21st FEbruary 2023

I can see the fear in footballers’ eyes and relate to them

The first thing Drewe Broughton does is reach for his mobile and scroll down a list of WhatsApp conversations to a message from one of the six young players with whom he works. His client had been asked how he was feeling two days before a televised fixture, with the response scrawled on an A4 pad, photographed and sent back to his mentor. No confidences are betrayed, the identity of the subject never revealed, but the confession offers a glimpse of the darker realities eating away at plenty at the top of the sport.

“Going to training tomorrow for an 11 versus 11 and I’m scared. Will I play Saturday? Will he play the younger lad instead? I’m left of a diamond, I don’t even want to be there … can I do it? Am I shit? I’m weak and vulnerable at the moment. Do I have the strength to get up and go again? I don’t know. The game’s live on Sky and I’m already embarrassed how I might be seen. One of the boys is absolutely flying, and that was me last year. It’s made me even more depressed. The pressure is taking over. I feel anxious all the time. I’m always thinking about the manager’s view of me. Am I shit? Can I play any more? Can I score? Can I even run around? Am I too fat, too one‑dimensional?”

On it goes, a brainstormed chronicle of deep-seated insecurities and asphyxiating fear. Broughton can empathise. The journeyman striker turned performance coach suffered crippling self-doubt through a professional career that encompassed 516 appearances over 17 years, and hears similar testimonies every week from those he counsels, all aged under 23 and contracted to top-flight clubs.

The pressure to progress and fulfil potential is suffocating. Young players are confused as to why they can thrive one week, then be bombed out the next without explanation. They are expected to offer a public show of strength and convince the management they should be picked. The ego is all for show. All the while, the doubts are devouring them.One, an England Under-21 international, regularly cries himself to sleep. “The more players you talk to, the more you realise feel like that,” says Broughton. “‘How are you feeling?’ ‘I’m shitting myself.’ I can get inside young players and unlock their feelings. But there is too much other noise: the know-it-all agent; the dad who just wants to be involved with his son; the coaches with a million instructions. By the time he goes out there, can you imagine the shit going round his head?“Clubs are fighting for these kids at six, nine, 12 … why? Because they’re talented. That talent doesn’t go anywhere. What goes is they start to doubt themselves.

The spirit, the creativity gets battered out of them. They lose that childlike spontaneity. Martin O’Neill stood me up, at 16, at Norwich after a pre-season friendly , and told senior pros he’d pick me over them. I didn’t really understand what I’d done so well. What a tragedy. I’d just been myself. But life kicks the crap out of you and you stop believing in your instincts.”He can call upon personal experience. Broughton had scored at 17 on his senior debut for Norwich and would grace the England Under-20s alongside Michael Owen, Jamie Carragher and Danny Murphy, with prolific form earning him a lucrative boot deal with Adidas. Yet within 18 months he was on loan in the Conference having embarked on a nomadic career that would take in brief spells at 22 clubs.“I was a classic case of 18-to‑21 drop-out, not because I wasn’t good enough. I just never knew how to believe in myself. I was cursed with this drive to win I couldn’t control. I’d put so much pressure on myself, it would overwhelm me. I’d overthink, overtrain, try to be too perfect, stifle all my natural instincts.“Then, now and again, I would turn my head off. As soon as I did that, I’d stumble on these purple patches. Portsmouth scouted me while I was at Southend in one of those runs. But as soon as I started doing well, that voice was back saying: ‘Tell you what, you could get a move here. Don’t drop it now. You’re going out too much. Stay in. Work.’ And the cycle started again. Pompey came back for a second look a few weeks later and I’d just fallen off the face of the earth, a shadow of the player I’d been.”Life became about the next game, the next move, the next fix which spiralled into a sex addiction. By the time he sought help from the PFA and was admitted to the Sporting Chance clinic, he was homeless, divorced and broke.

The process of self-discovery, charted in his autobiography And Then What?, started in rehab and led him to new roles within the game.He studied biomechanics, specialising in movement patterns and injury prevention, and set up a business that serviced players like Harry Kane and Craig Bellamy. The 40-year-old maintains a small client list for physical training but his focus has shifted to the emotional side, providing holistic support that players feel uncomfortable accessing at their clubs.His footballers lean on him. Broughton listens to their issues, analyses their games, lets them express their emotions and tells them home truths aimed at toughening them for a merciless industry. “I can see the fear in their eyes. My demons are as strong as anyone’s, and that’s why I can relate to them. Some of the guys I work with have the potential to be among England’s best but are also one step from being average Championship players. They tread the finest of lines. And they need help to stay on track.”

Changing attitudes, he suggests, lies with adding new disciplines to coaching courses. The FA’s learning model includes a psychological element as one of its four pillars, “but it is only really discussed halfheartedly”. So he points to the 12-step programme, the guiding principles in recovery from addiction and other behavioural problems.“Step four of that process, compiling a fearless and moral inventory, is what I’d draft into the licence,” he says. “It is the most brutal thing I’ve ever done. You have to acknowledge every harm you’ve ever inflicted and why. So flicking the ear of the kid in front of me at school when my self-esteem was low, my dad had left us and I wanted to be the main man. A bully. Or breaking Chris Brass’s jaw at Bury when I was convinced the manager didn’t want me. But the key, the big dog, is listing all your fears. Every time you can remember you’ve ever been scared.”“There’s no right or wrong to it. You sit in that process for as long as it takes, pouring your guts out. It ends up as a stock inventory of your soul. It’s pretty much what I do with the players I work with: what are you scared of?

Write down everything you’re afraid of. It makes you talk about all the things you’d buried.“Football will never change until coaches look into their deepest, darkest places and work through their own issues. Players go into coaching now without ever addressing the shit they went through in their careers. They’re damaged. They’ve masked their fears, played out their days telling themselves to ‘cope’ so, subconsciously, as coaches they go out and project all the crap they went through.Sign up for The Recap, our weekly roundup of editors’ picks.“One client of mine told me about a manager, who has been out there publicly discussing mental health, tearing into young players before a game, telling them their careers would be over if they played badly. That’s a complete lack of emotional intelligence. So add six months on to the end of the licence, working with a therapist, and allow them to look in the mirror and understand themselves.“Those who do understand – Jürgen Klopp, Pep Guardiola – get more out of their teams. Pep’s exceptional, but isn’t the coaching badge there to create exceptional coaches to develop exceptional players? Players need to feel able to admit something is wrong, and managers have to offer emotional support. These guys are suffering. The game needs to recognise that.”For information on And Then What?, by Drewe Broughton

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