25th September 2016
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Talking Sport … with Jim Tait

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There should be nothing taboo about depression

Former cricketer Graeme “Foxy” Fowler is one of a growing number of sportsmen and women to have highlighted their battles against depression.

His new book Absolutely Foxed is an interesting tale of an interesting character, and while his cricket career obviously features – he once scored a double century for England in India and a century against the West Indies at Lords – it is the darker side of his life which is the main talking point.

Fowler’s mental health issues began 12 years ago, long after his career as a player had ended. It was his wife who first noticed a change in his behaviour, after he had ceased to engage properly with anyone for weeks. His daughter, aged eight at the time, said: “Daddy you just sit in the conservatory with the Land Rover magazine every day and it’s the same magazine.”

Fowler went to the doctor and within five minutes he had been diagnosed with clinical depression.

Other cricketers have suffered from mental-related illnesses, some of them thankfully still playing the game, but tragically a few like David Bairstow have taken their own lives after the strain became too much.

Stars from other sports have also fought an at times lonely battle. One of the greatest Scottish footballers of all time, Hughie Gallagher, ended it all by walking in front of an express train at Gateshead at the age of 54.

More recently international players such as Welshmen Gary Speed and Alan Davies, Scottish full back Erich Shaedler and Robert Enke of Germany have committed suicide, while issues mainly with to do with his sexuality led English under-21 star Justin Fashanu to end it all.

In boxing British world champions like the great Randolph Turpin and Freddie Mills were responsible for their own deaths.

These and more are just the tip of the iceberg, however, as successful sportsmen at all levels have battled the demons.

Locally Ian Manson, one of the finest footballers to represent Shetland, a man who put plenty back into the game he graced and someone I considered a friend, succumbed to the kind of pain only he could understand.

Fowler says he has never considered suicide himself, as he basically had a good life with a great family and a great job. However, there were many times when he wished he was dead.

In his book he explains his state of mental health by using a rating system of between zero and 20. In a television interview a fortnight ago he said he was currently at a 14 while if it was below 10 he was struggling. He’d never been a 19 or a one and usually operated between five and 15.

The shadow never fully goes away, Fowler believes, but the more people talk about depression the more he feels it smashes the stigma.

“I’m not medically qualified or anthing like that,” he stresses. “I just tell them my story and we take it from there. I’m not on a world crusade or anything. I’m just happy to talk and people who know me will tell you I’m quite good at talking.”

What Fowler says is absolutely correct. The more open people are about their individual situations – and that requires both a proper environment for discussion and a willingness by others to understand the problems – the better.

There is no stigma attached to physical ailments. It is not taboo to talk about a broken leg or a chest complaint. So why on earth should mental illnesses be any different?

Education is vitally important, and it is heartening to see the work done here in Shetland by the Mind Your Head charity, with the late Ian Manson’s daughter Shona at its head. The organisation currently sponsors the reserve football league, and in September will be taking part in Suicide Prevention Awareness Week.

Mind Your Head already organises its very successful fun run and walk and is embarking on its “grubby hut” exercise – as part of the football sponsorship agreement required every reserve team to sign up to take part in a discussion group.

I have the greatest regard for those involved with their ongoing efforts. The hard work and fine commitment deserves success.

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Shetland’s junior inter-county competitors sadly came up short in the weekend’s overall competition.

Following promising victories in athletics, netball and swimming, Orkney completely turned the tables in the final two disciplines, registering thumping wins in the hockey and football matches.

The 10-0 hockey defeat may be something of an eye-opener, and hopefully a freak result, but it could perhaps serve as a reminder to the authorities that without proper facilities to learn the game and train on our young sports people will always be at a disadvantage.

How can pupils at the Anderson High School, both at the current building and the forthcoming new one at Clickimin, become versed in hockey when the only place to practice is at Brae.

We will shortly have a new indoor “facility”, as they keep calling it, measuring 63 by 42 metres, which will be ideal for many pursuits including football, rugby, athletics and cricket.

However, it will be entirely unsuitable for hockey, which for well over half a century has been one of Shetland’s most popular sports.

This column may sound to some like a stuck record, but Lerwick needs a surface for hockey. If the powers that be have any doubt they should ask those who participate what they think.

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Football fans’ thoughts are today turning to this year’s European Championships in France, where all the British countries are represented apart from Scotland.

Considering the Scots’ pathetic performance in the friendlies against Italy and France over the past two weekends, perhaps it is a blessing in disguise that they are missing from the tournament.

The 1-0 victory for the Italians in Malta was surely one of the most flattering scores for the defeated side ever, with Scottish goalkeeper David Marshall performing heroics and his outfield colleagues never once troubling Gianluigi Buffon in the Italy goal.

The 3-0 defeat against France was even worse, although it could be argued that the French are possibly better than Italy and one of the favourites for Euro 16.

Excuse after excuse has been trundled out by manager Gordon Strachan, along with a fair bit of head-scratching as he desperately tried to explain the abject display of his players. Tiredness, lack of practice, the pitch, missing regulars … you name it, everything has been mentioned.

“We had some good conversations,” was about the only positive point Strachan could make after what had been witnessed.

Let’s be honest here. Losing 1-0 to Italy is a result that most people would have taken before the match. But the matter of the defeat was appalling when you consider that the players are highly paid professionals, four of them plying their trade in the English Premier League, three in the Scottish Premier League and another four in the highly competitive English Championship.

Neither the Italian nor the French results have given any comfort to the Scottish preparations for the forthcoming World Cup qualifiers, particularly as it could be argued that the 11 on the field at various times probably contained up to seven first picks.

Many of these appear to have adopted a defeatist mentality before the game starts, and consider their main object to protect their defence and keep the score down as much as possible.

Next year will be the 50th anniversary of Scotland’s greatest achievement on the football field, Glasgow Celtic’s victory in the European Cup, when 11 players all born in or relatively near their home city outplayed the cream of Italian football. How the country could do with their like again.

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Much has been written about the death of former boxer Muhammad Ali, rated by many as the greatest ever exponent of his sport.

Ali was loved the world over, admired by millions of people in dozens of countries who were totally enamoured by his personality.

It was not always like that, of course. In the early to mid-1960s as Cassius Clay he was a figure of hate, seen by the majority as a draft dodger and by a misguided minority as a threat to white supremacy.

A braggart without equals, he would reduce highly rated opponents to quivering wrecks before a legitimate punch was even thrown with his pre-fight bluster. I remember listening to fights on the radio and willing him to lose. It never happened.

Everything changed when Ali refused to fight in the Vietnam war and as a result was banned from boxing for three years. When he returned to the ring he had ditched the “slave” name, converted to Islam and assumed a much more dignified stance. Of course he still boasted about his class, but now it was with a twinkle in his eye.

It may have seemed pretty ironic when he was described by former US president George Bush as “a man of peace”, but that was precisely what he became.

I would repeat the words used in this column a few years ago. Perhaps America could do with another of Ali’s ilk today.

AboutJim Tait

Jim Tait is news editor at The Shetland Times.

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