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Brian Pritchard – Mental health taboo still to be broken in football

A managerial appointment in the Welsh first division wouldn’t usually make a follower of Southport sit up and take notice, but when it’s a former player it’s always a little different.  

In November, Conwy Borough  appointed former Southport centre-half Brian Pritchard as their new first team manager. He had originally started the season as joint manager at Widnes before stepping aside following an indifferent start to the season (Joey Dunn taking over).

Pritchard only played a handful of games for the Sandgrounders and is best known for his long association with Witton Albion where he stepped up from playing and into management. He guided them to promotion in his first season in charge (2012-13) and only lost out on a successive promotion in the play offs in the following season.

Whilst captain at Witton he drew unwanted attention from both the FA and his employers when he was sent off for apprehending a streaker. Believe it or not it was deemed violent conduct by the senior official. What makes it worse however is that away from football Brian is a policemen and whilst off-duty was clearly just trying to stop a criminal offender!

There are lots of stories in the media at the moment concerning mental health and social care provision and the following interview is one that Non-league Daily conducted with Brian in December 2015 on the subject of the mental health taboo in football, following his departure from Witton . It makes fascinating reading:

Interview conducted by: Andrew Simpson
Non-league Daily

Brian Pritchard doesn’t need a moment to think before answering. His body language – relaxed, and at ease – reflects what he says next writes NLD writer Andrew Simpson

“I don’t miss football,” he declares. “I haven’t made the wrong decision to leave it behind, and already it feels like something I did ages ago. That surprises me.

“But if there’s any regret, it’s that I didn’t realise sooner the impact it was having on my life.”

Pritchard resigned as manager of Witton Albion last August after three seasons in charge. They were successful ones. At the end of the first, the Northwich club was promoted to the Northern Premier League’s top flight.

History almost repeated the following year, only for FC United of Manchester to win a thrilling play-offs semi-final.

His last was successful too, albeit in a different way as Albion avoided relegation after spending three months – between January and March – in the table’s bottom four.

Despite that, he’d had enough.

Last weekend Pritchard stopped between bites of a sausage sandwich to tell me why.

“Look, I’ve eaten the salad – that’s how much I’ve changed!” he quips, pointing to an empty plate.

He knew I’d timed the interview to coincide with Mental Health Awareness Week, and agreed straightaway to do it. An hour later, it was obvious why.

“Football, if you let it, can consume you as a manager,” he said.

“It impacts on everybody around you, whether that’s at work or at home. That’s for 52 weeks a year as well.

“Players get a break at the end of a season, and can switch off. A manager doesn’t, or at least that was my experience. You can go out with your other half, or with friends, but you’re never fully relaxed.

“Individuals can absorb that for so long, but at some point there’s nowhere left to store stuff.
“Pressure builds, and it becomes a slog.”

It took somebody else to make him realise just how much of a grind.

He said: “It was subtly pointed out to me I should take a step back and take a look at my life.

“I realised I was almost 40, and felt I’d done nothing else with my life outside of football – that was a wake-up call.
“I felt unhealthy; I was eating badly, and was in a bad routine rolling from a shift at work to football, whether that was training or going to a game.”

Like most managers in non-league, Pritchard juggled his duty in the dugout with a full-time job. In his case, as a police officer.

On one occasion, he stood on the touchline in his uniform at Hednesford because he had a night shift that started shortly after the final whistle.

“At times I was spending 40 hours a week on football,” he added.

“I must have had rocks in my head.

“That’s for little financial reward too, and even less regard for my welfare. It’s not ok to just shrug and say we choose do to it.

“Some of the things that happen as a result of that, whether it’s stress, anxiety or struggling to sleep, haven’t been referred to as ‘mental health’ until recently.

“The topic is in the public domain, but non-league football is very poor at addressing them.”

And, as a manager, it’s even harder to prioritise your own wellbeing.

There is a group of players, all distinct characters, that must come first.

Pritchard said: “I felt responsible for them.

“As a manager at Witton, you also take on the problems of a few hundred fans too! So the spotlight is on you. If I could help my players, I would. From the start, I felt they responded better if I was honest with them.

“That’s not lip-service, it’s because I cared.

“In my experience, a player will hide things if they think it might lead to them being dropped. I wanted to avoid that.

“I could make better decisions if I understood where they were emotionally – if they had problems at home or had split up with a partner – then it can influence their performance when they go out onto the pitch.”

At the start of last year, with Witton in the drop zone after six league games without a victory, he did something radical.
Instead of training on a dark Thursday in January, Albion’s players were told to report to the club’s Wincham Park ground.
For 40 minutes, they sat in silence while listening to a presentation by representatives from State of Mind – a programme aimed at improving the mental health of rugby league players.

As a Warrington Wolves supporter, Pritchard was aware of their work and invited them to Northwich.

“I felt the players were being consumed by the situation they found themselves in,” he said.

“I wanted them to put results on the football field in a bigger picture.

“We had a team of players who had won titles or promotions, but none of them had been relegated. They didn’t know what that felt like. Remember too that these are young lads; to them, it’s a scary thing to say they’re not feeling 100 per cent or are worried about what’s happening.

“I’ve been in changing rooms where the response to that would have been ‘you’re nuts’ or, even worse, you’d have the mick taken out of you.”

He did not ask a single member of his squad afterwards what they had thought of the session.

Less than 48 hours later, they thrashed Stocksbridge on the pitch next door. Yet, reflecting now, Pritchard feels frustrated.

“I had a genuine concern for my players, so did something about it,” he said.

“I researched it, spoke to people around me, and made it happen.

“Those lads needed to know there was an avenue for them, but I could find nothing in football that addressed mental health directly.

“If it exists, then teams at Witton’s level haven’t been told about it.

“I played football for 16 years before I became a manager, and in that time I’ve seen the game tackle racism, homophobia and other issues in society.

“For me, this is the last remaining taboo.

“I’m glad there’s less negativity attached to it, but football needs to do so much more.

“The FA will say it’s aware, and so will leagues.

“Individuals at football clubs are, and managers definitely.

“Awareness is a start, but only that.”

When Tony Sullivan resigned from his position as Witton manager last month following Albion’s relegation back to the league’s second tier, some fans – and former players – called for Pritchard’s return.

While flattered, he isn’t tempted.
Smiling, he says: “Football has contributed to who I am, and I’m not resentful of that.

“I still look for Witton’s results, of course I do.

“I miss the club, but not that day-to-day stuff.”

He saves the final word for his mother.

“She summed it up best,” he adds.

“I was talking to her one day and she said ‘Son, I’m glad you gave up that hobby.’

“Who’s going to argue with their mum?”

Interview: Andrew Simpson
Image: Northwich Guardian

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