…And if you thought Crewe was depressing

There was a predictable wash of simpering good will from Oxford fans on Sunday when it was revealed that jug-eared goalscoring funster, and (perhaps) the last Manor legend, Dean Windass, has been suffering from depression leading him to twice try and take his life.

Depression in sport is particularly on-trend nowadays. Gary Speed’s suicide, despite his apparent balance, talent, good looks and happy-go-lucky demeanour – none of which are signs of depression or otherwise – jolted everyone.

Now they’re all at it, last week Andrew Flintoff presented a documentary on it involving some of the decade’s most celebrated sporting names. In the process he recognised that some of his own misdemeanours were a demonstration of some kind of depressive tendency.

You suspect that when The People, having spent weeks camped outside the Sporting Chance Clinic in the hope of spotting a big star through the tinted glass of some over-sized, pimped up four-wheel-drive, found out that Windass was prepared to come out, they were secretly punching the air in triumph. OK, it wasn’t a real star, but it was good enough.

The Windass story is a convenient one for a tabloid audience, but it is ultimately unhelpful. His is the standard narrative of a man who had it all, then without the structure and lustre of professional football lost his way. It involves; fast cars, loose women, money and booze. But he’s not the first to stare into an abyss after retiring from a profession offering such rewards.

I’m not suggesting that Windass is faking or just suffering from being a bit down. But it doesn’t help the wider message if people think you become depressed as the result of no longer being able to buy top of the range cars. Sadly, you can’t write a story that basically says ‘Everything was normal, nothing much happened and then I had the overwhelming urge to kill myself’.

When Neil Lennon and Stan Collymore both came out as suffering from depression years ago nobody took much notice. Both players were, in their own way, outsiders, and therefore, ‘typical’ of people with mental health issues. Lennon was a gnarly pitbull, maginalised by sectarianism, whose success was down to graft more than talent. Collymore had talent, but managed to throw Ulrika Jonsson across a bar in a depressive stupor. I mean, how can he be depressed? Mate, she’s gorgeous and therefore, you’re an idiot.

Now apparently ‘normal’ people, like Speed, and happy people, like Windass have got it. Accordingly, we react appropriately with a knowing sympathetic nod towards football’s last taboo (apart from the gay thing, obviously).

Hours before The People story broke, Oxford fans were lining up to lambast the team for its sloppy defeat to Crewe. Days after he was being begged to stay, James Constable was being pressed to leave because he’s ‘not up to this level’. Similarly, Chris Wilder should recognise his limited competence and step aside, after we lost our first in seven, conceding our second goal in 6,300 minutes.

Single events don’t, in themselves, cause depression but they can trigger depressive episodes in people who are prone to its grip. The best thing you can do for a depressive is create a healthy and stable environment in which they can function and manage their condition. They need to exercise, eat well, sleep and generally ensure that life remains devoid of extremes.

Football excels in creating an environment of extreme reactions to episodic success and failure. This is conveniently labelled ‘passion’ – the lifeblood of the sport which the media and marketers are happy to play up. Most people who actively attend football were brought up in, or are the product of, the football culture of the 1970s and 80s when football evolved from being a diversion from the working week to being overtly tribal, confrontational and aggressive.

It wasn’t always like this. There’s an old joke about Sheffield FC – the oldest club in the country – if they were the first club, then who did they play? Well, the members of the club formed teams and played each other. It was club for people who enjoyed football. It wasn’t concieved as a way of defining a town or region to the detriment of other towns or regions. In 1939 Southampton fans celebrated Portsmouth’s FA Cup win, now they tear each others’ throats out.

It makes me think of the difference between a patriot and a nationalist. A patriot loves his country; a nationalist hates every other country. I’m an Oxford United patriot and a football patriot, but increasingly we seem to be becoming football nationalists. We don’t love our team so much as hate everyone elses’.

Now, on the terraces, abuse is the norm, online it’s more venomous, on the pitch people kiss badges and rip their shirts off as a primal act of celebration following a goal, on the bench people get fired for losing a single match and referees are branded as the mentally retarded enemy of the game. And that’s not a description of the bad old days of the 1980s; it’s a manifestation of a culture that exists today. What’s more, it is wholly acceptable; a rebranded and remodelled version of the hooligan era. At least hooliganism was overtly bad.

