Gary Bloom will walk into Oxford United’s dressing room about 90 minutes before their home match against Doncaster Rovers on Saturday. Usual drill; handshakes, the meet and greet and then off to do the rounds, checking in with the medical staff before offering a word here or there with individual players, little prompts around “what we’ve been talking about,” reinforcing those positive messages.
He will listen to Karl Robinson’s team talk, gauging reactions, “looking at the expressions on the faces of players,” and then speak to the captain and the other leaders of the squad, reminding them that where they go, others follow. Then, when the buzzer sounds at five to three, when adrenaline surges and the heart-rate quickens, he will be part of the huddle, arms linked, giving everybody “a sense that we’re a united group.”
Bloom is not a first-team coach, a specialist in strength-and-conditioning or analysis. He is not a physio or a kit-man or a doctor, not in the traditional sense, and he is not a sports psychologist, either, even if he strays into this area. Bloom is a psychotherapist, whose day job is
“treating things like anxiety, depression, addictive behaviours and relationship issues,”Gary Bloom
and Oxford, the League One club, are true pioneers.
“This role does not exist (anywhere else) in English football,”
he says… He does not wish to stir controversy for the sake of it, but this stuff is important and Bloom makes reference to the suicide of Gary Speed in 2011 when he was Wales manager. “Obviously, I hope I’m wrong, but unless football deals better with mental health issues, particularly for ex-players, where there has been a huge increase in referrals, my fear is that it might happen again,” Bloom says. “I stress the word might. I just think everything is there, so why wouldn’t it?”
Today, October 10, is World Mental Health Day and football is playing its part. Mind is the official charity partner of the EFL and its awareness campaign “Goals Worth Talking About” features eight commissions of street art. At the headquarters of A Love Supreme, the Sunderland fanzine, adjacent to the Stadium of Light, there is a beautiful depiction of the goal Carlos Edwards scored against Burnley in 2007, securing the team’s promotion to the Premier League.
Football has power and football starts conversations; the correlation with mental health is obvious. “We’ve still got a long way to go and I think there are some generational issues, but we’ve begun to see a shift in terms of talking about it,” Kathy McKenna-Churchill, a training manager at Mind, says. “Players who have experienced mental health issues and talked about them have started to break down the stigma.
“For us, that’s one of the biggest barriers to accessing services — the stigma or embarrassment associated with something that’s about life. We’re emotional beings. But from an early age, we’re often being told we shouldn’t be talking about them or that we should ‘man up’. I’m suicide prevention coordinator for Sunderland so, for me, the earlier we can have the conversation, maybe the more lives we can save.
“One in four people will experience mental health problems, so if you think about a crowd of 40,000 at Sunderland, it means 10,000 people are going through that. And because it’s fluid, it doesn’t stay with them, it moves to the next 10,000 and the next. Football and emotion go hand in hand and the emotions we feel at the match are also the emotions we feel as part of life. Just imagine all those people in there getting the message that it’s OK to talk about it.”
It is not just about awareness and spray-painted pictures. Mind have worked “very closely with Sunderland” and are delivering mental health training for club staff. They will also have a dedicated space at the Beacon of Light, Sunderland’s brilliant Foundation, before home games, where fans “can have access to a counsellor if they’re struggling or if they know someone who is struggling and they need that emotional support,” McKenna-Churchill says.
Speed’s was one of them. What follows is not like those, but then not all conditions are the same and the same applies to the consequences.
It is the first-hand account of a player who was a stalwart in the Premier League for many years. He chose not to be named, not out of any sense of shame, but out of respect for his clubs.
“I just thought I was frustrated about being left out of the side, but I woke up one morning and felt particularly low, unnaturally low,” he says. “It didn’t feel like being frustrated or even miserable — it felt worse than that. As the days went by, I couldn’t get that feeling out of my head. It became all-encompassing like my brain had gone into overdrive with negativity. If it’s new to you and you don’t understand it, you try to fight it by yourself, but that’s not something you can do.
“It was really affecting my sleep. I was struggling, because the more you want to sleep the more impossible it becomes and it got to the point where I was taking a sleeping tablet the night before a game and even that wasn’t enough; it would be three o’clock on a Saturday morning, and the mind would be racing, knowing you’ve got a match. Telling yourself you’ve got to sleep is the worst possible thing. Everything gets mixed up in your head.
“I was never suicidal, but anguish and a lack of sleep can manifest itself in lots of different ways. It can affect your diet — eating too much, or not enough. It’s almost like being locked in your own head and if you’re not comfortable enough to open up and the support network and the help isn’t there, then I can understand why people get themselves into very difficult situations, because you literally aren’t thinking straight. You’ve had a breakdown in your rationale.
