There are some things that happen in football that, for a moment at least, do not seem as if they're really happening at all. The sudden and tragic death of Gary Speed last Sunday was one of those moments. Here was a man whom everybody respected, a top professional in his playing days and manager of a revitalised Wales squad. It didn't seem to make any sense.
In the week leading up to Speed's death I had been reading A Life Too Short, the book about Robert Enke, the former Germany goalkeeper who killed himself, written by his friend, Ronald Reng. It was to be research for a column I was writing on depression that weekend. Twenty-four hours later Speed was found hanged at his house. On Monday Reng's biography won the William Hill Sports Book of the Year award. It is, of course, all a horrible coincidence and Reng, quite wisely, refused to be drawn on any comparisons between Speed and Enke.
Since last Sunday, frustratingly for me, a fair amount has been made of the lack of help available to footballers and managers should the stresses of the game ever become too much. Susannah Strong, the author of a booklet that the Professional Footballers' Association has sent out to ex-players, containing advice, helpline numbers and case studies on depression, said: "It's an extraordinary sport where you get people to the absolute physical perfection – and yet there's no attention paid whatsoever to the mental health of footballers." Strong also said she found it "really, really difficult to get any footballer to talk about mental health" and added: "There's a huge amount of stigma and taboo around [the subject]."
What did Strong expect? I would have been amazed if any players had been willing to bare their soul on a very private condition so that their testimony could be sent out to 50,000 retired footballers and end up in national newspapers. Just because mental illness in football remains a tough concept for some, it should not mean that it is bereft of the doctor/patient privilege afforded to any other illnesses.
Strong may well have been right when she uses words such as "stigma" and "taboo" but she was wide of the mark when she came close to suggesting clubs are negligent when it comes to players with mental health problems. It made me angry to read those remarks, when I have first-hand evidence that is not the case, and I was even more frustrated when I came across Alan Hansen's thoughts on the subject in another national newspaper.
Hansen wrote: "Football is a tough sport and there really is no support network for those who are troubled or in need of help." He went on: "Players know that any admission of a problem or a call for help would see them annihilated by their team-mates once they started to feel good again, so as a result there would be a real air of silence when it came to telling people that you needed help."
Hansen was a great footballer and has far more medals in his cabinet than I'll ever have but he is, to put it bluntly, completely out of touch. I wonder what Tony Adams, who set up the excellent Sporting Chance Clinic that is run by Peter Kay and his team, thinks when he reads Hansen talk about "no support network". Kay, for those who are not aware, confirmed that within 72 hours of Speed's death 10 players had been in touch with him. Hundreds of others have benefited since the charity was formed 11 years ago.
Furthermore, while changing rooms can certainly be tough places, much of what goes on is bravado and nobody is going to "annihilate" you for revealing you suffer from depression. In my experience there is a team-mate in every dressing room whom you can confide in if you have problems and we're also talking about a time when clubs employ sports psychologists who sit down for the sort of one-to-one chats that would have been unthinkable years ago. I'm not saying we're doing everything we possibly can to help those in need but I do think it's important to make the point that football's not turning a blind eye to those with problems.
Whether those who experience difficulties can make the leap of faith to use what is on offer is another matter. In my case I knew that something wasn't quite right mentally but I didn't want anything to change and risk upsetting what I was doing on the pitch, because at the time I was playing well. Today I see how dangerous that thought process is because, had my football begun to suffer, there is every chance the illness could have tightened its grip.
My situation was not helped by two misdiagnoses of manic depression (now bipolar) that came about from my tendency to do strange things at breakneck speed that might be considered by others as, well, crazy. Highlights include booking out the top floor of a hotel in Paris because I had heard that somebody I didn't like was thinking of staying there. This sort of episode was never followed by a sustained lull and therefore could not be construed as anything other than a quirk of my character that was there in one form or another even as a child.
At the end of last year I was eventually diagnosed with depression after my club doctor called me to his surgery and asked after my mental wellbeing. I am lucky that he is well versed in the manifestations of mental health; he had been monitoring me day to day through what I thought was nothing more than passing conversation. Others may not be so fortunate.
It has been a tough week for football and, as it draws to a close and the weekend's matches approach, I already know that we will see the tributes to Speed observed impeccably for, if there is one thing that football knows how to do, it is the mourning of one of its own. I only hope that the respect shown to a special player is afforded in some way to the players on the pitch later that day, because we never know what could be going through a fragile mind.