Keeper reveals depression affected Pompey career

John Sullivan cuts a dejected figure after conceding against York Picture: Joe Pepler
John Sullivan cuts a dejected figure after conceding against York Picture: Joe Pepler
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The kit room in the depths of the Abbey Stadium served as a sanctuary, but for John Sullivan there was to be no more hiding.

Cambridge United was meant to offer a temporary haven from a Pompey career drawing its final rasping breath.

Instead it proved life-changing, resulting in the keeper set to retire from the full-time game at the age of 26.

Sullivan had started last season as first-choice at Fratton Park but 56 days later an awful mistake at York sounded the final whistle.

It was the U’s who stretched out a hand in January and Sullivan escaped to the Skrill Premier on loan eager to kick-start a spluttering career.

Then struck the realisation depression had gripped his life and strangled his football.

The solitude of a Cambridge kit room for one-and-a-half hours following defeat to Grimsby provided the crucial enlightenment. Help was required.

Sullivan has not played a match since and now ripped up his Pompey deal.

Yet following successful counselling which remains ongoing, he insists he inhabits a far more desirable place.

And having kept treatment a secret during the last six months to all but three of his team-mates, he is ready to speak.

He told The News: ‘A lot of people think being a footballer is a dream job – and it is – but at the same time it can be emotionally very daunting, it can mess with your mind.

‘On loan at Cambridge, the first couple of games I did well, then the next couple my mind was drifting and as a goalkeeper you can’t do that.

‘We played Grimsby and hadn’t lost at home in the league all season. We lost 2-1 and my mind wasn’t on the game, I felt I was letting my team-mates down,

‘After the match I locked myself in the kit room for an hour-and-a-half. That was the moment it all came to a head.

‘I had chosen that room because I didn’t want to bring attention to myself. It was the only quiet place, no-one knew I was there apart from when the kit man came in and I told him to get out.

‘I remember sitting in the corner with my shirt over my head thinking “this isn’t normal, you need some help”.

‘I was struggling mentally, emotionally I was never in the right place to play for Cambridge.

‘The next day, my agent set me up a meeting with the PFA and two days later they fixed me up with a therapist – and it’s the best thing I have ever done.

‘I started the season wanting to do so well for Portsmouth. I came with a lot of potential and it was my real big chance to really establish myself as a number one.

‘Straight away you are under immense pressure, pressure you put on yourself as well as from fans and it can be a recipe for disaster sometimes.

‘I wouldn’t blame it all on the Pompey situation, there’s probably other stuff in my career where knock-backs have built up as well, while private stuff affects you too, so it’s a combination of everything.

‘Depression is a big word and people throw it around. I had a mild form of depression, maybe if I had carried on I would have got full depression but I never had medication.

‘My medication was talking to someone and getting my feelings out there, it was never that I needed tablets.

‘To me it was like an injury. If you get injured you need help – mentally I needed help and have come out a better person.’

Guy Whittingham snapped up Sullivan last summer from Charlton on a two-year deal after beating off the attentions of AFC Wimbledon.

This month his contract was cancelled by mutual consent with 12 months remaining. He had made seven appearances.

And the keeper is convinced depression inhibited his potential to shine at Pompey.

He added: ‘I have kept this quiet the whole time because I think sometimes in football you can’t show a weakness.

Only Andy Barcham, Tom Craddock and Danny Hollands knew among the players.

‘I am not trying to get a sympathy vote from anyone, I am just saying. I realise there is more to life than football.

‘Footballers do get depressed, it can be a lonely life, you can be away from your families.

‘I have always bottled things up as a footballer because you can’t show weakness.

‘When it is going well it’s easy, so easy, everyone loves you, you go on the pitch and don’t have to think.

‘When you start making a few mistakes – especially as a goalkeeper – you over-think every situation and the simplest things become the hardest thing.

‘If your mistake has cost your team, you go home to an empty flat, you are away from your family, you are staring at four walls, you are watching the goals on the Football League Show and it gets to you.

‘You wouldn’t be human if it didn’t. I was very low and didn’t want to talk football.

‘Everyone would say “how are you feeling about not playing at Portsmouth?”. I would shrug and say I was fine but in reality was lying to myself.

‘For my first few counselling sessions I sat in a room and wouldn’t talk at all. It’s like you see in the movies, sitting in an armchair and staring at four walls.

‘Their job is to try to trigger what happened and when you unwind and go back you start seeing a build-up of events of why you are and why things happen.

‘It’s trying to get to the bottom of it and seeing how you can get out.

‘I travel to America every year and have a lot of friends there – I was ashamed and embarrassed to say I was going to a counsellor in England. But they were like “what’s the problem, it’s normal, we see one every week”.

‘I thought “right, I don’t care who knows, this is who I am, I need help and am big enough to know I need it”.

‘The sessions have worked wonders. It took me time to get back to myself but I am there.

‘I would recommend any footballer going through a tough time to not be afraid of it. It doesn’t make you a bad person, it doesn’t make you a weak person, it just means you are human.

‘This has been the worst year for me as a professional footballer. As a person it has been the best year ever.’

As playing squads across the country filter back for pre-season, Sullivan is surveying other ambitions.

The likelihood is it won’t involve football.

He said: ‘I refuse to rely on football. I want to make my own destiny – but I don’t know what the hell is going to happen!

‘I’ve got interviews for jobs coming out of my ears and am trying to dip into other things and finding out about real life.

‘People tell me I can’t quit, football is my dream.

‘Well, I’ve lived my dream for 11 years, I have lived pretty much 90 per-cent of kids’ dreams to be a footballer.

‘I may never play a football match again but nobody can ever take away what I have achieved, so why can’t I go and live other dreams now?

‘I have dreams of being in New York in real estate or in London as a suit, these are just as important to me as football is.

‘I may have days when I wake up and say “I wish I was a footballer working for two hours” but sometimes you have to take risks and it might be what I need.’