Gary Neville: ‘Footballers are tougher than 25 years ago - but we need more support for mental health’

The club is continuing its awareness-raising campaign at its FA Cup home match this weekend.

Salford City owner and former Manchester United star Gary Neville has hit out at “a savage shortage of mental health support in the UK”.

Mr Neville was speaking at a panel discussion held at UA92 in Salford on men’s mental health.

Salford City FC has teamed up with Health Assured to run an awareness-raising campaign on male mental health and the importance of talking.

And the campaign will continue at the club’s FA Cup game this weekend.

What was the panel event?

Mr Neville attended the panel discussion, which also featured ex-Chelsea and Leeds United footballer Michael Duberry and sports psychologist Neil Roach.

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It was hosted by Ryan Ridgeway, a former deputy manager of the NHS 111 service and an MMA fighter.

Ryan Ridgway, Gary Neville, Michael Duberry, Bertrand Stern-Gillet (Health Assured CEO) at the panel event

The discussion covered topics including whether or not employers are doing enough to look after the wellbeing of their teams, the pressures of performing at the highest level, coping mechanisms from elite sport which can help improve mental health and the importance of training the whole body including the mind.

The panellists also talked about the abuse elite sports players receive on social media.

What did Gary Neville say about mental health?

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Mr Neville was scathing about the lack of support available in this country for mental health and said the authorities needed to get to grips with the scale of the problem.

He said: “We have a government who have said that there isn’t a mental health crisis. Until we accept that there is a crisis in respect of this, we’re never going to fix it. We’re always going to have an issue.

“There is nowhere near enough mental health support in place at all. There’s an absolutely savage shortage of mental health support in place across all parts of the country.

“It will not change until we really do start at the very bottom in education, start to deal with physical health and wellbeing, nutrition, and mental health. Make it part of the curriculum and understand it, educate ourselves from the bottom up.

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“It then needs to be integrated into businesses to make it an expectation. It must be expected of businesses to deliver mental health support, physical health and wellbeing, nutrition. All these things that mean that your teams, the people you employ, are well. It’s critical.”

Mental health and social media

Mr Neville said perceptions around mental health in football had changed and spoke about how tough it is now for players to cope with the shocking levels of abuse targeted at them on social media.

He said: “In a sporting environment and probably across the board, we’ve misunderstood what the meaning of the word tough is just generally, and how we interpret tough.

“Twenty-five years ago, there was a perception that football players were tougher. They’re not. Football players are tougher now.

“They’re on social media, they’re willing to speak out about racism, they’re willing to speak out about other issues in society like Marcus Rashford, Raheem Stirling in the last 12 months.

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Away games have been a source of success for Solskjaer. Credit: Getty.

“Footballers wouldn’t have done that 25 years ago, they’d have been scared to death to do it.”

He also spoke about how psychology impacts playing sport at the highest level and whether that could have an impact on the mental health crisis.

He said: “Every footballer, every person, would understand that positive mindset is the most important part of a footballer and yet we’re so reluctant to train our minds, work on our minds and things that affect our minds. How crazy is that?

“You think of it as just being another part of your body, when every other part of your body as a sports person, you train. Apart from that one.”

He also described how he would now handle one of his Salford City players being targeted online.

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He said: “If one of our players at Salford City is abused on social media, I think that’s the responsibility of me. And I’d never thought of it like that.

“We see social media as this space, it’s out there, we can’t deal with it, it’s like technology and big digital companies.

“But I think, as employers, we have to take responsibility for the mental health and physical wellbeing of our teams, and I think that comes from government policy change.”

The importance of speaking out

Asked what was the most important coping mechanism they had learned, the panellists said it was speaking to somebody about problems and not just going quiet.

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The panel said that in football it believed the Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA) could do more to help players who are struggling.

The former players in the discussion talked about how they often spoke to physiotherapists or other members of the backroom staff with issues over loss of confidence or dips in form, because they did not want to talk to coaches or managers about it.

Mr Ridgeway, who runs mental health first aid courses, said discussing wellbeing problems had to become part of normal conversation.

What is Salford City doing?

Salford City launched a campaign called No Substitute For Talking at the start of this season.

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The awareness raising will go on this Sunday (5 December) when the team meets Chesterfield in an FA Cup clash.

Players will have the campaign slogan on their warm-up T-shirts and the matchday programme will feature the panel discussion and the campaign and encourage fans to speak up if they are struggling.