Outside the game they are vulnerable

Sportsmen cannot always cope with problems outside their own game. By Ted Corbett.

It's been a desperately sad few months for those of us who love characters, sport, music and all things theatrical.

A few months ago we had to say farewell to Amy Winehouse, a jazz singer of exceptional talent with a voice born in heaven. I am not given to sentimentality but I trust she is now leading a celestial choir somewhere beyond the rainbow. I could cry whenever I hear her discs for she showed she knew the true meaning of the blues as only the men of the southern states of America and some Welsh choristers can.

The old American jazz singers say that only the Welsh could demonstrate the blues as the Negro spirituals could but Amy of the Spartan thinness and the elongated tattoos, with her voice soaring towards the highest ceiling showed she knew what distress meant too.

What, I wonder, did Gary Speed know of sadness, depression, worry and the pressures of a job as footballer, coach and manager. He appeared to relish everything he did.

One Saturday midday he was laughing and joking with friends after a TV broadcast; at seven the next morning his wife found him dead in his own garage. One thousand speculators and not confirmed reason.

We may have to wait until the inquest to find if he left a note, if someone has an explanation — his wife does not — and meantime we can only feel sorry that he did not plead for help from one of the many friends or think of the mess he has left for his two teenage sons.

I cannot remember in 50 years close to sportsmen and entertainers of a death that caused such a reaction. Every day seems to bring a new tribute to Speed and his kindness; every edition of my newspapers seems to carry some happy memory of a man meant to succeed but who had barely a selfish bone in his body and cared for his fellows unceasingly. I fear for the consequences if some fault is discovered and all this outpouring of grief is found to be wasted. He even had the right name for a sportsman. Bless him, his life should have demanded a long time on earth but he cut it short.

It is said that men do not deal well with grief or depression or an illness of the mind but there is another story about sportsmen and particularly the most gifted.

They cannot always cope with problems outside their own game. I can remember the voices of many: “is this tie all right for tonight's do? Where do I catch a bus? Is anyone arranging golf? Surely I don't need to pay for this — the manager ought to be doing that.”

From the age of ten or so they have been carried from home to ground, told when to practice, where they must meet, who will clean their equipment, that they must ignore all other considerations except their preparations for their big innings, the next match, the coming tour.

“You won't see much of me, love,” I recall one saying to his bride on their wedding day. “I hope you don't mind, but it is very important to me to play for England and that has to come first.” I sympathise with that view and so did his wife but suppose she had objected. It would, I suspect, have been the end of her happiness not the end of his wish to devote 100 per cent of his time to playing for his country.

Sportsmen are single-minded and selfish; it is the only way to the top, someone will have told them early in their career. Success will reward such endeavour but suppose it goes wrong. Where do they turn? To the manager who said to one — it is alleged — that “you've got nothing to be unhappy about with a wage running to thousands of pounds a week, a nice house, a lovely wife and children. Go down the coal mine and see what real worries are.”

Those pitmen hacking at coal five days a week will be cleverer at handling life's difficulties than the star batsman, footballer or jockey.

He will know that if there is not enough money for food he must sit with his wife and discuss the future. He will not have a manager but his parents may help or even his work mates who will not think of him as a fool if he has a failure. They will earn similar amounts for one thing and be as close to the breadline as he is. And it will not be splashed all over the papers, the TV screen or shouted down the radio mike.

There are sportsmen who cope. Marcus Trescothick, who would still make England stronger if he could overcome his extra-ordinary travel sickness, has learnt to live with his concerns; Jonny Bairstow's father David killed himself after a car crash that meant the end of his golf and a driving ban. Jonny has risen above all that thanks largely to a man who is not your first choice as a kindly, helpful, sympathetic type but who provided exactly the right impetus at the right moment.

Remind me. One day I will tell you who that was.

The more strength to those who can fight off their past, push the black depression to the back of their minds and find the concentration to develop what they have after their days at the head of their sport have finished.

Sport is just beginning to see what a big problem lies ahead.