As tends to be the case for a place welcoming Sam Allardyce into the manager’s office halfway through the season, Goodison Park has largely been home to misery and desolation so far this term. Everton have been wretched. Their manager has been sacked. Their well-loved caretaker coach has floundered. All, it’s fair to say, is not well. But over the past few weeks, largely lost amid the stories of firings, hirings and 60-yard wondergoals, has been a development of genuine uplift. For the first time in 12 months or so, Aaron Lennon is back playing football.
When Lennon faded from the first-team picture around the New Year last season, it was to little fuss. Here was a player whose career had stalled, who was a bit-parter in the Everton setup and whose profile had been on the slide for a while. Presumably he was injured; no big deal. In May, news emerged that he had been detained under the Mental Health Act due to concerns about his welfare, and was undergoing treatment for a stress-related illness.
Any details beyond that are very much Lennon’s business and no one else’s, but that he has recovered to the extent that he is back doing his job – and, in the last handful of games, doing it pretty well – is a wholly encouraging story, and not just for Lennon personally.
Football’s relationship with mental health has been written about more extensively – and far more informatively – elsewhere, but the gist of the matter is that the overriding outlook within the sport has over the years been a toxic one. Dominant attitudes – be they from the dressing-room, the boardroom or the terraces – created a culture that cultivated all sorts of unhealthy mind-sets among footballers while simultaneously ridiculing those very responses. To put it crudely, unhappiness was equated with weakness.
Think of Bill Shankly, who would completely shut out injured players from all first-team affairs, writing them off as irrelevant and ignoring them entirely until they were ready to play again. Or the PFA’s director of education, who responded to Steve Harper’s criticism that the organisation does too little to help footballers with depression by calling him “a bit emotional”
John Gregory’s response to Stan Collymore’s admission to hospital with clinical depression – “What’s he got to be depressed about when he’s on 20 grand a week?” – is the most often cited demonstration of this, but it’s only the most unambiguous. Similar attitudes manifest themselves in more insidious ways, too. Think of Bill Shankly, who would completely shut out injured players from all first-team affairs, writing them off as irrelevant and ignoring them entirely until they were ready to play again. Or the PFA’s director of education, who responded to Steve Harper’s criticism that the organisation does too little to help footballers with depression by calling him “a bit emotional” (the PFA have since apologised). Ten years ago Spurs fans would sing triumphantly about Sol Campbell being “on the verge of lunacy” as a matter of routine.
That was 10 years ago, of course. Shankly’s actions were five decades ago, Gregory’s two. Times have changed. But the Harper episode was last year, so clearly there’s plenty of changing still to be done.
But that’s not to say advances aren’t happening. Lennon’s return from his lay-off comes at a time when the stigma attached to mental health issues is being slowly lifted within football, something that is demonstrated most plainly in the fact that more and more of those affected are publicly discussing the matter. These figures range from Paul Merson to Chris Kirkland to Clarke Carlisle, to Lennon himself, who said upon returning to training in July: “The support I’ve had from Everton, Spurs, their fans, football fans and concerned members of the general public has been incredible. It’s important for me to emphasise that there is amazing help out there and anyone feeling anything out of the ordinary should seek support because it’s great and good to talk.”
It’s hard to imagine that sort of cheery openness being commonplace even five years ago, let alone 10 or 20, and public statements like that are not just reflective of a healthier culture but a valuable contributor to it, too.
Back in May, a fortnight or so after news had emerged about Lennon’s illness, the final game was played at the old White Hart Lane. And in amongst all the fireworks and folklore and merry nostalgia was a brief but heartening rendition of “One Aaron Lennon”, sung with no little relish and catharsis, overwhelming by young men. A small moment, maybe, but a telling one.
Undoubtedly, progress is being made.