The Legacy of Gary Speed: Depression and Mental Illness within Football


It was announced on 27th November 2011 that Welsh football manager, Gary Speed, had died, apparently found hanged in his Cheshire home. The news of his death left the sporting world in shock, as it was clear football had lost a true legend.

The incredible achievements of Speed’s footballing career were recognised universally, as tributes poured in from former colleagues such as Alan Shearer and Ryan Giggs, recognising the midfielder as a ‘consummate professional, both on and off the field’. Yet his influence extended beyond the world of football, with words of tribute and sadness expressed towards the Welsh MBE by Prime Minister, David Cameron.

However, whilst it is important that Speed is remembered for his illustrious career and unwavering professionalism, his suspected suicide has raised the crucial issue of depression and mental health problems within football that must be addressed to ensure the legacy of Gary Speed  is not lost.

Speed’s suicide is sadly not a unique incident. With the topic of depression emerging in the headlines following the death of German goalkeeper, Robert Enke, who died in November 2009 after he stood in front of a passenger train in Hannover. At the time, Enke was considered to be a leading contender to become the first choice goalkeeper in the German World Cup squad and was a regular in Hannover 96’s first team. With all the money, fame and success apparent in football, why would a man who seemingly has it all, decide to take his own life?

One player who has been refreshingly open about his experiences with depression is Preston North end defender, Clarke Carlisle. After suffering from depression during his time at Queens Park Rangers, Carlisle has encouraged players to seek help for mental illness, urging sportsmen not to underestimate the severity of conditions such as depression. He also points out how “illness knows no boundary of wealth, profession, race, colour, creed or religion”, a point many of us perhaps forget when thinking about our sporting idols.

Professional football matches across Europe’s premier divisions often attain match attendances exceeding 30,000, and unquestionably one group who suffer the most under such conditions are the match officials. Recently, a match between Cologne and Mainz 05 was abandoned 40 minutes before kickoff, following the revelation that appointed referee, Babak Rafati had attempted suicide in his hotel room. Similarly to the incident involving Gary Speed, no one, not even the referee’s father was aware of his turmoil, highlighting a taboo within sport regarding the discussion of mental health problems.

Sport can be intense and all consuming, particularly when played at the highest level, with lucrative rewards available for the successful, so it is little wonder players suffer from the effects of pressure and criticism. Mental illness won’t disappear, so what is being done to help footballers who suffer from its effects?

Following the death of Speed, the FA have sent out a guidebook on handling depression to the Professional Footballers’ Association’s 4000 members as well as 50,000 former professionals. Whilst it is accepted that this booklet is a small step, it is a step in the right direction. It is important that players know there is a support system in place, and that depression and mental health problems will be treated with understanding. Surely it is imperative that the young footballers of today are educated in these matters if we are to avoid losing another remarkable sportsman, such as the late Gary Speed?

To end on a positive note, one must remember that football is a sport enjoyed by millions worldwide; it has the power to unite people and develop important qualities in children across the planet. People must be encouraged to discuss difficult subjects such as depression, racism and homophobia within football, in order to help those affected by them and help football to continue to bring people together.

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