Amidst this maelstrom, is the stricture of being a footballer. A cabal bound by common behaviours. Lee Steele’s homophobic tweet that lead to his dismissal from Oxford City last week was the illustration of the environment footballers are brought up in. To a man, it’s reported that Lee Steele is a decent bloke, and Mike Ford, despite firing him, was prepared to go on record to support him and say he isn’t a homophobe. It seems that Lee Steele’s principle crime is that he was engaging with a deeply learnt behaviour amongst footballers – banter. In the changing room this works because the rules are understood, it’s a mechanism for sifting out those who are in the football fraternity and those who aren’t. In any other environment, it’s deeply offensive. He just seems to have to forgetten where he was.

This enclosed environment, full of its extremes, isn’t a healthy one for anyone to be involved in, let alone those prone to depression. And yet, despite its current profile within sport and the apparent meaningful sympathy we have towards its sufferers (well, the famous sufferers, at least) we are quite happy to fuel that unhealthy environment by destroying and worshiping its protagonists with all the extreme passion we can muster.

Statistically speaking, in a squad of 20, 5 will suffer some form of anxiety or depression. James Constable and Chris Wilder, like Windass, Speed, Collymore and Lennon, could be among that number at Oxford. Or maybe Alfie Potter. Or Peter Leven. Or, well, anyone. They may not even know that themselves, but it could be lurking, waiting for something to trigger it. We would do well to recognise this and create a healthier environment than the one we are currently in. Not wait for one of our own to put a noose around his neck before reacting.

Crewe Alexandra 3 Oxford United 1

Football is a business of extremes. No other industry would employ Peter Ridsdale with his track record of taking sustainable businesses and depositing them on the brink of oblivion. No other business with a turnover less than your local supermarket goes from the virtual liquidation to sitting on £1.4 million in cash in barely 2 years.

That’s apparently the position that Bournemouth is in, if their chairman is to be believed. I work for a company with a similar turnover to Bournemouth, we’ve never come near to liquidation and we have twice that amount in the bank. Despite being a business with considerably more financial strength than them, we would consider it utter madness to make a snap investment decision of £225,000 (with ongoing costs of £200,000 a year), which is basically what they’re reportedly committing to with their pursuit of James Constable.

Last week, Sky trumpeted the £440 million spent during the transfer window as though this was a triumph. No concerns about the £3.1bn of debt these teams are already in?

These ludicrous extremes cultivate similarly extreme reactions by fans. The 3-1 defeat at Crewe, our first defeat in 4 (5 if you include the 90 minute score against Cardiff), has been greeted by fans as Armageddon.

And now there’s panic surrounding Constable and the possibility that he may go out on loan. The general consensus seemed to be that if he had played, then we’d have won. Which either suggests a) Constable would have grabbed a hat-trick or b) he is a demon in defence. Rationally, neither is true. The reality is that things went badly and we lost. Constable is not the single difference between good days and bad days. The reality is far subtler than that.

Should Constable go, the impact cannot be measured on any single game. Look at last year; he contributed 17 goals. The worst, and most unlikely, scenario is that those goals will not be replaced. Eight goals had no impact on the points gained from those games. If the team could find 9 more goals between them over the season, Constable’s contribution (in goals alone) could be mitigated. Simplistic, perhaps, but it illustrates that the No Constable = Instant Death scenario is nowhere near the truth.

I don’t want to lose Constable; he is pivotal to the team in its current guise. He gives it an identity it hasn’t had for years which has helped bring the fans and club closer together. But, the psychological impact of his departure far outstrips the tangible impact on the team’s performance.

We’re still working from a solid base, the adjustments required to neutralise his or anyone elses departure are relatively small. Losing to Crewe and Constable leaving does not equal capitulation. It doesn’t mean Chris Wilder is a bad manager. You have to look deeper than a single scoreline or individual player decisions if you want to know the state we’re in.

We have a level-headed chairman, a manager that has improved us every year for two and a half years, and a group of players who have proved themselves at this level. Adjustments are needed, partnerships need to grow, a strongest eleven needs to be identified, but the long-term trend continues upwards; only extreme reactions will prevent that from continuing.

