Mental Health Awareness Week: Fans, players and the future king discuss mental health
|A Royal Team Talk: Tackling Mental Health|
|Date: Sunday, 19 May Coverage: 22:30 BST on BBC One and the BBC iPlayer. Watch here.|
I'm not very good at keeping secrets. Steve, Mark, Tom and Paul have all faced mental health issues and had all been told that I was going to interview them at Cambridge United. What they didn't know was that we had a day planned that they would never forget. My first job was to maintain the pretence.
"What time is Dion Dublin turning up?" Tom said laughing as I walked out to meet them. The lounge at the Abbey Stadium is named after the former striker. "I'm afraid Dion is busy with Homes Under The Hammer fellas. You'll have to make do with me."
I could tell it was a big job the minute I arrived at the ground at 08:00 BST.
There was already a flurry of activity and a strong whiff of bacon. Producers, directors, TV execs, camera operators, soundies and photographers filled the corridors. This was not a normal gig.
What the four gigantic football fans on the pitch didn't know, was that they were in for quite a day.
As I was chowing down on a bacon sandwich, the first batch of famous faces began to arrive. While Peter Crouch and Jermaine Jenas were hurried into the room we heard a whispered "Danny is 20 minutes away". That was Danny Rose who, just 12 hours before, was on a pitch taking on Ajax in the Champions League.
- Danny Rose & Peter Crouch open up about mental health
- Football Association launches new mental health campaign
- Gareth Southgate and that missed Euro 1996 penalty
Tom was a promising footballer before a horrific car accident at the age of 18 left him badly injured. As dreams of being a professional sportsman faded, he soon became withdrawn and isolated.
Paul was a psychiatric nurse but, while he was helping others, severe weight gain left him suffering with anxiety and depression.
Mark's issue was also depression brought on initially by bullying at school and then by the breakdown of what he thought was the perfect relationship.
Steve had pushed friends away after the death of his dad eight years ago. His life had been spiralling out of control but after seeking help he was on his way out of depression.
Like many men, all of them had found it hard to talk about their feelings. Sport and, specifically football, had changed that.
Today was all about meeting others who had been through the tough times and just talking about their experiences.
All of them had kept things locked away for a long time. All of them had found it hard to discuss things beyond the usual 'small talk'. All of them had seen their lives transformed once they had managed to break through that barrier.
"Lads," I said excited about phase one of the surprise: "Do you mind if I bring a mate out?
"He's a striker and he's always up for a kickabout. Have you got your kit on?" I shouted looking over to the tunnel.
Out trotted Peter Crouch.
As the jaws collectively dropped Crouchy greeted our fab four. "You've never been a provider Peter," I said glancing over to the tunnel again "we need someone to do the hard work behind you". Enter Jermaine Jenas.
Two of our fans were Spurs supporters and the pair of them were remarkably giddy at this point. Time to turn the volume up.
"Great to have you here guys but, in fairness, you are both has-beens." Jermaine rocked back with laughter and pointed at Peter, saying "he's still playing!". Crouchy gave a knowing look - "to be fair, I am getting on a bit".
It was time to bring out a current England international.
All eyes turned to the tunnel as left-back Danny Rose sprinted out in full Spurs kit.
"You are kidding me," came the response from Mark and Tom. "Shall we have a game then lads?" asked Danny. Cue kickabout.
It was lovely to see so many smiles and hear the laughter rattling around the stadium.
Danny was understandably taking things easy, Jermaine was displaying a few touches of class and Peter was happy to show off the skills of a Premier League striker. A particularly nifty flick and volley combination drew a "you don't see much of that at Donny Rovers" from Paul.
While the game continued, I was summoned back to the bowels of the stadium for the next stage of the reveal. Gareth Southgate was hiding in a side room.
Gareth has done so much to change the culture around the England football team and make it a place were talking about mental health is not seen as a weakness but a strength.
When Danny Rose talked about facing depression before the World Cup in Russia back in 2018, he had the full support of his manager.
If the day wasn't strange enough already, it was at this point that Thierry Henry walked in followed closely by someone who said: "Dan, the Duke of Cambridge has his shorts on and is ready when you are."
I strolled back on to the pitch and gathered the players together again. Tom, Mark, Steve and Paul were already in a state of shock when I turned to them and said: "Danny, it's been great to have you here but, you only made the World Cup semi-finals. I think we need someone who has won it."
At that point Steve shouted "NO WAY!" as Mr Henry made his way on to the pitch with the England manager not far behind.
Gareth told the lads he had one substitute he'd like to bring on and then promptly introduced the country's future king.
Mental health awareness is something the Duke is hugely passionate about and you could see that from the way he engaged with our four star-struck fans. But the day wasn't just about having a kickabout and wondering if we were allowed to slide tackle the future king.
The main focus was getting men talking. It's not every day you get to sit in a dressing room discussing subjects that the Duke of Cambridge and five famous footballers struggle with. My job was to guide the discussion.
"This will only work if we are honest with each other and willing to open up and even be a little frail," I said as we took our seats.
The Duke of Cambridge, or 'William' as he insisted we call him, kicked things off and the next hour was filled with revelations about everything from racism to bereavement, depression to body image.
There was support, kindness, emotion and a real insight into the importance of 'mental fitness' and why it is essential that we make time to talk about it and support those who are struggling.
As we shook hands at the end, we were all aware there is still a long way to go.
It was wonderful to see the smiles on the faces of Steve, Mark, Paul and Tom as they reflected on what was, according to Steve "a wonderfully ridiculous day".
There is a long way to go but this is something we can all be a part of.
Being open about mental health can help break the stigma around it. A family member, a team-mate, work mate or friend might have a problem right now and what I will take away from the day is this: we don't have to be experts. We just need to listen.
Oh - and in case you were wondering, no, you are not allowed to slide-tackle the future king.