It started as a trickle, one or two footballers admitting mental health issues. Now, every few weeks we hear of another brave enough to speak up about their struggles. This week it’s ‘one of our own’, at least for now.
I think we all expected Billy Knott to tear up League Two this season, especially after forcing his way into Danny’s plans at the start of the campaign. He started out wide on the left, but against Notts County came the start he craved as the number ten, playing behind Greeny. For 30 minutes it looked good, we matched County but then Seb Stockbridge whipped out a red card. We didn’t lose Bill for three games, we potentially lost him for good.
In an interview with echo-news.co.uk, the former Chelsea trainee has opened up about his own fight with mental illness. I wasn’t surprised at the words I read, but I was surprised with how candid and brave Billy was. As a football writer, I knocked him towards the end of his spell at the club but his admissions certainly coloured in some blanks, helped me make sense of his departure.
I often wondered how a young man who seemingly had the world at his feet coped with a so-called fall from grace? I imagined Billy as a jack-the-lad, but on the training day I went on he seemed more like a troubled genius, quiet and withdrawn. It’s easy to forget these players are people sometimes, that they feel like you and I. Just because Billy was a talented footballer, we assumed he was wasting that talent and had been given enough chances. What we saw in those final few weeks now makes sense, a young man torn and troubled.
After the County sending off there was the very public effort to show the fans how hard he was working. I remember turning up to a night game to see him out on the 3G pitches training. He would come across to the stands and sit in the gantry to the delight of fans, behaviour which I imagine helped boost his confidence. After the sending off, suffering with depression, I would imagine he will have gone through a period of self hatred, irrespective of whether it was the right decision, before wanting to show us, the paying fans, he still cared. Then, as we won games and his chances dwindled away, he turned to his vices for comfort.
Recently Billy Kee has been open about his fight with the ‘rat’ in his head, Billy has now opened up about the questions that came to him late at night and last year Nathan Arnold was candid about his own battles with anxiety. They may be lower league players but they have shown real bravery in admitting their issues.
I don’t want to harp on too much, Billy will need his privacy respecting at this tough time. I’ve never shied away from my own battle, thankfully I’ve had no issues now for almost a year. I do understand though, when they say the ‘rat’ comes at night or the voices start to pose questions once the light goes out. We’re not talking full on psychosis here, voices telling you to kill or anything, but they’re thoughts that start and simply don’t go away. It used to keep me up when I had a job as a manager, like Billy I’d turn my phone off before bed but then lay awake asking myself things about the day. Had I dealt with a certain situation properly? What had people thought of me? Once you start picking at a thread, there’s only one outcome and I can entirely understand how things manifested themselves for young Billy.
I’m not judging him turning to drink to get away from it, people find all sorts of ways to hide from their problems. I feel desperately sad for him, that such a talented boy has found himself in the place he has, as much a victim of a ruthless profession as anyone. I think there’s a bit of the ‘Gazza’ in there, my impression is Billy just wants to play football, but when the pitch is empty and the crowd has gone home he’s alone and open to those inner demons.
Will we see Billy Knott play for City again? I’d say it is unlikely, but you never know. What I do want to see is him playing somewhere, anywhere, with a smile on his face. His newspaper interview might have crept out in Basildon under the radar, but it should be put with Billy Kee’s interview and all the other players brave enough to admit they’re fighting it too and splashed wherever young people can see it. Their experiences might help other young players, it might convince them that those feelings they get when the light goes out at night are not unique. Now, more than ever, young players are being stockpiled like excess equipment at big clubs, then being thrown away without ever being given a chance. We’re creating a mental health time bomb within the sport, we’re in the grip of a mental health epidemic in the wider world.
Suicide is the biggest killer of men under 45 years old in the UK. Mental health is a huge issue for both sexes, not a little one, not one we should shy away from, but something that we need to face up to and be honest about and tackle head on. I bet you, reading this right now, knows someone who suffers. I bet you know someone suffering right now who is hiding it too, afraid to speak up for fear of a lack of support or understanding.
I wish Billy all the best for the future, whatever it may bring for him.