Football no hiding place from depression

Phil Smith. Picture: Sarah Standing (131975-2056)
Phil Smith. Picture: Sarah Standing (131975-2056)
Pompey were crowned league champions on this day in 1949. Picture: Pompey History Society

On this day picture gallery: Pompey crowned league champions

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Being a professional footballer is a dream come true.

But that exalted status doesn’t make you immune to the ills of depression.

Sadly, the two men who went head-to-head for Pompey’s No1 spot at the start of last season have seen that’s the case.

And the Blues have had a significant and hugely varying role to play in their battles.

John Sullivan this week has spoken openly and honestly about a testing period, which has him set to walk away from the game.

A difficult time at Fratton Park after arriving from Charlton 12 months ago has much to do with that.

Sullivan found himself criticised and, in some quarters, vilified after some poor form last season under Guy Whittingham.

That culminated in his display in a 4-1 loss at York, which was to be the final of his seven appearances for the club.

I remember speaking to Sullivan almost exactly 12 months ago at a restaurant opening, where he talked passionately about an exciting voyage and being a Pompey player for years to come.

A little over 10 weeks later, his time at PO4 was effectively finished as Trevor Carson arrived. Now, we know the scars created from that ran deep.

That was to be seen after a defeat in Cambridge colours in January, after a loan move to the Abbey Stadium.

The U’s had appeared to offer the 26-year-old a place to rebuild his confidence. But, with a precarious mental state seizing the player, they look to have been his final stop-off as a paid footballer.

No more than a fortnight after I first interviewed Sullivan at Gunwharf Quays, I was sat opposite Phil Smith at Pompey’s pre-season training base in Essex.

When that conversation began there was little to suggest it would end with the 34-year-old on the brink of tears, as he bared his soul over his own fight with depression.

Smith opened his heart over the bouts of self-loathing he faced after tumbling out of the game following his release with Swindon.

The need to pay the mortgage saw the former Dover, Margate and Crawley man work in a car parts factory.

There was no snobbery on Smith’s part on that front but his fall out of football saw the demons take hold.

‘You are taught in this game you are a failure if you aren’t in football,’ he said, at the time.

‘Of course that’s not the case, but you doubt your worth.’

A 12-month agreement and route back at Pompey provided salvation for Smith. It may have produced just five appearances but the value of a year in the day-to-day involvement of professional football cannot be undervalued for him.

You are unlikely to find two more disparate characters than Smith and Sullivan.

Sullivan often displays a loud and brash exterior, which we have now seen was the veneer for a more brittle core.

Smith, however, was the antithesis of the common perception of a highly-paid pro. He is your normal, typical down-to-earth bloke – and that’s a compliment.

Yet, the pair have found themselves united by a common affliction in the darkness of depression.

Millions of people have watched the pair in their career, yet they would have known nothing of their torment before they spoke publicly.

Their brave words have offered an insight into the unseen fights footballers, like us all, can face.

Now the futures of both men lie away from Fratton Park.

That brings uncertainty but a willingness to confront their problems also arms them with the weapons to deal with the trials life brings. All Pompey fans should wish them well on their journeys.