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28th Sep 2016

“I just started spiralling out of control” – Jason McAteer opens up to SportsJOE about his depression and suicidal thoughts

Tony Barrett

“I kept having these thoughts like ‘Fuck it, I can’t be arsed any more’.

“I was driving through the Mersey tunnel this day and the cars on the other side of the road are heading towards me and I just thought ‘If I just give it one of them right now and go right across the road the cars will smash into me and that’ll be it.’

“Because my son, Harry, was so young I was thinking I couldn’t do it to him and I was also thinking about who might hit me, is it going to be a mum or will there be kids in the car? But still, the thoughts kept coming ‘Go on, just swing it across, it’ll be seconds.’ It was just mad.”

There is always something startling and deeply unsettling about someone detailing the moments when they actively thought about taking their own life; that sense that the person talking to you has had to make an active decision not to die when the voices in their head are urging them towards suicide.

That the above quotes are the words of Jason McAteer, former Liverpool and Republic of Ireland player and life and soul of the party, will inevitably shock many. It shouldn’t, of course, as mental illness doesn’t belong to a particular kind of person, but still there is that inescapable feeling that McAteer falls into the category of sufferer who just doesn’t seem the type.

That he was and possibly still could be, although there is no question that is life is now back on track, is one of the prevailing and most disturbing themes of his revealing new autobiography, Blood, Sweat and Jason McAteer.

A memoir which seems to be going as expected, childhood memories of home-made football kits, the big breakthrough, joining his boyhood club, life with the Ireland national team and clashes with Roy Keane, suddenly veers into much darker territory.

For the reader it serves as a jolt; there is no suggestion that this is coming. That isn’t a literary device, the twist is in no way contrived. But as an example of how someone can go off the rails and unravel to the point that life no longer seems worth living, it is both unnerving and revelatory.

Jason McAteer of Liverpool (left) is brought down by Eric Cantona of Manchester UnitedClive Brunskill/Getty Images

Sat in an executive box at Anfield, the stadium he went to as a boy with dreams of emulating his hero, Kenny Dalglish, and where he played for Liverpool during what became known as the club’s Spice Boy era, McAteer is remarkably comfortable talking about his experiences.

If writing the book and delving into a past that most, including some of his closest friends, did not know he had endured, proved cathartic, so too, it seems, does the opportunity to talk about it. Nothing is evaded, from the moment he believes it all began to go wrong, to being diagnosed as clinically suicidal, each and every step of his downward spiral is discussed openly and honestly.

The starting point of McAteer’s decline is easy for him to pinpoint and it is one that countless ex-sportsmen will identify with. “It was the day I went into see Ronnie Moore at Tranmere Rovers and it all came to an end,” he recalls, “Ronnie was manager and I was part of his playing staff but I was coaching as well. Lorraine Rogers was my ally at the football club but she’d gone and I’d always felt that Ronnie didn’t really want me but she kept me there, I got a new contract for example which I don’t think he wanted to give me.

“After Lorraine had gone my contract ran out and I went in to see Ronnie at the end of the season and in my head I was thinking that he’d offer me a coaching role with the reserves but nothing on the playing side. I was alright with that so to go in and for him to say there was nothing because he didn’t want me on the coaching side or the playing side, you go for bravado saying stuff like ‘No problem, I can see where you’re coming from’ and all that but I had this terrible feeling in the pit of my stomach because I knew I wasn’t wanted. It was like I had nowhere else to go. There was nowhere to go now.”

That was when McAteer’s problems began. Without anything to fill the void, he was left to his own devices and all sense of self-worth and belonging was quickly lost. Time was filled by filling baths and little else. The football drug was wearing off and there was nothing to replace it with.

Tranmere Rovers v Hartlepool UnitedBryn Lennon/Getty Images

At first it wasn’t so bad, but before long the chasm that had been created in his life began to drag him under. With family problems also consuming him, McAteer found himself at the mercy of his own mind and quickly discovered that he was not able to cope with the solitude of being a former footballer.

“I had a couple of weeks in the house where you lie in and do stuff like that and you think it’s great,” he says. “And the other thing was the timing meant that it felt like I was on holiday because the other lads were so I was in a bit of a bubble.

“But the next thing is pre-season starts, the phone isn’t ringing and there’s nothing there. You’re ringing your mates to see if they fancy a coffee but they’re going to work, so you go and have nine holes of golf but then that’s done and there’s nothing to do, so you go to your mum’s and she’s out or she’s busy.

“While all this was going on I was going through a break up and I had a little boy, Harry, and they weren’t around. I just started spiralling out of control.

“I focused on getting this family unit back but that wasn’t happening and I just remember sitting in the bath all the time because I had nothing else to do. I’d get up and jump in the bath which is fine but when you’re doing it five or six times a day something clearly isn’t right but you’re not thinking this shouldn’t be happening. It just creeps up on you.”

