Don MacNaughton Coaching

Football, Friendship and Mental Health

“It’s not just about football, it’s about friendships.” – Alastair Campbell

Alastair Campbell is well-known as a political strategist, writer and broadcaster, but he’s also a big football fan. As a lifelong supporter of Burnley and Scotland, he is aware that football brings something into his life that has had an important role to play in his on-going battle with depression.

Growing up in Keighley, West Yorkshire, his dad took him to football matches from a young age. They’d go to see different teams play in those days, but around the age of 10, his family moved to Leicester and it was then that he became a Burnley fanatic. He believes there was something about having to move away from it that made him realise its importance, and he went on to wear his Burnley scarf right through his high school days in Leicester. He says,

“Football is part of the identity of a town. From its beginnings, a club is part of the community. It was the activity that gave relief from hard work such as mining, and a big part of why football has become historically a working-class sport. Burnley is a town that has a high proportion of its population going to matches, and the whole town is almost branded with Burnley FC colours – you never see anyone wearing a Man Utd shirt.”

Alastair believes that a lot of clubs have lost that close connection to their town and through this their connection to the fans. He says,

“Back in the 70s, it was in Burnley players’ contracts that they had to live within 8 miles of the town. That’s no longer the case, but something Burnley has that I think is really important is a board of local people. I think clubs sold to a big consortium (especially from other countries) lose something. It doesn’t matter who the owners are, I don’t think they can have the same depth of feeling for the club as someone from that area.

Football is more than a business; it has to be. We’ve seen it in lockdown. People have missed it. People are complaining that it’s not the same watching it on the telly, and they desperately miss being able to go to the game. This all just underlines how much people need it and how much they love it.”

Alastair has spoken openly about his struggles with depression and, through personal experience, he is aware of the importance of football (and his other passion, playing the bagpipes) in terms of helping him to prevent and deal with it. He says,

“People sometimes laugh when I say it, but Burnley Football Club is extremely important to my mental health. What they give to me in my life is an important part of my mental well-being. It’s not just about the football, it’s about the friendships I’ve made. I have a network of friends connected to the team, but it’s also the shared connection and sense of who and what you are.”

To illustrate his point, he tells the story of traveling to Istanbul to watch Burnley play. After getting his ticket on the way in, he found himself sitting only a couple of seats away from a man he’s been bumping into at Burnley matches for 55 years. It struck him that he didn’t know his name, but it had never mattered because they’d been sharing football for all those years. Another Burnley fan he sees at virtually every match is a man from Dover. Alastair says,

“Whenever I see him, we have the same conversation. It’ll be about how late the train was running and how his journey was, and then a chat about the players and the game. It’s funny to think that we’ve been having this conversation for 50 years. That’s what it’s aboutit’s the connection with people through football.”

The current situation with matches being played behind closed doors is a concern for Alastair. He worries that fans will drift away from football as time goes on because the atmosphere of being there in person is something that can never be replicated through a TV screen. He says,

“You lose the connection to everything that football brings beyond the match itself – the travel, the logistics, the banter, the getting together with the same people and having the same conversations… and I think people are realising that all of this is an important part of the experience. If it’s just a television sport, it all gets a bit like wallpaper in the end. The grounds look similar, the way the players set up is very similar, and the way the media hype it is very similar.”

Back in the days when football was rarely seen on television, getting to a match and seeing the players in action was the stuff of dreams for young fans. Favourite players could take on almost mythical status, but these days, football is readily available on TV and so much is known about players and the game that everyone has become an armchair expert. Alastair believes that it’s only by being in the crowd that the fans can return to being fans (not pundits) and feel the passion they have for the sport. He tells a funny story of how it felt to see football heroes in action as a youngster:

“When I was 6, Burnley had a player called Gordon Harris. At a game, I’d stand right down at the front on the wall, and on one occasion when Gordon came over to take a throw in, I could literally have reached out and touched his leg. He picked up the ball, shaped up to do the throw in, and then as he threw it, he let out the most enormous fart. I remember thinking, ‘I can’t believe that Gordon Harris farts!’ It’s so different now, we see the players on the TV, we have stuff on social media about them, and we know so much about them, making them much less mythical.”

Alastair continues to battle depression, but he knows that his passion for football can help him get through dark times. His advice to others with mental health issues is to be open about it whenever possible, and to build relationships with people you can trust. Finding things that can take you out of yourself are incredibly important, whether it’s football, music, or anything else.

As Alastair says,

“Connections with people are important. When you go to an away game, you pick up your ticket and you don’t know who you’re going to be sitting next to, but we’re all part of the same tribe and you just have to get on with it.”

Do listen to my full podcast with Alastair please click here 


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