Stan: Tackling My Demons – Book Review
26th January 2010
After the tragic death of Hannover goalkeeper Robert Enke last year, the issue of depression in sport has received intense media coverage. Many view the illness as a new manifestation of the pressures of the intense nature high-level sporting performance brings. Sportpeople suffering from anxiety related disorders are far from uncommon; England cricketer Marcus Trescothick, Northern Ireland footballer Neil Lennon, and Olympic gold medallist Dame Kelly Holmes are just a few of the stars to open up about having experienced depression during their careers. And there will be more; that is certain.
The macho nature of top class sport will, in many cases, prevent sufferers from talking about such problems, with the fear of ridicule overriding the need for professional help. This week, I’m reviewing the Autobiography of former England footballer Stan Collymore. Entitled ‘Stan – Tackling My Demons’ the book charts how a player, said by former manager John Gregory to have more talent than Thierry Henry, struggled to cope with pressures of life in the big time, eventually developing crippling depression which led to his retirement from football , aged just 29. Here we get a look inside the not quite so beautiful game.
Collymore’s frank honesty is evident from the first chapter. Born in Cannock, he pulls no punches as he describes his childhood. Forced to endure racism and bullying throughout his upbringing, it wasn’t just outside the home that life was a struggle. Deserted by his father, who beat his mother throughout the duration of their brief marriage, Stan was brought up in a one parent family. Short of money, he spent much of his childhood alone while his mother was out working. His one true passion was football, where he found his goal-scoring prowess made him a hero in both his school and Sunday teams. Picked up by Walsall aged 16, he started an apprenticeship, but soon found the harsh nature of the football world too difficult to cope with and quit, after numerous run-ins with his fearsome coach. Moving to Wolves, he subsequently transferred to Crystal Palace, where he was said to have put in tremendous displays for the reserves. It wasn’t all plain sailing however, as Stan’s difficulty with the uncompromising criticism of the club’s hierarchy left him feeling isolated, and culminated in his coming to blows with reserve-team manager Wally Downes. Again, as Collymore documents his early club career, he leaves nothing to the imagination, describing his contempt for Palace legends Ian Wright and Geoff Thomas, the latter with whom he similarly came to blows after an incident at training.
Finding first team opportunities limited at Palace, he was once again transferred, this time to Southend United, where he almost single handedly saved the club from relegation after scoring 18 goals in 33 games. This helped pave the way for a move to Nottingham Forest where he showed the best form of his career. Nevertheless, the complexities of his personal life did not go unnoticed, with the press branding him a ‘loner’ who was disliked by his team-mates. His continued success in front of goal, however, made him a hot property. Touted for a move to Manchester United, Stan waited to with baited breath to work with esteemed coach Alex Ferguson. But the call never came. In the end, he settled for a move to Liverpool, very much a secondary footballing power at the time. As his wages rocketed to £25000 a week, his social difficulties became rooted. He turned into a womanizer, was out on the town far too often for a professional player and was generally considered a fully-fledged member of the ‘spice boys’culture at the mid-nineties Liverpool FC – all style and little substance.
Gradually though, he fell down the pecking order at Anfield, so when Aston Villa, the club he supported as a boy came calling with a double-your-money deal he took it, no questions asked. By his own admission, he was mentally shot to pieces by the time he arrived at Villa Park, lost in “the circus and bull**** of the Premiership”. Low mood started to take a hold of him, tired at the end of even routine training sessions, he could sense something wasn’t right, finding it difficult come impossible to sustain himself unless he scored goals; yet the oxygenic properties that the scoring sensation had once harboured were no longer there. Then came new manager John Gregory. At this point, it is important to take a neutral stand on where Gregory had come from. Successful at Wycombe, he was felt by many to have emerged from nowhere when he took the reigns at Villa and it is fair to assume that Stan’s assessment that “being in charge of high-profile players like me, Dwight Yorke and Mark Bosnich was a real-turn on for him”. That is where Collymore’s empathy for his coach begins and ends, as he launches a wave of stinging attacks on a man who he says sent him over the edge, into the abyss of depression. The book essentially pivots on this chapter, called ‘Villa: Going Nowhere’, it observes the way in which at a time the additional pressure of Premier League football while he was dealing with the misunderstood illness, drove him to almost mentally collapse. The controversial writing style is in no way compromised, as Stan regails us with numerous tales of the unsympathetic approach of his manager, other players and club chairman, the latter telling him to “just pull your socks up and get on with it”. Similarly, his personal life is examined, after an inappropriate liaison with Ulrika Jonnson sucks the remaining energy out of him, the frustration builds until their infamous encounter in Paris during the 1998 world cup, where he “just lost it” and floors her with a punch. To his credit, the self-criticism over this aspect of his colourful past is evident. Depression doesn’t marr one’s abilities to distinguish between right and wrong and Stan makes no effort to defend his actions, “I was a brute, I was an animal” and perhaps most damning of all, referring to a quote from his mother in earlier chapters “just like your (his) Dad”.
This irrational and desperate action seems to be a watershed, as he goes on to talk about his time spent in the Priory Clinic, during his last season with Aston Villa, where his struggle with team-mates and manager continue, culminating in his being asked to explain his absence from training to his fellow players and apologise to them, to which he replies “apologise for what?”. The last straw comes when he regales us with John Gregory’s rant to the press “I have never believed he needed to have counselling, I’m very anti the whole situation” – though Stan muses that his manager never said any of this to his face. After a very average loan spell with Fulham, Stan is clearly confused and dissatisfied so when Martin O’Neill comes to take him to Leicester City, it seems as though there may be light at the end of the tunnel. In his playing career though, this unfortunately is not the case, as when a practical joke goes too far, he is quickly forced out of Leicester City. As he begins to lament on his last season in football he describes his contempt for the game he loved as a child and young professional “I didn’t see beauty in football anymore. I didn’t see friendship or even fraternity. I just saw a wilderness of loneliness and pain. I saw ugliness.” Disastrous moves to Bradford City and finally Real Oviedo are acknowledged in the last chapter regarding his football career.
The concluding chapters of the book document the last piece of controversy, as Stan gets caught dogging by a national newspaper and his subsequent humiliation as he is mocked in the press once again. He also talks about his new life after football, doing various punditry work and involvement in other projects, including a small part in a film. When the book draws to a close, as readers we are able to reflect on the various incidents that have taken place in Stan’s career. The book has a lot of bitterness, there’s no doubt about that, but to be fair, the man was the first footballer to be open about his depression, suffering ridicule that almost drove him to suicide. The very end of the book sees a more mature look at his life and with much hindsight it appears he has some closure on at least some of the issues which spelled the end of a career, regarded by many as a chronic underachievement. But the author seems to have peace of mind “I didn’t underachieve. I overachieved. I had a great career. “ – at a glance this seems to be utterly ridiculous, but when fleshed out with context, it seems that maybe this isn’t so unfair. Overall, the book is an interesting account of a well publicised career. With incredible honesty, we get an insight into a troubled life, of one of the most naturally talented footballers of a generation.
by Ed Tarlton
An attention-grabbing read, recommended to any football-fan, it might just change the way you see footballers when they step off the pitch.
‘Terrific… an absorbing, compelling, sad and disturbing read’ Paul Kimmage (Sunday Times)
‘A searingly honest tale of a footballer fighting demons’ Paul Hayward (Daily Telegraph)