“The amount of team-mates who contacted me to say that they could not believe that I was in that mental state,” Scott Shearer tells Sky Sports. “Nobody had a clue.”
Speaking openly about his mental health issues to friend Rob Blackburne on The Footballers Mindset podcast proved a cathartic experience for Shearer. The 39-year-old former goalkeeper spent more than 15 years carving out a living in English football’s lower leagues.
He wasn’t sure how his frankness would be received.
“It was the first time that I had properly opened up and spoken to people. If it helps one person then that is more than enough but it seems to have touched a lot of people.
“I had a lot of phone calls and I had a lot of messages, some from people who I had not spoken to in 10 years. There were others who were saying that they had been through the same thing but did not feel able to speak about it because of what the industry is like. It is changing now but there is still that stigma about not wanting to seem weak.”
Shearer hid his own dark thoughts for years. A reputation as the life and soul of the dressing room belied the feelings that would creep in when alone. Nobody really knew but they saw its effects, in performances on the pitch and mood swings that damaged relationships.
“Going to football was like a release. The exercise. The banter. Being able to be at the centre of that, the heart of the dressing room, was a relief for me. But as soon as the car door shut on my way home, it all stopped instantly. I did a lot of commuting on my own which was not healthy. Then I had to put another mask on to pretend to my family that I was OK.”
He is convinced that the lifestyle of a footballer, not the untold wealth and fame so often spoken of, but the emotionally draining reality of that career choice, played its part.
“I think a lot of my mental health problems were to do with that,” he says of the journey that took him south of the border from Albion Rovers to Coventry as a 22-year-old hopeful. “I think you have got to remain constant and that is very hard in sport where there are so many highs and lows. I don’t think people fully understand the sacrifices that are made.
“It is just a given that you have a good job, but it is now 17 years that I have been down here in England and I have had close to 20 house moves in my career. That is ridiculous when you look back on it. But that is how it is, you chase contracts, you chase success.
“Even when you are under contract you are having to plan. I think there was only one club where I spent more than two years and that was Wycombe Wanders so I was constantly on the move and there is constantly that fear of what is going to happen next.
“When I was at Crawley and in the February I ruptured my posterior cruciate ligament. I had a near complete rupture, but because I was out of contract that summer I forced myself to get back training within six weeks. I actually played the last game of the season to help us get promoted. It was still torn and I played a full 90 minutes competitively.
“I just look back at these things and think it was crazy but at the time my thinking was that I had a family to support and I had bills to pay. If I was injured I would not have got a move.
“It is crazy what you put yourself through.”
The pressure that Shearer put on himself impacted others too.
“My relationship with my kids’ mother was affected,” he admits.
“It got to the stage where I lost touch with friends. I wasn’t communicating with people. It was not personal, you just go into your shell. You talk to people in football and tell them you are fine. Beyond that, you become a recluse and retreat into your own world and that’s not a very nice world. It is a dark place. All those factors amalgamate and it gets worse.
“If people are brutally honest, they don’t like that. They cannot believe that footballers can be unhappy. They don’t think of them as human beings at times. So you have to pretend that everything is OK constantly. That is not real. Having to keep up that pretence because you cannot complain is difficult because you are human and things get to you.”
Even now, after a career in which he made more than 400 senior appearances, Shearer wonders whether more would have been possible had his thoughts not been compromised.
Depression stalked him, particularly later in his career as the effects of eight different operations took their toll. “When I was in a dark place, these injuries felt so much worse. Every day and every game I was in pain. It felt worse because of how I was feeling.”
The advent of social media did not help either and Shearer has nothing but sympathy for a generation of footballers who reach for their phones as soon as the match has ended.
“I know, for me personally, you almost search for the negativity,” he explains. “There will be 99 positive things said but you are searching for that one negative.”
That comes after a game. But, alarmingly, Shearer’s depression meant that there were many occasions when he was walking onto the pitch already engulfed by negative thoughts.
“Before some games, I would say to people that I was going to get man of the match today because I was in such a good head space and then I would be man of the match.
“But then there were other times before games when you just wanted to find the bloke on the public address system and tell him there was a very good chance you were going to **** up today so please don’t get on my back. Just to pre-warn the fans already.
“My performances were so hot and cold. Because I was so inconsistent within myself and trying to control my emotions, it showed on the pitch. I do wonder looking back what I could have achieved had I been in control earlier. There is so much potential wasted in football.”
In part, that is because in such a competitive industry players feel compelled to bottle up their feelings rather than address the issue. When Shearer advised a friend to open up as he has done, the consequences of speaking out soon became apparent.
