Sunday 20 August 2017

Comment - Ryan Giggs should be praised for his honesty, not persecuted for his wealth and mistakes

CAIRO, EGYPT - APRIL 05: Former footballer Ryan Giggs attends a television interview in the Egyptian Museum during the UEFA champions league trophy tour on April 5, 2017 in Cairo, Egypt. (Photo by Getty Images/Getty Images)
CAIRO, EGYPT - APRIL 05: Former footballer Ryan Giggs attends a television interview in the Egyptian Museum during the UEFA champions league trophy tour on April 5, 2017 in Cairo, Egypt. (Photo by Getty Images/Getty Images)

Jack O'Toole

It can often be hard to fathom that a man like Ryan Giggs, a player who played more games of football in the Premier League than any other player, never really enjoyed the one activity that he did more than anyone else - playing games of football.

It's hard for many of us to believe that you could do any activity for 24 years without ever really enjoying it,  as we often choose our own paths rather than having our brilliance dictate the road for us.

But prodigious talents like Giggs often trailblaze their own paths to the top of their chosen profession, and 13 Premier League titles and two Champions League winners medals certainly suggest that Giggs reached the apex of his, but success and an individual's mental wellbeing can often be two different things entirely.

"All of us are on a spectrum of physical and mental health and there are certain things about the life of an elite footballer than might trigger problems," registered psychologist Bradley Busch told The Telegraph earlier this week after it was revealed that Everton winger Aaron Lennon is currently being treated for a stress-related illness.

"One of them is the perception that footballers have a perfect life. If everyone looks at you and sees you have perfect health and lots of money, people assume you must be happy all the time.

"That is just not the case. Wealth does not insulate any footballer from mental health problems like anxiety, depression and addiction. Just as a percentage of bankers, lawyers and teachers have mental health issues, it should be perfectly expected that at least the same percentage of footballers will face the same challenges."

The anxiety and stress that Giggs writes about in his column in Saturday's edition of The Telegraph provides a revealing insight into the pressure that a player of Giggs' stature can face.

Giggs said that he 'never really enjoyed playing games' because there was often so much at stake when playing for Manchester United.

It may seem like common knowledge to any football fan that when Sir Alex Ferguson is your manager, Roy Keane is your captain, and Old Trafford is where you play your football, that naturally, there's going to be a high degree of pressure.

But when we see Giggs streaming down the sidelines of Villa Park swirling his jersey above his head after scoring a match winner in an FA Cup semi-final against Arsenal, we tend to assume that he's coping just fine with that pressure.

And he probably was. The images of an ecstatic Giggs sprinting down the sidelines of Villa Park before being mobbed by his United teammates certainly gives the impression that the Wales international was certainly capable of withstanding football related pressure, but winning can often be a common elixir in sport. Losing not so much.

"I took defeat personally, and there were times after we lost a big game that - if we were not required at the training ground - I would not come out the house for two days," wrote Giggs.

"I know now that it is not helpful or normal – but it is hard to know what is normal when you are in that environment.

"There are people who do very stressful jobs – doctors, nurses, policemen, teachers, lawyers. I have nothing but respect for that. The one thing I felt was unique to a footballer’s stress was that every day when I left my house I never knew what I would encounter.

"There might be 30 autograph requests over the course of the day, or 30 selfies. There might be none. There might just be nice things said. Or there might be aggro, and a harsh comment. It was the uncertainty about what the day held that got to me."

Players and athletes like Giggs often exude a persona of invincibility, and it's an image that can certainly be easy to believe, especially when you play for Manchester United for 24 years and you win as many medals as Giggs did during his time at Old Trafford.

But Giggs' story should serve as a prime example that footballers, just like people, are not immune to the pitfalls of human emotion, and that success and money can only elevate you so much.

Defending the lives of professional footballers is often an unsympathetic task, especially when they have a highly publicised personal past like Giggs'.

But that personal history, nor the wealth that he accumulated during it, doesn't exclude him or make him any less susceptible to stress, anxiety or mental health issues, but judging from the reaction to Giggs' column on social media, his wealth and past transgressions have been held against him when airing his voice on his own struggles.

You should never judge all of society, or its inhabitants, from the echo chambers of Facebook comment sections and Twitter feeds, but for the week that's in it, Giggs' voice is an important note in the discussion concerning mental health in sport.

His wealth has certainly made his life more comfortable than most, and some of his actions in the past cannot always be excused, but his voice is an important one in an area of football that is hard to talk about and all too easy to dismiss.

Online Editors

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