Saturday 27 May 2017

Vincent Hogan: Flintoff did not shed any real light on dark world

Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

Freddie Flintoff seems a likeable sort, but I can't say if he's depressive or just someone who finds public expectation a private tyranny.

After watching the BBC's 'Hidden Side of Sport' on Wednesday night, you get the feeling he's not quite sure himself. Freddie, essentially, stepped into a confessional for this documentary, inviting a collection of other former sports stars to join him on the journey.

The result was a compelling 50-minute scrapbook of personal stories of distress, utterly compelling in candour, if a little less so in direction.

Society's relationship with depression is, historically, one of jackboot clumsiness and sport has been largely faithful to that tone. The tragic deaths in recent times of Darren Sutherland, Robert Enke and, most recently, Gary Speed, served only to highlight a broad incomprehension at highly gifted, successful people seemingly losing the will to live.

As an outwardly cavalier figure, Flintoff courageously introduced Wednesday night's viewer to a profoundly different person. He spoke of not wanting to get out of bed during the 2006/07 Ashes Tour when he was captain of an England team on its way to humiliating whitewash in the series.

On Christmas Eve of '06, he admits he broke down in floods of tears after a few drinks with his father, Colin. All the overt swagger of Flintoff the cricketer became a cover for the fragility of Flintoff the man.

The problem was, the documentary followed no coherent track. Were we exploring depression or the management of disappointment? A clinical condition or the private reaction to defeat? In its ambiguity, 'Hidden Side of Sport' offered nothing but random anecdotes that seemed plucked from entirely different emotional strata.

Ricky Hatton showed Flintoff around his mansion, stopping by the trophy cabinet and recalling how he "cried and cried and cried" after a second-round knockout by Manny Pacquiao. But did his tears signify depression or the hapless manifestation of self-pity?

The viewer never discovered if Hatton actually suffered from any medical condition. Did he, for example, ever feel this way after winning a fight? The gap in information left a suspicion that this was a programme simply ad-libbing its editorial direction.

Which might have been a good thing if, at least, it reached a destination. It didn't.

Barry McGuigan offered some general observations on boxing's brutal mental demands, which, in his own case, were compounded by the need to be seen as a non-political figure at a viciously sectarian time.

"There were times when it all became a bit much," acknowledged Barry, without either elaborating or, for that matter, implying that this could be interpreted as suffering from a depressive personality. The elephant in the room sadly, which Flintoff seemed unaware of, was that Barry's own brother, Dermot, lost his life to suicide.

Did this not, maybe, give McGuigan a window into the world of depression that might have been worth peering through? Freddie never asked.

The narrative hinted that every story had a common thread. But this was true only in the fact that those interviewed all had a connection with sport. People like Steve Harmison, Neil Lennon and former world snooker champion Graham Dott seemed to be wrestling with something you could reconcile with Churchill's 'Black Dog'.

Dott's story was especially bleak, his inner turmoil once leading to him breaking down and weeping while playing professionally in China. This image bore a starkness that, somehow, seemed to belong in a different place to Hatton's tears. Dott will be on medication for the rest of his life. Ricky? We didn't get to know if he needed as much as an aspirin.

Vinnie Jones recalled the infamous, drink-fuelled Dublin incident on the night England supporters rioted at Lansdowne Road when, unprovoked, he viciously bit the nose of veteran Fleet Street reporter Ted Oliver. According to Jones, the fall-out to the incident plunged him into a depression and, as he puts it, he "took a gun up to the woods."

Whether Jones seriously considered suicide, only he can tell. But his remorse provoked neither sufficient circumspection nor sobriety in his life to enable him sidestep the small multiple of violent scraps he has become entangled in since.

The media, inevitably, took a bit of a kicking on Wednesday night. Flintoff upbraided former 'Mirror' editor Piers Morgan for the tabloid "slaughter" of Harmison at a time when he was struggling with depression. Vinnie helpfully described journalists as "jealous sportsmen, sitting up there drinking their wine and their beer while you're playing!"

And that was when you could see through the whole thing. The illusion of a serious documentary that delivered -- through Flintoff's presence -- uncommon access to celebrities, without throwing any real light on a dark world. This was 'VIP' tarting itself up as 'The Lancet'.

Perhaps it was the BBC's way of assuaging guilt after Geoffrey Boycott's crass denigration on Radio Five this year of cricketer Michael Yardy, who flew home from the World Cup because of depression.

Either way, it failed. Nobody seriously believes all sports people to be magically fire-proofed against worry and disappointment. But the condition of depression belongs in a different galaxy to the indulgence of self-pity.

'Hidden Side of Sport' didn't seem to get that.

Remember Minister for Sport John O'Donoghue's declaration in '07 that the London Olympics represented a "golden opportunity" for Ireland to attract competing teams to prepare here? Does any image capture the roaring conceit of that time quite like Belfield today and its closed track?

As for Mr Mitchell's five-ringed dream, best let it go, Gay.

Irish Independent

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