Neil Ruddock is best known these days as a media personality and actor, but during his football heyday, he was revered as one of the toughest players on the pitch. His stature and strong performances as a defender played into a reputation for appearing to be ‘hard’ – something on reflection he says made it difficult to have honest conversations when facing challenges with mental health. This year during the Injured conference, Neil took the time to speak honestly about his experience of blocking out issues using alcohol, and how he hopes players will now speak up if they need support.
The history of mental health in my life is, never really thought about it, never really heard about it, never heard it in the dressing room. If you had problems when I played it was about ‘man up’ and get on with it. I was the last one who would be seen or admit to having any problems, especially when I was a youngster and it was the culture of drinking, going out, partying and getting on with it. Whatever the older players did, that’s what you did.
There was no education, no people to talk to, because you had to man up. It was a sign of weakness; you didn’t want to be weak in the dressing room.
If I was having a bad time, I would just go and get drunk and when you’re drunk it deals with everything – you’re the happiest man in the world again. You could always kidnap people, I used to go and kidnap people, pay for them to come out with me and they’ll tell you what you want to hear. ‘ You’re the greatest, you’re a legend.’ That’s what you want to hear when your times are bad. I wasn’t really an alcoholic, I was mentally insecure and I needed people around me.
I think the biggest problem is when football clubs don’t want you – boom! When the manager doesn’t want you anymore, and they’ll say go and train with the kids, no one prepares you for that, you go from hero to zero and no one prepares you for that. You don’t want to watch football, you don’t want to watch your team play, and you don’t want to read the papers. No one ever, ever, has told you how to deal with that, and the only way to go and deal with it is to go and get drunk.
If you’re drowning, you put your hand up, you ask for help. If you’re struggling mentally, put your hand up and ask for help. The way I went, I would never, ever let my teammates down, I’d rather let my family down. Now I’ll let my mates down, I will never let my family down, that’s how I’ve changed.
Speak to us. As I say, if you’re drowning put your hand up. You wouldn’t not put your hand up if you were drowning would you? If you’re mentally drowning, put your hand up.