Just a Minute: Why Mental Health Is Worth Delaying FA Cup Ties For
Jimmy Carr used to tell a joke about being stopped in the street by one of those clipboard-wielding charity muggers who asked him if he could spare her a minute for cancer research. “All right,” replied the comedian. “But I don’t think we’ll get much done.” Over the weekend, in collaboration with Public Health England’s Every Mind Matters and the Heads Up campaign, the Football Association asked all those – fans, players, backroom staff – at football grounds to set aside the same amount of time in order to “Take A Minute” to think about or discuss looking after their mental health. While the good achieved by the initiative is impossible to gauge, it was almost certainly a worthwhile and beneficial endeavour.
Traditionalists who have bemoaned the paucity of third round games that kick off at three o’clock on a Saturday afternoon in recent years may well have rolled their eyes upon first discovering there were none whatsoever in this year’s calendar. In the interests of promoting mental health awareness, all FA Cup matches kicked off 60 seconds after their more customary TV time slots, prompting double takes and puzzlement in the build-up. Already, the FA had got people talking. As a sports governing body they are much maligned and often with good reason, but on this occasion they deserve no little praise for getting fully behind what is difficult to see as anything other than a very good idea.
There will, of course, be those who are of the opinion that, while there may well be a time and place for such apparently happy-clappy moments of reflection, the seconds directly preceding the cut-and-thrust of a competitive football match are hardly the most opportune time for all present to pause, take stock and consider their own and each other’s feelings. However, it could be argued the benefits immediately became apparent in the tight confines of Spotland, when fans of Rochdale and Newcastle briefly joined each other in cheerful song, even if was just to raucously traduce the good name of a well-known broadcaster and footballing pantomime villain who had the misfortune of being forced to go about his work while sitting right among them.
While the stigma surrounding mental health issues has been hugely reduced in recent years, a statistically significant increase in the UK suicide rate means the importance of continued discussion on the subject simply cannot be overstated. In 2018 6,507 people took their own lives in Britain, an increase of 686 on the previous year. That is an alarming number of people to have plumbed such depths of despair they could see no other way out and many of these will have worked hard to conceal their emotional torment from loved ones who might have been able to help if only they’d known.
As in all walks of life, there are no shortage of football folk who have suffered from mental health problems, with one of the most high profile and heartbreaking cases being that of Gary Speed. Universally loved by those who knew him and widely admired by those who did not, the Wales manager gave every indication of not having a care in the world when he appeared as a studio guest on an episode of Football Focus one Saturday in November 2011. Before driving home, he would watch a game at BBC HQ with his close friend, Alan Shearer, during which the pair made plans for the following weekend. Early the following morning Speed was found dead and news of his tragedy sent seismic shockwaves through the global football community. Absolutely no one had seen it coming.
Struggling to make sense of it all in the days that followed, a clearly bereft Shearer spoke poignantly and at length about Speed, traumatised by the realisation that while he had known him as well as almost anyone, it seemed he hadn’t really known him at all. “This just doesn’t happen to one of your best mates,” he said in an emotional interview, before wondering aloud why Speed hadn’t just spoken to him and asked for help. His was a painful lament that will be all too familiar to so many others directly affected by similar, sudden and totally unexpected loss.
In a society where more and more people suffering from mental health issues are willing to seek assistance, record numbers of professional players are seeking support, according to the Professional Footballers’ Association. Midway through last year, its director of player welfare, Michael Bennett, said the union was on course to help “double or treble” the number of players in 2019 than it had in the 12 months previously. With more and more players feeling comfortable enough to admit they cannot cope as the stresses of life get them down, it seems only natural that those who pay to watch them might follow suit. It is to be hoped the weekend’s Take A Minute initiative could help to further nudge them in the right direction.
“This time last year, I wanted to kill myself,” wrote the former Arsenal and England midfielder turned pundit, Paul Merson, in a commendably candid newspaper column timed to coincide with the weekend’s mental health awareness initiative. “I’m telling you this because I hope it helps someone. If even one person reads this and it helps them, then it will be worth it.” As the old saying goes, it is OK not to be OK.
The Guardian Sport