“In their own way, players can overthink and it stops them performing. Ideally, you want them going out there knowing the tactics, feeling confident in the manager’s game-plan and in themselves and their team-mates, but if things aren’t right off the pitch, with themselves or their family … I call it ‘scrambled head’. When your head is scrambled, even the simple things look difficult. Your processor goes into overdrive. It affects your motor skills, everything.
“Eventually, I just found somebody in the Yellow Pages. I had a good chat with a therapist and I was put on some medication, which actually made me worse, because I didn’t realise you were supposed to take it an hour before going to sleep. I was taking it in the morning, so it was affecting my training. When I went back a couple of weeks later and got the correct medication, that was when I opened up to my family and some very good people at the club.
“They had noticed that something wasn’t right and they were incredibly supportive and helpful. They also kept it quiet because at the time it was seen as taboo. They helped me recover. I was always conscious of it and I could see it in other players. I remember we signed someone from another city and he couldn’t settle. I’d speak to him and say, ‘Have you got the black clouds today?’
“That’s how I used to describe it; the black clouds rolling in and enveloping you, almost like you’ve got the blinkers on until you can’t see the good in anything. The fact you’d acknowledged it with somebody else always helped. It’s hard for people to open up about it. I’d have a word with the medical team at various clubs, saying ‘Just have a look at so-and-so, because I’ve seen that look in people’s eyes before.’ Sometimes the look was in mine.”
They have not previously discussed their partnership at Oxford, but this is precisely why Robinson invited Bloom to work at the Kassam Stadium. “I don’t think there’s enough done,” the 39-year-old says. “A lot of clubs bring in psychologists, but psychologists are about supporting people and making them feel better about themselves. A psychotherapist deals with the deeper issues, the darker issues and the coping mechanisms to get through life.
“I’m really, really big on stuff like that. I see so many people get lost, so many people struggling with the different challenges modern life throws at them. We live in a social-media world where everything looks perfect except for your own existence. If I become Prime Minister tomorrow, I’d ban all social media. All kids see is everyone wearing new clothes, new trainers, everyone looking immaculate — and it puts as much pressure on the parents. It’s killing society.”
This is a minor digression, but Robinson has some experience in the field. “I used to go and see somebody in Harley Street,” he says. “It was through the League Managers Association. As managers, we go through some challenging moments and sometimes the knock-on effects can be difficult.
“Andy King, who used to play for Everton and Luton, was a really close friend of mine. He was chief scout at MK Dons when I was manager there and he passed away in 2015, the year we got promoted to the Championship. Sometimes you try to deal with things on your own, but I just felt like I needed someone to speak to. It was a lightbulb moment; maybe I just needed a coping mechanism.
“It was great for me to be able to speak to somebody, to put myself in a position where my vulnerability wasn’t something I had to be fearful of. In the world we live in, vulnerability can sometimes be perceived as a massive weakness, but more and more, I’m learning that it can be a strength. Once you put things in perspective, it doesn’t half help when you’re dealing with young men. You see these little trigger points.”
In a previous incarnation, Bloom was a sports broadcaster — those worlds collide in his revealing talkSPORT radio show, On The Sporting Couch — and Robinson knew of him. “We decided it was right for everybody at the football club to understand there’s someone they can speak to about making their lives safer and better. I’m very excited about the club driving this and I’m very open-minded within my dressing room. I don’t have anything to hide.”
Bloom is involved at every level at Oxford, “working with the first-team, the under-23s, the academy, all the way down to the under-nines, speaking to players who have a whole mixture of personal problems.” He operates tightly with Robinson, discussing the messages he is putting across to his squad. “He’s very reflective,” Bloom says. “I take my hat off to him. In my opinion, he’s the most modern-thinking manager in football.”
Bloom believes his own background helps. “How do you speak to sportspeople?” he says. “In my experience, they find it hard to go to somebody in a white coat and say, ‘Deal with my mental illness.’ If you put your glasses halfway down your nose and say. ‘How are your emotions today?’, they’d tell you to fuck off. You wouldn’t talk about the Oedipal Complex or Freudian Splits, because they’d laugh you out of house and home.
“But if you say to them something like, ‘I notice you swapped positions today, you were playing left-sided centre-half and I’m just wondering how that was for you’, it’s a really good way of starting a conversation. It needs to be in the parlance of football. The fact I’ve been around dressing rooms all my life in a broadcasting position or doing post-match interviews means I know the layout of a football club, if that makes sense. I know how to talk to people.”