It was then that the tunnel incident occurred. Had McAteer done what his demons were telling him to, the chances are that he would not now be here to tell the tale. That he is doing so as lucidly as he is is testament to a woman he refers to only as Jane, a counsellor who worked alongside his mother, Thora, in drugs services.

Starting by giving McAteer 20 questions, Jane attempted to discover what exactly had driven her new patient to the brink of suicide and in doing so began a process that allowed him to rediscover peace of mind.

“There’s a big loneliness and a void when you’re going through something like that but there’s also that bravado, that sense in football that whatever it is you don’t own up to it and besides that you don’t actually know you’re in that state until you go and see someone and they point it out,” McAteer says.

“In my case I had to fill in a questionnaire, there were 20 questions but I can’t remember what they were because I wasn’t focusing. She just told me I had to fill it in as honestly as you can and when I went back into the room she told me we needed to spend some time together. She’d actually said to my mum that I was clinically suicidal, that I was in a really bad way.

“I was in a state of depression. I was sitting down talking to Jane and I felt an instant bond. We ended up going back to stuff in my childhood, what my upbringing was like and she’s trying to figure my character out.

“It soon became clear that I was suffering from a lot of co-dependency because I was wanting to get back with my ex and back into this family unit and basically I was just focusing on her as something to lean on and as a way into a comfort zone.

“She was saying to me that this probably wasn’t going to help me but if that was the way I wanted to go we’d figure it out. I remember her telling me to buy a diary and that we were going to fill these days up so I wouldn’t be on my own and I wouldn’t have time to think because I was going to be busy all the time. We came out of it that way.

“She never wanted me to go on pills, the only thing I took was St John’s wort and I ate loads of dark chocolate, as dark as you can get it. I was having three or four sessions a week, maybe an hour or so long each, then it went down to two and then to one and then to half an hour. That’s how the process went.”

Much of the process, though, remained private and McAteer does not know for sure to this day how much his closest friends, such as John Aldridge and Don Hutchison, his former team-mates with Ireland and Liverpool respectively, knew about what he was going through.

Marc Overmars and Jason McAteerJamie McDonald/Getty Images

That his experience was private leads McAteer to believe, with good reason, that his revelations will shock some, but it is a story that he feels the need to tell, both for his own good and in the hope that his candour might help anyone else suffering in the way that he was.

“I only went really deep when I was on my own because there was no one around, which was why I needed to fill my diary. Jane would say to me ‘Who are your friends?’ and I would say, for example, John Aldridge, and she’d say go and play golf with John. But I don’t think Aldo ever got onto what was going on. You’d have to ask him but I never let it out. When I was in company I was alright and people wouldn’t see me when I was on my own. That’s why Jane kept on saying to me not to say no to anything and that helped me to gradually get back into the fold.

“I know there will be people who are surprised about this. I always played this cheeky Trigger character, I was the one who was the brunt of the jokes and the one having a good time and stuff. I hid this depression from the likes of Aldo and Hutch. I did hide it. For then to say out of the blue at the time that I was struggling they might have said that they hadn’t seen it coming. Thinking about it, Aldo might have been a bit different. I always remember him ringing me up a lot and getting me out to play golf. I don’t know whether my mum had called him or if he’d picked up on it but he was really, really good.”

Now married to Lucy, with whom he has another son, Logan, McAteer busies himself working in the media with both beIN Sports and Liverpool’s in-house television channel. But while his autobiography ends on an uplifting note, an admission that he is now “happy and thankful” and an acknowledgement that “the endless baths and the Birkenhead Tunnel are all but forgotten,” there is also an awareness that although the symptoms of his depression have been consigned to the past, the cause will never go away.

Liverpool v Bolton Wanderers - FA Cup Fourth RoundMichael Steele/Getty Images

“Even now it upsets me that I can’t play,” he admits. “I found it really hard to admit to myself that it’s over. As a kid, I always wanted to be a footballer. I was always, and I mean always, playing football. That was what we lived for. I was always Dalglish when I played in the park, that was the way we grew up.

“Then I got the opportunity to play football and then to play it professionally at the highest level where it is all about winning at all costs and being part of a team that has a spirit and a bond.

“Winning becomes like a drug and you get this incredible adrenaline rush. Even when I was playing for Tranmere I would still get that rush and that fulfilment of playing 90 minutes. And then all of a sudden it just gets taken from you, it’s gone. There are no team mates, there’s no winning, there’s no buzz, no adrenaline rush and you can’t replace that. I struggled dealing with that and I think a lot of footballers admit that they found it difficult in their own way.”

Blood sweat final cover (2)

Blood, Sweat and McAteer: A Footballer’s Story is published by Hodder & Stoughton and is released on Thursday 29 September.

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