Mental health in football: Harrogate Town's Brendan Kiernan aiming to become 'part of the solution'
On October 24 last year an 18-year-old footballer named Jeremy Wisten was found hanged in his bedroom in Wythenshawe, Greater Manchester.
A promising centre-half, he had been left devastated by his release from Premier League champions Manchester City, reportedly following a struggle to recover from injury.
According to his parents, Wisten - who joined the Citizens’ academy as an under-13s player - could not cope with the heartbreak that stemmed from him being shown the door at Eastlands.
Over the Pennines in North Yorkshire, the news of the teenager’s passing stirred something inside Harrogate Town’s Brendan Kiernan The circumstances behind the tragedy resonated with the former AFC Wimbledon attacker.
The pair were not connected. They did not know each other, but Kiernan could empathise with Wisten having spent his formative years in the same Crystal Palace youth team as Wilfred Zaha, before having the rug pulled out from under him at the age of just 16.
More than a decade on, during the same year that the Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA) revealed that in excess of 500 current or former players had received mental health counselling over a 12-month period, the 28-year-old decided that he wanted, in his own words, to try and become “part of the solution” to what has become one of football’s most important issues.
“When Jeremy passed it just hit me, it impacted me because I was released by Crystal Palace when I was 16 and I know how I felt when I sat on my sofa at home after they told me,” Kiernan said.
“I wasn’t anywhere near that level of sadness that it seems Jeremy felt, but I understand that a lot gets taken away from you when you get released. That’s your identity. Once you become a footballer, it can feel like that is your only identity - boys go into academies at a young age and all you do is play football. It’s all you know.
“I know what it’s like and I wanted to be part of the solution and hopefully try and help prevent more young people taking their lives because of feeling rejection through football. I was thinking about Jeremy, about how he is never going to pass his driving test, hang out with his mates ever again, do any of these every-day things and it’s sad.
“So, that is what led me to start a course with the PFA, a level two course in counselling. On that course there were ex-footballers, current professionals, academy coaches. Some of the guys from different clubs were talking about how it is difficult to find support for boys they are letting go.
"It’s a massive issue, but I am hopeful that I can join in providing some kind of support.”
Mental health problems in football are of course complex. They can be attributed to and stem from a variety of issues and circumstances
But, given that just one per cent of the 120,000 players who are playing academy football in this country at any one time actually make it into the professional game, it is no surprise to see Kiernan - and others - highlighting the impact of rejection as such an important topic.
"I know boys who were far more gifted than me, playing at Arsenal, who have, in a short space of time, gone from being at that club to working a job that they never thought they would be working," he said.
"The impact that can have on someone's mental health is massive and it doesn't get spoken about enough
"I think it is important that boys in academies understand that it is okay to be building other identities at a young age. They should be thinking 'I play football, but I also enjoy or have a passion for this, this and this'.
"I've got four younger brothers who all wanted to play football but none of them made it. They've all gone on to have different careers but I still see all of them as a success. Just because they didn't make it as footballers doesn't mean that they have failed. They've gone on to earn a living for themselves and been successful in different ways.
"It's something that the game needs to push and say 'obviously we want you to make it as a footballer, but if you don't, there are other routes to having a good life'."
The support which Kiernan himself hopes to be able to offer will come in the form of a “mentoring and counselling service” where he will look to draw upon skills acquired on his days off from playing for Harrogate when he participated in the first course of its kind to be run by the PFA.
He added: “I’ll be running workshops that are practical. It’s not just about cliches and saying ‘we need to do more about mental health’, it’s about helping young men in particular to be able to express themselves.
“In terms of mental health, we do need to talk more, but we need more than just people saying that. The question is, ‘what are we talking about?’
“Some of the skills we learned on the counselling course and the tools we have been equipped with should enable me to give the right support and not just be saying ‘it’ll be alright mate’. Having the right people with the right skills is crucial to solving the problem.
“I’m not trying to be the saviour. But me putting myself out there and making it known that people can come to me if they want to is better than doing nothing. If I’m helping just one person then, for me, that is decent."
One of the biggest strings to pro-active Kiernan’s bow is the fact that he is a professional footballer himself, something that he believes will make him more of an attractive proposition to others within the game who may be thinking about seeking help.
“I will be focusing on young athletes and footballers. For the footballers I am looking to help I think that it’s a big advantage to be someone who has gone through the same things, suffered the same disappointments,” he said.
“I feel like I have relevant experiences and I know what makes footballers tick. I’m already helping young lads from a few different clubs.
"One is at Manchester United, one is at Barnsley and I think they see the benefit of the fact that I’m already in the game.”
That said, Kiernan is all too aware that getting footballers with issues to open up on a large scale will likely be easier said than done.
"There is obviously an issue with men and them speaking about their feelings. It's a big issue in the grand scheme of things and also in football, on a smaller scale," he added.
"Talking about your problems in a football dressing room environment can be perceived as a weakness. There's a stigma attached to it. We are professional athletes, we have a responsibility to do our jobs but it is about getting the balance right and remaining professional while also being able to open up enough to know when you need help.
"I might be decent on the ball, but it takes a team to score a goal. It's not a weakness to admit that and that's the kind of perspective we need in football and in life to sometimes get through certain situations when things get tough."