Yellows 2 Crewe 1

“Ken” is an idiot. I didn’t catch all of his expansive diatribe on Radio Oxford relating to our ‘failed season’ but it seemed to involve listing a series of players (Bulman, Creighton, Deering) who were unceremoniously ejected at the expense of clearly ‘inferior’ replacements (McLean, Worley, Hackney, perhaps).

This may have been a joke, it may have been ironic, it may have been provocative, but it didn’t sound like any of these things. Subsequent callers quite rightly treated him with derision.

The dismantling of the Conference squad was the hot topic in town despite the perfectly adequate 2-1 victory over fellow play-off botherers Crewe. Jack Midson is off to Barnet with Simon Clist, Ben Purkiss and Wee Stevie Kinniburgh all available for loan.

Both Clist and Midson’s contracts are up in the summer and we have to think whether we envisage these players making a challenge for League 1 or even higher in the next 2 years (the tenure of a typical contract). As much as I would love for us to be able to run a living museum for our Conference squad, the answer is surely that there isn’t a place for them in the long term.

Midson’s situation has become increasingly embarrassing. Every home game he will appear on the touchline in his high visibility tabard to a smattering of sympathetic applause from the South Stand Lower. Like Red Rum being paraded at the Grand National, he skips purposefully as though he’s about to be thrown into the action only to find that he isn’t. The Miracle of Plainmoor was a mere aberration; the reality is that his time has come.

Like Midson, I have a huge amount of sympathy for Simon Clist, they are both good professionals who we owe a lot to as a club. They were a massive part of the promotion campaign and demonstrated huge strength of character to get us over the line at Wembley. But now is now and Clist has slipped behind McLaren, Heslop, Hall, and now Burge for a starting berth. Clist does what he does very solidly, but it’s difficult to see his game changing to the point where he’s challenging the others.

Purkiss and Kinniburgh have had uneventful seasons. Purkiss has been a perfectly able stand-in and despite Wee Stevie enjoying the kind of paternal sympathy normally afforded to a new lone arrival in a village church community, neither look set to mount a sustained challenge on the first team.

“Ken” is probably rolling around on the floor convulsing in disbelief at the latest news but many will simply take it with a gentle shrug of the shoulders. Things move on, but I for one look forward to welcoming back the likes of Midson and Clist as part of any Legends of Wembley Reunion.

Crewe Alexandra 1 Yellows 1

I’ve made an enemy. And when I say ‘I’ I mean, ‘we’ and when I say ‘enemy’ I mean the editor of and contributors to Crewe Vital Football. Man, they’re angry.

I made a joke on Twitter that got re-tweeted by said editor. He then went on to say that we’re worse ‘than Vale fans’. Which is presumably very insulting indeed.

Anyway, it got me reading his site and wow, he’s got issues. Take the definitive moment in Saturday’s 1-1 draw:

“Referee gives goal. Oxford players cry offside. At this point every single Oxford player has surrounded the linesman. After a few minutes kerfuffle the referee whistles for a free kick to Oxford.”

This, he says, is “unbelievable”. Too right, players intimidating officials, officials not applying the rules properly… Oh hang on, what’s this?

“Now, the decision ultimately was probably the correct one.”

Ah. So, the ref’s ‘unbelievable’ decision was, in truth, correct. Looking at the incident, I reckon it was about 4 seconds between the ball going into the net and the ref heading towards the linesman. Not quite the scandal it first appeared to be.

A discussion forum topic called Wilder – Idiot continues the polemic.

To be fair, there are contributions that point out that the Alex need to man up if they’re expected to compete at this level. This is great though:

“His [Wilder’s] comments, just like his teams’ tactics were dreadful – playing that high up the pitch at 1-0, well a better Crewe side would have stuck 3 or 4 past them easy.”

Oxford are shit, Chris Wilder is an idiot and Crewe are brilliant. Although, it should be pointed out that this is a fictitious Crewe playing scintillating football, not one that currently exists.

It goes on. Crewe have always been held up as a model of how a small club should be run. Modest, yet successful, four years ago they were voted the most admired club in the league. Their focus on player development and managerial stability should be an example to us all.

They’ve been relegated twice in the intervening four years. It seems, Crewe are some kind of art project and teams who don’t just stand aside are oppressors of their creative spirit. As a team that knows quite a lot about the damage a superiority complex can have, Crewe might do well to learn from us rather than treat us with such contempt.