In partnership with EA SPORTS and in support of CALM, COPA90 sat down with Everton defender Michael Keane to discuss mental health in football, and the importance of opening up.
“I went round to my family’s house and got really upset. It’s the last time I can remember crying.”
When we think of Premier League defenders, our minds usually go to things like strength, determination and other warrior-like attributes. Getting emotional almost certainly doesn’t register. Mainly because mental health is seldom discussed.
And when emotions in football are up for discussion, it’s almost exclusively done through a lens of passion: the roar of the crowd; the groans of despair; the exhilarating euphoria of a last-minute winner. Beyond the feelings of spectators, though, there’s another side to these emotions – the player’s.
Michael Keane sat in his family’s living room that day and wept. Not because he was enduring a particularly poor run of form, or indeed been subjected to the now all-too-familiar world of online abuse. He simply felt like he was letting his club down.
A few weeks earlier, Keane sustained a nasty injury during a cup game against Sunderland. James Vaughan’s lunging challenge left him in a crumpled heap with a hole in his boot; Vaughan’s studs ripping through material before lacerating Keane’s right foot. He required eight stitches.
Never one to feign injury, Keane played on. By the game’s end, he could barely feel his foot. It had gone numb. “The next morning I was in agony,” he recalls. “I couldn’t put any weight on it…I couldn’t walk.”
At the time, Everton were struggling for consistency. Manager Ronald Koeman was under mounting pressure and Keane told himself he must soldier on to help his team. In his head, being sidelined through injury simply wasn’t an option.
After being medically advised to rest for at least three weeks, he returned to action just 10 days later, facing off against his old employers, Burnley. Keane got through the match but his body was in tatters. Propped up by pain-killing injections and medication, the defender’s efforts only proved to further exacerbate his injury.
The fans, totally oblivious to the unravelling situation, began to make their feelings clear. Keane wasn’t singled out for criticism, but nor was he above it.
“It's difficult sometimes as people don’t know what you might be going through off the pitch,” he says. “They judge you thinking you’re at 100% every game.”
And so ensued a vicious cycle. Keane would barely get by in training, pop some pain killers pre-match, and put his body and mind through hell for 90 minutes every weekend. By this point, Keane’s foot was severely swollen and required serious bandaging, to the point where he was wearing one boot two sizes bigger than the other on match days.
"Pick the person you trust the most and just open up to them. The first time you do it you might be a bit worried about what they might think or say, but when you see their reaction, it’s a big relief.”
The situation reached its nadir when Keane was told his foot may even need to be amputated. “That’s when it got really serious,” he remembers. “They [the doctors] said if it had gotten much worse I might have been looking at losing my foot.”
Which brings us to Keane’s family living room. The physical toll of his injury was abundantly clear, but his steely gaze only served to mask his psychological frailties.
Keane finally opened up about what he’d been going through internally for so long. It felt like the weight of the world was coming off his shoulders. He knew his family would be supportive, but was overwhelmed by the sheer unconditional love he received.
“It’s good to get someone else's perspective on things,” he says. “Pick the person you trust the most and just open up to them. The first time you do it you might be a bit worried about what they might think or say, but when you see their reaction, it’s a big relief.”
Looking back on that period of his life now, Keane wishes he’d sought help sooner. He’d become so engulfed by the pressures of professional life that he’d forgotten to take care of his own personal well-being.
These days, Keane counts himself as an avid supporter of CALM, a mental health movement leading the way against suicide – the single biggest killer of men under 45 in the UK.
As Keane rightly points out, it doesn’t matter who you are or what your situation is, it’s always OK to talk. Everyone struggles with mental health problems – including Premier League footballers.