BY PAUL BREEN
Football is a man’s game. Boys will be boys. You’re sick as a parrot one minute because you’ve reached the bottom of the pit and then over the moon the next because there’s light at the end of the tunnel. We know all the usual cliches with which our favourite sport is associated. Sometimes it feels as if many within the game talk in such platitudes for fear of ever stepping on the landmine of serious discussion about real problems and issues.
One such issue is that of depression; an issue that has touched the lives of many professional footballers and their families, with several high profile cases in the past couple of years. Gary Speed was perhaps the best known of these, but there are many more who pass under the radar, generally known only to supporters of the teams they play for or manage.
Amongst this group of professionals is the former Leyton Orient, Cambridge United and Torquay United manager Martin Ling, who was also one of the few within the game who brought this out into the open. Very often when somebody in football suddenly goes out of the public eye, the bigger story is shrouded in secrecy and shame. We see this particularly in the case of former players whose lives and lifestyles show all the signs of mental illness, but seem to lack the support networks to admit this and ask for help.
Martin though, after an initial period of silence on the matter, was brave enough to relay the tale of his troubles to the broader public.
Though he is on record as saying that his battle with depression began much earlier in his career, the issues flowered in full public view at the turn of 2013, when he was at the helm of Torquay United football club, then sitting in the lower reaches of a very tight League Two table with a couple of games in hand that offered the chance for the points needed to shoot up towards the play-offs. All of a sudden though, the manager disappeared from public view with all sorts of rumours abounding on fan forums. Those who knew, inside the club, seemed not to know what they should, or could and couldn’t say. The story of the manager’s plight was coming out like a series of scattered jigsaw pieces with supporters trying to put together the puzzle in a darkened room.
Gradually the story did come out, as Martin remained unable to work for the rest of the season and was then released by the club. A few months back he gave an interview in The Independent newspaper where he expressed the view that he would never work again, because of the gaping hole in his CV caused by mental illness and the stigma of having a condition that might recur.
Thankfully, though, his own prediction has turned out to be untrue. Swindon Town Football Club have taken the brave step of offering him a chance to return to the game he loves as the manager of a club he once played for, in a much better period of their history.
In doing so they have shown that football can rise above stigma, and its sense of shame regarding perceived weaknesses such as mental illness. Hopefully then Martin can turn around Swindon’s fortunes as decisively as he has turned around his own, and this club that has broken the mould can rise back towards former glories. Last season they were in the play-offs, and while their fall this season has been spectacular, the legacy of coming so close and then missing out often has this effect on teams the season after. With a fresh start and Martin Ling taking the helm, sporting a new look and a fancy suit, as has been pointed out several times on social media, the Robins are hopefully going to find themselves back in the limelight for all the right reasons very soon.
There is also an interesting additional detail in this story of Swindon giving someone a job on the basis of what they can achieve when healthy, rather than the fear of what might happen if they return to ill health. From their very formation in 1879, Swindon Association Football Club has been associated with charity and virtue, since they are one of few clubs that I know of who were formed by a minister of the Church; the Reverend William Pitt.
Appropriate perhaps then that they are the club shining a light into the pit of depression Martin Ling has emerged from, and are offering him new hope. This isn’t charity though. This is capturing a damned good manager who happens to be available, and the fact that he has been available for so long says more about the game’s inhibitions than his own leadership abilities.
Like most managers Martin Ling’s CV has been a mix of highs and lows, but he’s always built robust teams and brought stability on the pitch. Indeed, his last club, Torquay, probably wouldn’t be in their present dire straits if he’d stayed. That though is in the past, and he’s looking to the future now, higher up the roads of the West Country and the Football League.
PAUL BREEN is the author of The Charlton Men available in paperback, and also on Amazon Kindle at http://www.amazon.co.uk/Charlton-Men-Paul-Breen-ebook/dp/B00G8OBOKW/
FOLLOW PAUL ON TWITTER @CharltonMen