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Gareth McAuley: I want to see the introduction of an Irish League support group following tragic death of Jerry Thompson

Gerard ‘Jerry’ Thompson
Gerard ‘Jerry’ Thompson
Gareth McAuley

By Gareth McAuley

The greatest legacy for Jerry Thompson would be setting up a players' association here

The human side of a footballer is often lost on people.

They view the player on the pitch and fail to see the person.

Just because a player may be able to score a goal, make a tackle or save a shot on goal in front an eagerly watching audience, doesn't make them infallible.

Footballers, especially those in the professional game, have their demons to battle and mental health is a serious issue in our game.

Often the training and actual games are a release for players.

The long periods of downtime following training and monotonous periods in hotels can spell the biggest problems.

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There is so much time to think, dark thoughts can creep in, depression can hit hard and vices such as alcohol and gambling can greatly affect a player.

In Northern Ireland alone, high profile internationals Keith Gillespie, Roy Carroll and Kyle Lafferty have all spoken out about how addiction controlled their lives for many years.

Football, especially playing at the highest level, consumes you. Players, if they want to succeed, have to be natually self-centred and selfish, which obviously places burdens on family life and relationships.

But there is a support network in the form of the Professional Footballers' Association.

I must admit, in the last six years, the PFA have been touring the country educating players, putting on mental health workshops and encouraging those players not to keep things hidden. There are confidential lines open so that players can speak in private because, let's be honest, there is still a stigma over mental health and that is something I would like to see eradicated.

I want players to feel confident that they can openly discuss issues with fellow team-mates who will be happy to be a sounding blocks and give them basic advice which could resonate.

Sometimes though it's when you have finished playing that's when you need the support network of the PFA most. The days can become long and dull.

Former Aston Villa and Fulham midfielder Steve Sidwell has spoken about hitting a brick wall and how difficult it is to readjust.

I must admit there are days when I have been sitting at home since my retirement and found myself drifting off - wondering what next?

But the decision to retire and not rush into my next project or job was mine as I wanted to spend more time with my family.

But when most of your life has involved routine and structure, you do start to miss football and everything that goes with it and I can see how people can become stressed or even overwhelmed by such a void in your life.

Football is such a ruthless occupation that for many, when it does come to an end, you feel as though you have been cast aside. So for those players that need it, the PFA is an important and much needed advice and listening network.

And I believe the Irish League deserves to the have the equivalent of the PFA in Northern Ireland.

So much has been done for child welfare, women's football, marketing, advertising and TV revenue, but what about looking after the players and their mental health? We need to safeguard players.

I was deeply shocked and saddened by young Jerry Thompson's death last week and I believe the greatest legacy for him would be setting up a players' association in Northern Ireland - so that players can feel confident about gaining support, structure and ultimately help with their lives.

When I think back to my Irish League days, especially at Coleraine, I was constantly tired.

Tired from holding down a regular job with a 6am start, commuting, going to training, whether it be with the lads or down the gym, or actually playing and then getting into bed around midnight and starting the whole cycle the following day.

There was little time for anything else in your life.

When you are like that, you can't think straight and everything going on in your life is muddled up.

In contrast, when you play at the top level you need to be so mentally strong to deal with everything that comes your way. There is a greater scrutiny, media attention and expectations are incredible.

Most players I've known playing Premier League football are all mentally strong.

But problems do arise and, just like with footballers throughout the length and breadth of the UK and Ireland, they often hide it.

That is the biggest problem and I would love everyone to realise, it is okay, not to be okay.

Let's get the support groups set up people need.

◊ If you or someone you know is in crisis, call Lifeline, the 24/7 freephone counselling helpline on 0808 808 8000

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