The Dark Side of the Beautiful Game

For many men, being a professional footballer is the dream career, with girls, glamour and glory, together with a huge salary for those lucky few who make it in the Premier League. All of which makes the BBC Three documentary Football’s Suicide Secret all the more shocking. It reveals a dark underside to the beautiful game totally at odds with the image of footballers as the alpha males of the 21st century.

The programme is presented  by Clarke Carlisle, Chairman of the Professional Footballer’s Association, who discloses that he tried to take his own life as a young player with Queen’s Park Rangers. He believes that depression is a massive problem within football and that hundreds of players are affected.

Carlisle says the problem for players in the macho world of football is admitting they need help. As he said in a newspaper interview in the lead-up to the broadcast: “A huge part of the solution is the ability to verbalise your fears … and having that trusting person there not to take advantage of your vulnerability.”

Samaritans’ Press Office worked closely with the production team for this programme, and it was familiar territory following the launch of the 'We’re in your Corner' campaign. This is part of a five year partnership with Network Rail, aimed at reducing suicides on the railways.

The 'We're in your Corner' campaign included groundbreaking research, which identified men in their 30s, 40s and 50s, from disadvantaged backgrounds, as being at the highest risk of dying by suicide.

The research also looked closely at issues surrounding masculinity and the ‘gold standard’ of power and control that is central to the male identity. Having a job and providing for their family is an essential part of that.

Of course the elite soccer players of the Premier League do not have to worry about putting food on the table, at least not while they are able to continue playing. However, the list of football suicides is growing, as is the list of footballers with troubled personal lives, the most prominent being Wales Manager Gary Speed.

Men are three times more likely to take their own lives than women. Masculinity is associated with control, but when men are depressed or in crisis they can feel out of control, and this can propel some men towards suicidal behaviour as a way of regaining it. Generally men of all social classes are reluctant to talk about emotions, and the challenge is how to encourage men to seek help without alienating them. As 'We’re in Your Corner' makes clear, suicide is a social and health inequality, and remains a key challenge for our policy makers.

Perhaps what Football’s Suicide Secret demonstrates more than anything else is the need for more documentary makers to look at male suicide and the issues that surround it. If those men who supposedly have it all are driven to such desperate actions, then it is a cause of the greatest concern for all of us.

Clarke Carlisle has demonstrated great courage in talking openly about his own struggle to cope. Samaritans are working with other equally brave men who were in a similar position, including former Aston Villa and Portsmouth player Warren Aspinall and Essex and Northamptonshire cricketer Darren Cousins. If more men from the world of sport were prepared to ‘come out’ and talk about the difficulties they had gone through, the next generation of footballers – and the next generation of men in general – might find it easier to seek the help they so desperately need.


Joe Ferns, Executive Director of Policy, Research & Development




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