Non League Daily

MHAW 2015: Inclusion and trust needed to support

Pressure and stress is part of sport at every level. Whilst many commentators state those factors in relation to the top level of football, there is a strong argument to suggest that they have a more prominent role in the non-league game.

As part of NLD's support for Mental Health Awareness Week we spoke to Blyth Spartans’ former Wales Under 19 defender Alex Nicholson, a player who has experienced the game on three separate levels and has witnessed the highs and lows it can offer.

As a youngster he spent time at Newcastle United's academy before his release in 2013. That led to a move to Preston North End and a loan spell with Chorley, then of the Evo-Stik Northern Premier League, before making a move to another club at that level, Blyth Spartans before the start of the 2014/15 season.

Nicholson has experienced a wide range of emotions in his relatively young career and admitting that it is a tough upbringing where he believes players find it difficult to discuss mental health issues that are the result of the pressures of the game.

However he does believe that, in the right environment, those difficulties can be overcome with inclusion and trust in a dressing room.

"I would say players are reluctant to say anything and say they are suffering. It's tough to do that when there is banter flying around a changing room. But in my experience when I was at Preston North End the changing room was really good. There were senior players like Kevin Davies who have been there and done it.

There were young players coming through who had been released and everyone supported each other. There was never a point when you could say I am not comfortable. Players would come out and say there is trouble at home and they knew it wouldn't go outside of the four walls.

I think that is key and if a player knows that they can say something, with a strong trust in their team mates that they will receive the support they require they will come out and talk. That's the only way football can help those affected"

Nicholson revealed just how tough it can be for a player to spot the issues in a team mate and pointed to an experience he had whilst with Newcastle United for how difficult that can be.

"Clubs I have been at there have been players with mental health issues and the majority do get the support that they have needed but I know there are situations where a player might see something in the changing room and think 'oh he's just a bit down' and then it turns into something more serious.

It can be serious and maybe there is stuff going on at home, you don't realise how serious it is and something could have been done earlier. That happened on one occasion at Newcastle and it could have been noticed earlier and dealt with"

In the summer of 2013 Nicholson made the step up from academy football with the Magpies to his first professional deal playing in the Football League with Preston North End. That step up brought new issues for the youngster to contend with but he praised the Lancashire club for the support he was given.

"The pressure on a young player playing first team football, compared to playing academy football, is massive. When I look back to playing academy football it was just a bit of a kick around, there wasn't a crowd, there wasn't the pressure whereas when I made my first team debut at Preston there was a lot.

You're playing against experienced professionals, there was a big crowd, it's against a local rival club and it was tough. I don't get nervous before games but I did think about that game more in the build up. The assistant manager came to me so the support was there and he gave me the confidence to go out and play"

A further move into the non-league game and a return home to the North East saw Nicholson join Blyth Spartans. Clubs in the non-league game face a different set of issues to deal with when it comes to semi-professional players who have to contend with a full-time job and young families, as well as the pressures of playing in front of a passionate crowd.

Nicholson admitted that he quickly realised the pressure that is to be found at non-league level and just how understanding a non-league has to be to help support a player on and off the field.

"When I went on loan at Chorley I had the attitude of did I want to drop into that league? That was wrong but when I moved back home to the North East I knew that when the opportunity to join Spartans came up it was a good move. When I started playing I started to realise that there was pressure at that level.

Clubs at non-league understand the personal circumstances that part-time footballers have to contend with. Whether it's working late or working a long shift in their full-time job, or they have young families, it is difficult to cope with at times.

We have players who work nightshift and the club understand that fully. I am on contract so have to make every game but I had a change in shift at short notice and I had to ring the manager and say I couldn't make a game. He understood it was a one off and he was fine about missing the game.

The managers I have dealt with in non-league know what pressure players are under and how tough it can be and they know how to deal with that"

Interview: Mark Carruthers




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