. I was born in Nottingham and, other than a family holiday that I can only remember because someone bought me an orange Dinky toy, have no connection to the place at all. Welsh people would be wholly justified in thinking I was an idiot and the country as a whole is entirely unaware of me.

In the resurgence of their team, however, I see something close to hope. After Speed’s suicide and with a team in mourning for their lost leader, they appointed Chris Coleman to be manager. He masterminded one of the most unlikely renaissances seen in international football and, in October this year, Wales qualified for their first major tournament, the European Championships in France next year, since they were knocked out of the World Cup by a goal from a very, very young Pele in 1958.

Many years ago, I used to work as a football journalist and am enough of a pragmatist to know that the chance of them getting out of their group next year is not high. Depending on the draw, which could place them with any number of teams possessed of a fearsome reputation, they may struggle. But it seems like this misses the point.

Expectations around Wales after Gary Speed’s death were non-existent. They were drawn in a group for European qualification which included perennial dark horses Belgium, as well as the perennial overachievers, Bosnia Herzegovina and Israel, who are capable of doing enough damage to rivals’ aspirations to leave the most creative team feeling thwarted. Wales, though, soon set about defying predictions.

They beat Belgium, one memorable night in Cardiff, fought Bosnia and Herzegovina to a standstill and thrashed Wales. In short, they failed to heed the pundits and punched well above their weight. A nation of three million, where football was the poor relation to rugby and whose team were a byword for international oblivion, had returned to the international stage.

Of course, I hope that this means I will return to sanity. Well, that’s the ideal. More prosaically, this means nothing of the kind, but it does show that out of the ashes of a tragedy wrought by depression, they survived a period of time when all must have seemed lost and hopeless and fashioned something rather beautiful from what emerged. And if you’ve had depression as well, then you’ll know how ardently we all hope for that.

 

If you’re struggling, call Samaritans on 116 123. I did. It saved my li

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