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Darren Ambrose on abuse, pressure and mental health in football

Former Palace midfielder Darren Ambrose spoke to Crystal Palace F.C about mental health in football; written for the Aston Villa matchday programme.

The only thing I wanted as a kid was to become a professional footballer. No one could tell me otherwise. Today, my nine-year-old son is part of Ipswich Town’s Academy and, after 15-years in the game, I can see all the difficulty ahead of him that I didn’t realise at his age.

I played and lived the game; I know the ups, I know the downs – and there are a lot of them, believe it or not. On this page I normally look back at some of the highs I enjoyed in football. But this once, during Mental Health Awareness Week, it’s the lows I’m going to focus on today. I hope my son doesn’t experience them like I did throughout periods in my career.

I’m not writing this for the sake of it, or for sympathy, and I’m definitely not trying to stop supporters from expressing themselves about football, but around 6,000 people took their own life in 2020, with many of them football fans. If just one person reads this and then feels more comfortable discussing mental health, that’s reason enough for me.

The first challenge my son and every other young footballer has to handle is the threat of rejection. He’s been with Ipswich since he was six; if he continues to the age of 18 and gets told he’s not good enough, that’s going to have a massive, massive effect. I had a lot of friends who wanted to become professional footballers and when they were released at 14 or 15, they got into the wrong crowds, into drugs and couldn’t handle the situation.

But if you do make it, you’ll still hit setbacks soon enough. Throughout the youth system, you’re told you’re the best player by parents and coaches. You spend years hearing that. Then when you reach the first team, it takes a couple of bad games and reading a few things online and suddenly you’re being told the opposite. That’s really tough to take and wasn’t something I dealt with greatly.

My first encounter with that was when I signed for Newcastle having just turned 19. I got in my car and a show called The Three Legends was playing on the radio. They were absolutely destroying me. I switched the radio off but it stayed on my mind for a long time. I’d come through the ranks at Ipswich and everyone loved me, so when I started getting stick I couldn’t handle it.

I steadily became a lot tougher mentally over two years with Newcastle but started to find abuse difficult again towards the back end of my Charlton career. I played in a way I thought would please faceless people online and would read their criticism straight after a game. I wasn’t even on social media but I’d write my name in the search bar and that became a habit for six months or so. My family knew what I was doing and found it silly, but reading what these people said was an addiction.

Being told you’re crap or had a bad game is easy enough to handle though. It’s when things spill into your personal life that your mental health is at risk. My family, who haven’t put themselves in the public eye, have to put up with abuse just as I do. I faced Charlton for the first time after joining Birmingham up at St Andrew’s and my box was directly behind the away fans. A group of ‘lads’, 16-20-year-olds, got to know that behind them was my box with my family: my wife and kids. They started giving my wife abuse and she’s not one to ignore it, so was understandably giving it back a bit. Then something popped up on Twitter – it said: ‘Had a row with Ambrose’s wife today. Ended up spitting in her face.’ The replies back were all: ‘Brilliant. Buzzing that happened.’

Photo:Dan Weir/PPAUK.

Another time, I found myself walking around Bluewater Shopping Centre looking out for a person who’d said something like ‘I’ve just headbutted Ambrose in Bluewater.’ He’d obviously seen me there with my missus and two young daughters, so I was looking around in case he was nearby. Stuff like that can get to you.

Even today, my four children have Instagram and TikTok and we have to keep an eye on their Direct Messages; they get abuse because their dad’s an ex-pro-turned-pundit. Sometimes it’s about me, sometimes it’s not.

I probably receive one-two percent of what some footballers get, but I’m not ashamed to admit that me or my family being abused affected my career. A lot of people who knew me at a young age say I should have played for England. But the mental strain of football held me back. I didn’t realise I wasn’t tough enough mentally until it was too late, and I couldn’t handle the abuse that followed.

Players, including me, get death threats. Our families are targeted. That – on top of normal pressure – can be detrimental to your mental health, but the topic was taboo in my changing rooms. Men’s feelings, in particular, were not up for discussion and, if you spoke about it, you’d be ridiculed.

Keeping your feelings to yourself isn’t tough though; it’s not weak to say how you are. It’s difficult for me to say this because I’m like most men, as is my dad and a lot of men I know, but I’m getting there and trying to share my feelings.

I was in the same team as Gary Speed. He was someone I would go to if I was struggling or had an issue. He was the leader of the team. You would never have said he was struggling mentally, never the person to take his own life, but no one knows what’s going on when the door shuts at the end of the day.

The only advice I can give is this: let people know what’s going on. The pubs are open now – take the time to go with your mates and chat about your life and how you are mentally. There’s still a stigma around mental health and people are still uncomfortable talking about it, but it’s got to become a part of daily life.

I’ve gone on about footballers’ mental health because it’s my own experience, but everyone has their personal battles. My son and every other young, aspiring footballer is going to face huge challenges whether they make it in the game or not. Whatever happens to them, I can only hope they grow up in a world where taking care of their mental health is completely normal.

Footballer or not, we’re all human beings and all need a bit of help. Please do talk to those around you and, if you need a professional hand, don’t hesitate to use the free services below.

Samaritans, open for anyone, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year: 116 123 or email jo@samaritans.org

CALM, open 5pm-midnight every day for men: 0800 58 58 58

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