Three Norwich City Academy players have volunteered themselves to become Justin Fashanu mental health ambassadors at the club.
Justin Fashanu was Britain’s first one million-pound black player in a playing career that spanned over 19 years. He was also Britain’s first openly gay professional footballer but sadly took his own life in 1998 after years of discrimination over his sexuality.
In his memory, Justin’s niece Amal Fashanu founded the Justin Fashanu Foundation to campaign against homophobia and racism in football and raise awareness around mental health issues in the sport.
Academy players Jon McCracken, Caleb Richards and Tony Springett volunteered to become ambassadors on behalf of the foundation at Norwich City.
In conjunction with the club, the Justin Fashanu Foundation will work closely with the player care department to aid the ambassadors who provide extra care for the wellbeing of their teammates in the academy.
Head of player care Clive Cook sees this opportunity as an not only to break down the stigma of mental health in sport, but to pay tribute to former Canaries forward Fashanu.
“I see it as a fantastic opportunity, because we were looking to do something around mental health this year in terms of players taking more ownership,” said Cook. “When Amal contacted the club and asked to have a connection of some sort, she was quite open-minded.
“Mental health in football is vital. We’re at a stage now where the Premier League have realised they’ve got to do more to support the players.
“The stigma in football in the past has been where you’ve just got to ‘man-up’ and show no weakness at all, now we’ve got player care departments across all Premier League clubs as a necessity.
“The Premier League and PFA are doing some great work on mental health but we all recognise there is more to do. We believe we’re creating a good programme for the players to feel comfortable and this is the next stage.”
Under-23s goalkeeper McCracken says he was keen to volunteer to become a Justin Fashanu Mental Health Ambassador because it’s a close subject to both him and his family.
“For me it’s one of the most important things,” he said. “I’m a big believer that if you feel good, you’ll play good.
“I’ve experienced things off the pitch before and in my family, it’s been quite a close subject. I’ve come through my challenges with mental health and talking to people in the club really does help.”
Asked about the mental demands of the sport, McCracken added: “Being a goalkeeper, you’re very rarely involved in the game, so part of being a ’keeper is purely staying mentally focused, but I think that goes for every player as well. Majority of it is mental, because you spend a lot of time off the pitch as well as on it.
“It’s not like football is plain sailing all the time, there’s difficulties and challenges that have a big effect on mental health, that factor is a big part of the game.”
Under-23s Caleb Richards thinks having ambassadors within the team will allow players to open up more.
“It’s really important to maintain mental health in football, it’s a very high-pressure sport. There’s a lot going on where you could just drop out of the game at any time, so there’s a lot of anxiety that could come with it.
“Players are a lot more open to speaking to their mates about stuff, some I’ve spoken to they’ve just said they’re not feeling too good and you can just talk it out, or do something to take their mind off it.”
However, Richards says there is more work to do in tackling the stigma, but movements like these are good signs of progress.
“There’s definitely still more to do,” he added. “People are still being silent about their mental health, but I think it’s taken a massive step in the right direction, a lot more people are speaking out and feel more comfortable in doing so.”
Under-18s forward Tony Springett says that players sometimes feel as if they don’t have time to speak out about their feelings, so having ambassadors amongst the team will help create that time.
“It’s very important to have ambassadors, because there’s a lot of pressure on young players and athletes, we’ve got a high standard to maintain on a day-to-day basis.
“We might sometimes not have time to share our feelings, but we’ve got to make that time to make sure everyone around us in the dressing room is okay.
You can learn more about the fantastic work the Justin Fashanu Foundation are doing by clicking here.