It will forever be known as the Gerrard Final, although having latterly married into a West Ham family, it should probably be known as the FA Cup Final we don’t talk about!! For me, personally, it is a Sliding Doors moment, one which really did have a huge impact on my life, one which gave me the unexpected gift of football in my battle with mental illness, specifically Bipolar Disorder.
I nearly missed it all…
As much as I’d love to regale every moment of that splendid Cardiff afternoon, I really can’t. I’ve often wondered why I’ve not been able to recollect certain days in my life, days when alcohol certainly was not a factor.
Over a series of conversations with my therapist some years ago, he revealed that it was likely that I’d had ‘black-outs’ during severe manic episodes, something that the award winning mental health writer, Julie A. Fast very neatly tackles here. She says in a different, but related article:
It was about half an hour before kick-off on that May afternoon that I knew I was going into a manic episode. I’d been there so many times before but this was the first time I actually understood what was happening to me. You see, this was only four months on from my final suicide attempt, one which would lead me, finally, to a diagnosis after some fifteen years living through the storm that I now knew to be Bipolar Disorder Type I. And believe me that was a storm through which I did walk alone, to use the footballing analogy.
In fact, it was only four days after my diagnosis and 48 hours after a session with my behavioural therapist in which we discussed manic and depressive episodes and some keys to managing them.
So how did I know I was in trouble… it’s so difficult to explain the symptoms of mania, mainly because no two were ever identical and also that I often only realised I’d had one long after the fact, with a trail of devastation behind me but no memory therein. It was very much the tale over fifteen dark years.
However, I came armed with the knowledge of four months of intense self-discovery and the education of diagnosis and research.
I knew it may be coming. I’d barely slept for more than two hours over the previous two nights and yet felt totally awake, to the point of being restless and quite agitated, the latter purely at myself and not anyone around me. However, such self-agitation often led me to withdraw into myself, in the room but the lights switched off in that I could not tell you a single thing of the conversation around me on the three hour train journey down to the Welsh capital.
I couldn’t think about anything for more than a few seconds before my mind wandered and I had a sense of the red mist beginning to surface. Rage had always been a symptom for me.
Among all this, I still knew I wanted to watch Liverpool win the FA Cup that afternoon, so the, perhaps, obvious choice of turning around and going home was off limits. That said, I knew I couldn’t go near the pub because it could be the beginning of something quite ugly.
That I was even self-aware enough to have those thoughts is a testament to the incredible support and knowledge imparted by my therapist and, of course, Mind.
As soon as I got off the train, I took myself out of the firing line and walked down to Sofia Gardens and alongside the River Taff. It’s not being flippant to say that, at another point in my life, it would not have been safe for me to be on the banks of a river in that state of mind.
However, on that day, it was perfect, a time to reflect, to remember that even then, I knew I would overcome this illness and everything it had to throw at me. It was a time to know that I was stood in a place where I had fond cricketing memories of watching my dad and the King Viv. It was a time to breathe in, to be still, to praise God that I was somehow still alive, to bring down my heart rate and agitation.
Of course, it’s easy to type all of those things but not quite so facile to achieve. However, by the time I turned around and walked slowly in the direction of the Millennium Stadium, I knew that I felt so much calmer, that I had achieved far much more than I ever previously had in defusing a manic episode.
That said, it’s probably a good job this was pre-smartphone and I didn’t have my radio with me… I may not have remained quite so calm, nor headed for the stadium at all, had I known that Liverpool were already 2-0 down as I managed to beg my way in… beg not because I was without a ticket but because the gates were pretty much shut at that point.
As I got into the stadium, one of the staff, in the broadest and dulcet tones of South Wales, gleefully told me we were losing 2-0. I was used to such smugness from my trips to the old Arms Park to watch the rugby… and I use the term smug with a smile, I love the Welsh passion for sport and them as a people!
In truth, I hoped and thought he was taking the proverbial, but as I stepped from the concrete corridors up the steps and into the cauldron, sadly I saw he wasn’t. Oddly enough, that was probably the first sign of the benefits of my sojourn to the River… there was none of the usual effing, blinding and whatever els-ing, just a shrug of the shoulders and a quick self-reminder that I’d overcome much worse and more important and that, today, I was winning just by being here.
