Jadon Sancho made headlines recently when he suggested that racism could lead to players falling out of love with football. In a picturesque corner of Staffordshire, at his home in the cathedral city of Lichfield, the news did not escape Marvin Sordell. Here was an England international making explicit the concerns that he had been feeling for many years.
“I found it quite funny and I don’t mean that in the sense that it is humorous,” Sordell tells Sky Sports. “It literally proved my point. I hear it asked a lot why I decided to retire. If anyone wants to know why, it’s there for all to see. It’s just that players don’t speak about it that often so people don’t know about it. Players feel like they have had enough.”
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Sordell decided that he’d had enough in the summer. A once promising career that twice took him to the Premier League with Bolton and Burnley and once even to the Olympic Games had come to an end at the age of 28. Racism was not the catalyst for that decision, he says, but it played its part. Just one of the many aspects of football that became too much.
“Being a professional footballer is broken into two parts,” he explains. “There’s playing the game and then there’s the politics and the abuse that you get. There are a lot of things you have to deal with and playing football is a small percentage of it. I found that it wasn’t worth it any more. Going into the football club in the morning just didn’t make me happy.
“That’s why I made the decision. I felt I was happier when I was doing other things outside of the game. I still love football but I want to continue loving football and the way that I was going I knew I was going to completely fall out of love with it. I made a decision to hold onto my happiness rather than continuing to take the money. I chose happiness in a way.”
Sordell’s happiness matters. For him, it was life and death. He is speaking upon the launch of his campaign Let’s Shirt Talk, helping to raise money for CALM – the Campaign Against Living Miserably. It is being timed to mark World Suicide Prevention Day and is close to his heart given that his own battle with depression reached its nadir with a suicide attempt.
Sordell on his suicide attempt
“I hope there is never the case of a player taking their life. I mean I almost was that player but I hope there isn’t a case like that. I just took a lot of tablets. I can’t even remember what they were, they were just in the cabinet. And I counted them out and thought that’s probably enough and just swallowed them all and went to sleep. It was literally just after I brushed my teeth, I was in the bathroom for some time and just did that and went to sleep. I didn’t know what to expect, I woke up in the morning and I had a horrible stomach ache but I’d woke up and I just felt like a million times worse for waking up.”
“Emotionally, it was such a big part of my life,” he says. “Looking back, it is strange because it doesn’t feel like it was me. My life is so different now.”
That new life is an exciting one. There are big plans for his new production company. Sordell speaks enthusiastically about the “powerful stories” that they are planning to tell on film and television. There is his writing too. A book is planned and poetry remains a big part of his life.
The writing of 17 Pills proved particularly cathartic.
It’s what I took, but it didn’t take me.
She had just left, But of course, he stayed, To jeer me on, While my emotions swayed.
One, then two, Three, then four, And before I knew it, Thirteen more.
I chose those pills, To stop my brain, Because with a knife, I feared the pain.
I must have been a coward, Either way, As I tried to end my life that day.
All those pills, Seventeen, It’s what I took, To try and make him leave.
“Writing is what saved me essentially. It is how I got things off my chest. It is how I was able to express my emotions, by pouring them into my writing. It took the weight off my shoulders. If it were not for writing I would have been buried underneath it really.”
The problem is that not everyone has that outlet.
“That is the reason why we wanted to do this campaign,” he says. “For men just to have this discussion about mental health and emotion is something that is not common. We want to give people the opportunity to have that conversation. We want to get people talking because football is a tough crowd to get discussing emotions, feelings and mental health.
“It’s funny because football is such a uniting sport. People have so much passion when talking about their clubs but when talking about themselves, they are closed and don’t want to have that discussion. It is just about dangling the carrot for people. Some people might ignore the conversation and just want a shirt. That’s fine. But it might help someone.”
Sordell has the wider public in mind but given his own experiences he is keen to stress that it should be no surprise that footballers can suffer from mental health problems too.
“There are a lot of people within the game who feel similarly to how I did,” he insists. “They are being told that this is the game and this is what you have to do if you want to survive in it. In any other industry, there are stories that I tell people and they say it just doesn’t make sense, that it should not be allowed and they wonder why anyone would accept it.
“But who can you complain to and who is going to care anyway? Nobody wants to hear about how difficult life is as a professional footballer because you earn good money and you don’t work long hours. It is a dream job, they say. Get over it. Toughen up. So players don’t discuss how they feel during their careers because it is only going to be held against you.
“The money around now means footballers are under more scrutiny than ever too. Players are very much aware of what’s being said on social media. They see it and they hear it. It is just about being respectful really. A player may have not played well but to say they are a disgrace? It’s just a game and they tried their best. Those things are difficult to defend.”
For Sancho, these challenges are ongoing. For Sordell, those particular problems are behind him now.
Retirement was not the end of his adventure though. It was a new start.