First and foremost, how are you? I read your recent interview with Oliver Holt for The Mail on Sunday and you talked about struggles with your mental health and feeling isolated in Belgium due to Covid restrictions. You mentioned in that piece that you could feel your anxiety levels rise when you came home last Christmas, which is when I last spoke to you. Was it just a case of putting family first?
Work is always a comfort to me. The football side of things is never an issue. I find a lot of peace in football and there are not enough hours in the day for it. My mind races and I do overthink, but the way my mind works is designed for football and helpful. I can see small details on the pitch straight away and I’ve already anticipated things. I need to have every detail covered because if I don’t, it will eat away at me. Being isolated on my own is not so bad because I like my own space. I don’t mingle with football people outside of football because I need to switch off, even though most people would say that I don’t, and they’re probably correct.
In Brussels, I was in an incredible place, but my family wasn’t able to come over because of the restrictions in place and I wasn’t able to come home. You want to be around people you love and that love you. It took its toll and your anxiety creeps up because I’ve got two young girls and I went long periods without seeing them. When you return, you can rebuild bonds because you can lose them when you miss really important times in their lives. They’re also missing me as well. Maybe it would have been different under normal circumstances when you can travel freely because Belgium isn’t far, but when I look back, I’m surprised I lasted two and a half years. It was the right decision to come home.
I guess you were in a situation where you can’t win. Whichever way you play it, either your family or your job doesn’t get enough attention and you end up having to make a choice.
Like I always say to my players, family should always come first. I tried to do both, but it was more football. Being around the children, I love it. It’s just about being present. It’s also given me the chance to look back on the last couple of years. Re-evaluating what I’ve learnt, what I’ve liked or disliked and what I would like to do again. It was an incredible experience., but I didn’t take enough care of myself. I think I feel the highs more than a lot of people, but I also get the lows worse.
It’s trying to find that balance and you get a lot of bad habits from football. One week you can be on top of the world and the next they want rid of you. That’s the volatile environment I’ve lived in from a young age. When I first came home, I missed the game and you can’t just walk straight back in to people’s lives. You have to do it gently because they’re not used to seeing you. The last month has been really good though and I’ve felt happier than I have for a long time. I have inner peace and I feel a lot more present.
I could tell from talking to you that you’re a perfectionist and a bit of a workaholic. It sounds like in Belgium, you were working 12, 13, 14 hour days, so I guess your life just ends up coaching and nothing else. I know how passionate you are about coaching, but to maintain good mental health, you need to find a balance. As a player, I guess it’s easier to just do your bit and switch off, but I imagine coaching is more all-encompassing. Is it harder to disconnect from coaching than playing?
You have pressure and expectation as a player. How you can live your life and how you cannot. You can’t go for a meal on a Friday, but I can as a coach! I prefer coaching to playing because you can control and be involved in so many things. You can cover so many areas, but when you’re playing, you can only cover your own. I used to get frustrated sometimes because I always needed more. Playing wasn’t enough and I needed more input. When I first started coaching, I didn’t know what I was doing and I wasn’t watching the game properly, but the more you do it, you get better at it. You learn to better control your emotions and body language. Confidence is contagious, but so is a lack of confidence.
Coaching takes up a lot more time spent at the club and there’s no balance. It isn’t there. People around you need to be patient because of the hours you have to put in. You have to know so much and I was planning three months in advance and reviewing everything back. It consumes you. I was leaving at like 11 at night, but I loved it. You have to take responsibility and the buck stops with you, but if I get criticism, it won’t be down to a lack of effort. If I didn’t put the effort in, the criticism would hurt and I would deserve it. If you do something, do it with everything you’ve got.
If you’re not present at home, it can turn to resentment and I’ve always been all or nothing, so at the moment I’m trying nothing! I’m taking a year out to give my children the attention they deserve.