Of course, by the time, some 90 seconds or so later, that Djibril Cisse had brought Liverpool back into the match, such noble and deluded thoughts had thankfully left me! The fists pumped, the voice roared and Shanks would have been proud to know that football was back at the top of my priorities!
That said, the next few hours are still a bit of a blur. The ecstasy of the first equaliser, for me one of the most underrated of goals, a sublime finish from Gerrard, was quickly followed by the despair of Paul Konchesky crossing a ball somehow into the far corner of Pepe Reina’s net.
Konchesky would arrive on Merseyside as part of the Hodge’s ‘rebuilding’ some 4 years later… anyone who saw him then would know it was definitely a cross!!!
Other than that, my mind was still a little distracted, but I was just lost in the match, in this world of my own, having experienced a traumatic day of sorts and, yet, feeling totally safe among the travelling Kop.
I think it’s very difficult for people to imagine how football can uniquely do this; yet, there are so many times when I’ve had the weight of the world on my shoulders, just wanting to be alone, and where I find that wonderful solitude is in a crowd of 50,000, belonging to that wonderful collective and able to drown out the darkness of my own thoughts in beautiful song.
When I recently interviewed on Sky Sports for the #TakeAMinute / Every Mind Matters campaign, it was absolutely this that I alluded to.
Football, believe it or not, was a huge tool in my kit in terms of recovery from mental illness, and this May 2006 afternoon in Cardiff epitomised just that.
That I can’t really remember the match is not, as you might expect, down to the manic episode nor a few beers afterwards (although there were a few!). It is simply down to losing myself in those glorious few hours, so absorbed that I genuinely experienced a utopia of being in the moment, to the point that I can’t actually remember the details but just the joy.
Memories and belonging
The documentary, One Night in May, released after the 2005 Champions League Final, features the song, In My Life, by the Beatles. I’m always drawn to the lyrics below when thinking of that 2006 Final…
So often, we end up embellishing even the most special moments to the point that it becomes unrecognisable to the original. I couldn’t manage this for that 2006 Final, and actually couldn’t for most of the great matches.
Of course I remember Stevie’s equaliser, nobody supporting Liverpool at the time will ever forget it. Of course I remember Pepe Reina’s penalty saves. And of course, I remember Rafa stood stoically and sans emotion on the touchline as the Travelling Kop bellowed at once in despair and glory.
The real beauty is that I can’t remember the detail nor every split second, just the raw emotion of unbridled joy. So I’ll never be able to create something new of that moment and the pure joy will never lose its meaning.
All these years on, football remains an incredible friend for me on my mental health journey. All of us can so often find ourselves living life in the worry of yesterday and anxiety of tomorrow. Football is something that allows me to live in the moment, and we should all be seeking joy in whatever it is that allows us to just be, to shed our worries about the rest of life, to just be absorbed.
Even in the embryonic stages of my long road to recovery from mental illness, football was able to snap me out of a potentially dangerous slide into a manic episode. Moreover, it allowed me, within a few hours, to cast away whatever anxieties were driving me to despair and it stopped me, in that moment, from caring about tomorrow.
In the very same moment, being a football fan can so often create a sense of belonging. Living with mental illness is synonymous with feelings of isolation and loneliness, fear, silence. Football includes us all. Even in those moments of doubt and despair, whether you are in the stadium, the pub, your living room, you are part of something bigger, supporting your team you are part of this huge movement, this beautiful intangible bringing together people from all races and corners.
I talk about that in the film below, and also in the recent behind the scenes cut from the #TakeAMinute campaign.
I’m not sure if it’s dramatic to say that football has been a life saver… I suspect it has on occasion. What I know is that it has been a life giver.
On a Saturday afternoon in South Wales, I faced sliding doors. I could either stay inside them amid the familiarity and life-ending chaos of mental illness and a manic episode, or I could walk away and lose myself in the joy of football.
Every fibre of me is thankful every day for the choice that I made, that Stevie, the Hammers and me are forever linked on my journey.
I’m even more proud and grateful to my friends at the award winning Anfield Wrap for their constant commitment to mental health awareness.
Football is many things, but few would ever have thought that it could be an example and trailblazer in advocating vulnerability in young men, in normalising the conversation around mental wellbeing. Football truly has kept me alive both literally and metaphorically and I’m so glad that I have the opportunity to share my journey and give back to others.