Football has its own strange rhythms and complications. “In your life and my life, we get dumped by girlfriends, we have job interviews that don’t go well and those things help us grow up and help us deal with how the world treats us,” Bloom says. “The world can just be a bit shit at times. Many players will never have really had those crushing disappointments, in a way that leaves them in a slightly regressed state a lot of the time.
“When they get their first injury or they get dumped for the first time or they get transferred out of a club they really wanted to play for and have to drop down a division after being told they’re going to be the next great thing, it’s incredibly difficult. What you find with a lot of young players is that they can’t hold these two things together; that the world is good and wonderful and full of love and kindness and success, and a bit shit at the same time.”
Bloom attended the PFA’s Injured 3 mental health and emotional wellbeing conference at St George’s Park last Thursday, where there were contributions from, among others, Michael Bennett, the players’ union’s director of welfare, Gareth Southgate, the England manager, and Andrew Cole and Emile Heskey.
Football is now treating the issue seriously; the PFA has a 24-7 counselling telephone hotline for all past and present members, their family and friends.
More work is needed.
“There’s not enough education for young players coming out of school or college and going into the professional game,” the anonymous former player says. “The average career lasts about eight years. Realistically, what percentage of footballers are going to make enough money in retirement to have children, a house and an income to live for another 60 years? It’s wonderful being a footballer but it doesn’t last for ever.
“Too many people live for today and don’t plan for tomorrow. The PFA is doing some really good programmes about transitioning into retirement. They can’t do enough of those, because mentally, when you finish playing, it’s a shock. All those years of being told where to be, what to do, what to eat and wear, means the decision-making process is taken away from you. When that switch is turned off, so many players end up in financial, emotional and psychological difficulty.”
For Bloom, the most pressing issue is what happens in between, at first-team level. “There are very few people like myself, if anybody, dealing with personal issues,” he says. “If they’re not dealt with, they often get blown up out of all proportion by the individual and they end up knocking on the PFA’s door, by which stage, it’s a major issue.
“Fifty clubs turned up at the PFA conference, but virtually nobody from the first-team. I thought I would come across at least one other me, but 99.9 per cent of the people were working with academies, who have to have some sort of mental-health provision under their charters, hence there’s much more player liaison, welfare and protection. They don’t seem to exist in first-team football. So although the PFA has made massive strides, it was preaching to the converted.
“As well as Oxford, the other club that’s probably at the forefront of this is Leicester City. They’re looking at communication between their players, encouraging their first-team staff to talk imaginatively about their roles. When you do that, you can go to a director and say, ‘Why don’t you look at this? Why don’t we think about changing things to improve our club?’”
None of which is meant to imply negligence on behalf of others, more that they are yet to embrace professional therapists at first-team level. As a random case study, Sunderland have two wellbeing committees made up of medical and coaching staff — one for the academy and one for the senior football department — which meet regularly to discuss players they may have concerns about.
Oxford have gone a step further, employing Bloom and running mental health first aid courses for their staff. “My captain will be on it, the under-23 goalkeeper will be on it and the captain of the under-18s will be on it,” Robinson says. “Then, it’ll be our physio, our academy director and so on. What it will do is give us a better understanding of the dressing rooms we’re working in. And the people inside the dressing-rooms might spot something before it gets too late.”
“It’s OK to say, ‘Charlie might be a bit down. We don’t know what’s happening with him’, but the question is what to do next,” Bloom says. “I actually work with this stuff. I could recognise a player having a broken leg but I wouldn’t know what to do about it. There are always reasons for someone’s behaviour, whether they’re in the most secure mental institution in the country, on a football pitch or in a factory. Whatever they’ve done makes absolute sense to them.
“If there’s a message I want to put across, it’s about prevention rather than cure. When you get to the cure stage, it’s a bit like with medical injuries… By the time you get to the oncology unit, it might be too late.”
That is one side of it — the vital, human, life-enhancing, life-saving part — but the other is about sport; surely it stands to reason that a happier, healthier football team has a better chance of winning?
Bloom says that Oxford have taken 70 points in his year of working with them — “play-off form” — and although he does not take credit for that, as Robinson puts it, “protecting young people and making sure they’re better at what they do” can only help.
“This is me helping to alter the way players and coaching staff think about doing their jobs,” Bloom says. “My belief is that if you get that right, improvements in performances are inevitable. I encourage people to talk about their feelings and to talk without fear. That’s what a therapist does.”