“There are managers out there who won’t choose a player if they have mental health issues because they say that they cannot trust them. You are still battling stuff like that.
“There was a lad who I recognised was struggling and had massive anxiety problems. He got a move and spoke to me about it. I told him to speak to the manager and just be open and honest because it is not helping you to bottle it up. The manager told him that he could not pick him now because he did not know whether he could trust him on a Saturday.
“So you are still battling that, for sure. Even though it is getting better and people are talking, there are still people who do not understand it and are not educating themselves.”
Shearer’s own epiphany came after hitting rock bottom.
The strength of the response to his podcast appearance stemmed in part from the shocking tale of having the urge to veer off the motorway at one particularly bleak moment when the thoughts were overwhelming him.
“I suppose I have just got to think myself lucky that I did not act on anything.”
But it is another intimately personal moment that stands out for Shearer himself.
“A real breakthrough moment for me was when I properly lost it once in front of my kids. Obviously, me, with a deep, broad Glaswegian accent, it can be quite scary. My daughters were in front of me and they **** themselves, hysterically crying. I will always remember that. It was like I was watching something happening to someone else.
“I realised at that point that I really had to sort myself out here.”
It still took time. There is the black humour to be found in the story of him going to see a doctor only to have him reveal that he was a supporter of the club that Shearer was playing for at the time. “In my head, he is going to tell everyone. So I did not go back to him.”
A later visit to a former club doctor saw him put on medication. That helped. For a while. “My old mentality kicked in and I decided that I did not need a tablet to beat this.”
Even support from the PFA was not enough.
“I went to the PFA and had 12 sessions with a therapist but I just could not connect with the therapist who I was chatting to. I think a big thing for a sportsperson is to feel like someone gets them because we are not normal. We have a different mindset.
“It was about finding a connection with someone who would speak to me in a way that I would get it. Rob Blackburne is a friend. He speaks how I speak and he understands it.
“He was the first one I really blurted it out to.
“At that time, there was a lot of sympathy when you told people but nobody really knew what to say. But when I blurted it out to Rob, he just quizzed me. He challenged me.
“He just kept getting in to me. ‘Why are you feeling like that?’ He woke my mind up to thinking about everything in a completely different way. I started feeling stronger and stronger, getting back to my normal strength. That was my journey with it.”
It was the turning point and Shearer is in a better place now.
Coping mechanisms have helped.
“There are still days when I feel it creeping in if things in your life are not going to plan but now I recognise it. My thing is that I will go for a five-mile run. By the end of that it is gone.
“I don’t get low for more than 30 minutes now. Even if it is 10 o’clock at night I will realise that I need to go for a run or a do some form of exercise, even just a coffee with a friend. Something social. When I did feel like that before, I would shy away from it. Now I know my triggers and that I need to do something to change how I am thinking.
“But the truth is that those moments have become few and far between because I have got into good daily habits. The other thing about it is that I am so open with it all now. I am able to speak about it easily now because I feel like I have control of it.”
Aside from enjoying retirement and taking the chance to spend more time with his daughters, the next step on Shearer’s journey is about putting his own experiences to good use. He has become a financial advisor, inspired by a negative experience as a youngster at Coventry. But that is just the starting point for the help he hopes to provide.
“Being able to help others feels great. I don’t think there is anything more satisfying than that, to be honest, and a big part of my life at the moment is wanting to help people and educate them. Make them realise that there is probably someone in their dressing room right now feeling how I was feeling. Be aware. Talk to people. Make sure they are OK.”
Before this interview, he has just “had a chat with a young footballer this morning who is struggling with it all” but there are positive stories too. “The guy who was ****ed off by the manager for telling him about his anxiety? He has gone on to do talks on anxiety,” he says.
“Things like this are amazing.”
And does he have any advice about how we all look at mental health?
“The first thing that we have to think about is that we are all human and we all have struggles. Life is life whether you are on £100 a week or £100,000. It is about noticing the smallest change or if they react in a certain way. But it is not even about waiting. Especially in these times we are in now, just phone someone to see if they are OK.
“As long as we are taking steps and people are being more honest. It does not mean that someone is less of a person if they have mental health problems. If we can all just help each other a little bit more, the world will be a much better place.”
Need support? Worried about someone? CALM’s (that’s the Campaign Against Living Miserably) helpline and webchat are open daily 5pm-midnight. Get it here.
Alternatively, you can get in touch with Samaritans on 116 123 – 24 hours a day, seven days a week.