We all live our lives listening to stories of professional footballers and their lavish lifestyles, earning their thousands every week, and not having any worries about what they are doing with their lives because all their money solves all of their problems. But money can only go so far, and in reality, footballers are normal people too, with problems that us normal people can suffer too. Aaron Lennon’s case has thrown in to question whether footballers really are living the dream, or in actual fact, life at the top can be quite a struggle.
For Lennon, he has spent the majority of his career at the top of the English football pyramid. Starting off at hometown club Leeds United, in 2003 he made his first league appearance at just 16, at the time becoming the youngest ever player in Premier League history. United slipped out of the top flight in 2004, but it wouldn’t be long until Lennon was back in the Premier League, signing with Tottenham Hotspur in June 2005, coming with a price tag of £1 million at the age of 18.
At White Hart Lane, Lennon was an immediate success, and was nominated for the PFA Young Player of the Year in his first two seasons in North London. He helped Spurs to win the League Cup in 2008, and was later rewarded with a new five-year contract. Between his award nominations and League Cup success, Lennon made England’s 2006 World Cup squad, despite being uncapped for the Three Lions. He was an England regular throughout 2007 being in many of the squads for the Euro 2008 qualifying campaign.
More successful seasons at club level saw Lennon represent England once more at the World Cup, this time in 2010, playing twice. After 10 years at the Lane, Lennon fell out of favour and was sent on loan to fellow Premier League side Everton, and after impressing towards the end of the season, he made a permanent move to Goodison Park that summer.
Aaron Lennon quickly became one of English football’s best young talents, but his rise to the top looks to have hidden his secret over his mental health.
With the Toffees, Lennon’s career has stuttered, and he has been in and out of both Roberto Martinez’s and Ronald Koeman’s sides, making a handful of starts this season.
However, when news broke of Lennon’s struggle with mental health, it was seen as a shock to many involved with English football, with fans, fellow players and clubs alike rallying around him. It just goes to prove though that all the fame and fortune can affect even the best professionals.
It might not be a financial aspect, but the riches involved in the “beautiful game” nowadays can take over even the most grounded of players. At 14, Lennon became the youngest ever footballer to sign a sponsorship deal with Adidas, and was then signed to a huge contract at Tottenham Hotspur at 18. All that money at such a young age would leave a normal teenager unsure what to do with it, but at least they could lead a regular lifestyle.
For young footballers, they are unable to live a regular lifestyle. They are now thrown straight in to the spotlight, ready to be criticised by the media if they make one bad decision either on or off the field. As soon as they sign their first contract, that is all normality gone from their lives. It is training every day with maybe a couple games a week, and no time to do anything others their age are doing. But fans don’t see that side of it, they don’t see the struggles that professional footballers go through. They only see the players on match-days, where they are there to play as best they can and get through the game, all while forgetting the problems they have.
Mental health issues in football is seen as taboo. No-one wants to admit they have depression, or any other mental illness. But, if it is bottled up then it could make it harder to come to terms with.
Take Clarke Carlisle for example. A man with a great career between the top two tiers of English football, captaining clubs he played for, and Chairman of the Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA). He was seen as a role model both on and off the pitch, to both fans and his fellow professionals. However, behind closed doors, it was a whole different story as Carlisle battled with depressions and has failed in suicide bids in the past, most recently in 2014 when he stepped out in front of a lorry, but luckily only suffered a broken rib and a shattered knee, among cuts, bruises and internal bleeding. Clarke was lucky, but others have been successful in their bids.
Clarke Carlisle was a big role model both on and off the field, but away from the game he battled with severe depression.
In November 2009, world football was shaken by the news that German international goalkeeper Robert Enke had taken his own life, stepping out in front of a train near Hanover. Like Carlisle, Enke was captain of his club side, Hannover 96, and was a well respected professional who was a friendly figure to all he came across.
But like Carlisle as well, Robert was battling depression behind closed doors for six years, stemming from his time in Spain with European giants Barcelona where he struggled to find form. The birth of his daughter, Lara, briefly gave Enke a new purpose in life, but a heart condition from her birth meant that tragically she died in 2006 at a very young age. Upon his return to Germany, he established himself as Hannover’s number one goalkeeper and made 8 appearances in the national team, as was set to make the German World Cup squad in 2010.
Enke and his wife then adopted a baby girl, Leila in May 2009, but even his new arrival couldn’t help to stem his depression, and sadly he took his own life in November that same year. His friend, Ronald Reng, wrote a book (A Life too Short: The tragedy of Robert Enke) about Enke’s life and about his battle with severe depression. The pair were meant to co-write a biography of Enke’s life, but sadly Reng was left to write it himself.
Robert Enke played in three of Europe’s top divisions, but his success on the pitch couldn’t help him to block out his depression, and tragically took his own life.
These individual cases serve as a reminder that football is more than just a game, and that footballers are normal people like you and I. World football needs to take a look at mental health issues, and there needs to be more support to professionals in order to prevent more cases such as Clarke Carlisle’s, or Robert Enke’s.
With Aaron Lennon, it is still early days, and no-one really knows quite what has happened just yet, but it just goes to show that more needs to be done to protect football players from their youth days, right up until when they decide to retire and choose to do something outside of football. It just goes to show that no matter how much money you have and what you do with it, even that can’t protect a person’s mental state.
So, are professionals really living the dream? I’ll leave that for you to decide for yourself.