Daily Star reporter and TUFC supporter Ross Kaniuk conducted an interview with ex-Gulls boss Martin Ling at the end of 2019, with an emphasis on discussing mental health.
The interview was only partly published in the Daily Star, so Ross kindly sent TT the full version…
Former Torquay boss Martin Ling – who suffered mental health problems as manager at three clubs – has revealed that many others secretly struggle in the game, which is slowly starting to deal with it.
Ling, who had to walk away as boss at Swindon and Torquay, went through electro-shock treatment during seven weeks at The Priory clinic and still uses medication and his own well-being routine to cope.
But his efforts have enabled him to both enjoy three successful years in charge of football as Orient’s Director of Football and to counsel others throughout football. He even became Division Two Orient’s effective “counsellor” when their popular manager and ex-Spurs star Justin Edinburgh died in June following a cardiac arrest aged 49.
Former player Ling told how he never had a problem until he reached 43, but his first episode of depression came while Cambridge manager.
At Torquay, despite reaching the play-offs when his remit was to avoid relegation, his problems became serious culminating in a complete mental breakdown.
After a tough three-year recovery outside management and working in the media, coaching and advising on wellbeing, he was surprised to be offered the Swindon job. But despite winning five games in nine to haul them out of the bottom four his mental troubles flared again and he quit.
Asked if many other managers and players had come to him for advice since, Martin said: “I think the best way to put that without naming names is ‘I’ve had an awful lot of cups of coffee’ in recent years”.
“It starts off them saying ‘fancy a coffee, I want to speak to you about a sister’, then you go for coffee and the person opens up and tells you their struggles. To hear them trust me is freeing for me as well as them. After an hour the person walks out not so slumped”.
This year the Premier League introduced a new app to help players’ mental well-being, and it emerged record numbers are going to the Professional Footballers’ Association seeking support. From January to May this year 355 accessed therapy.
Martin added: “My counsellor’s first words were ‘You’re not the most famous person to sit in that chair’. And I know I’m not the first person in football to have a total breakdown. Everyone is susceptible to different degrees – but football is certainly a high-risk industry”.
“The fact all my bouts came while being a manager means I have to wonder if it’s football management and its pressure. For me, I might have had issues in another walk of life, but I wouldn’t say that football management is conducive to having good mental health because of the up and down nature of the beast”.
“One minute you’re the best thing since sliced bread, and the next you’re not, to say the least. I’m not going to give it another test in terms of being a manager”.
“Having now learned about myself and looking after my well-being means I can now do quite a high pressure job in football – but that’s Director of Football and it’s definitely not as high pressure as being a manager”.
“I think we’re all born with the gene to have mental health problems if one in four people suffer but I think some have got it to a higher degree. It’s about how bad that sad feeling becomes”.
“I feel I’ve got a few wires in my head that are not quite wired up right and I have to take medication. I think I was personally born with it, but anybody may suffer and it’s about coping strategies”.
“For players the biggest problem is the first period after retiring – when that adulation comes to a stop. I don’t know Gazza’s background but how do you replace those massive highs. But the PFA and the League Managers Association are catching up. I think it was just as bad within football years ago, but now there are more doors to knock on”.
“I recently did a talk for them with former England player Chris Kirkland who has suffered. I do a lot of talks on depression in sport and in companies. Giving talks – how can you enjoy doing it? – yes, I do enjoy it. I’m helping them, but it’s quite freeing for me”.
Martin, 53, revealed the routine that has served him so well. He said: “Firstly, I do 10,000 steps a day in the fresh air. I also set my alarm an hour earlier and do meditation, self-reflection, reading. That hour is about well-being for Martin and I never rush out the house late and find I’m into a spiral”.
“I’ve never kept my eyes shut for the full 12 minutes meditation because my head will go wandering. But I get some sort of peace within that 12 minutes. And I do a few breathing exercises”.
“The counsellor recommended this and I’ve adapted it to my own style. It’s about calming the mind if you’ve got a few loose wires”.
“Another thing with me was negative thinking and dark thoughts that get darker if you suppress them”.
“It’s Cognitive Behaviour Therapy which I use. Now I write any dark thought and challenge that thought. Once written down it’s no longer in my head, and when I read the back an hour later I laugh at them”.
“For example, one is that I’m worthless, a useless piece of shit, why does anyone employ me? Even with good results I could still think I was useless. It’s warped thinking and written down it makes no sense, and that takes the power out of it.”
Ling first noticed a problem as Cambridge manager 10 years ago. He said: “When I look back, maybe there was a sign before that when I was Orient manager. We used to do an hour’s run before training and a couple of times I don’t remember even being on them as there was so much going on in my head. It felt weird”.
“When I first had the problem at Cambridge I spoke to the LMA and they pushed me to see a counsellor who I didn’t buy into and I thought Cognitive Behaviour Therapy was rubbish”.
“He put me on medication but I drank, when you’re not supposed to. Because it went after a month I didn’t take it seriously. And I was ashamed so I suppressed it”.
“Depression was a dirty word then. If it was understood then like it is now I would have been honest. My regret is I didn’t respect it then because if you nip it in the bud, you can probably deal with it. If you think it’s gone forever it could come back”.
When results started going badly, Ling refused to bow to pressure to quit but was eventually sacked, before being appointed Torquay boss in 2011. But he lived alone in digs all week, only seeing his wife and two teenage kids on Sundays on quick visits to their home in the South-East.
He said: “There’s an old saying ‘if you’re a football manager, don’t have fitted carpets in your office’.
“It was an important time for school and for my son Sam for football. But living alone I didn’t have that massively important stability of the family. I was in my own head and couldn’t speak to my wife, and when my problems returned worse I drank more”.
“But I hid it well for 18 months. Shaun Taylor was my assistant manager and a good friend and the first time he realised was when he scraped me up from the M4”.
Ling pulled off the motorway near Bristol thinking he was having a heart attack, but ambulancemen said there was nothing physically wrong. Taylor drove up from Devon, the LMA were called and got him seen in Harley Street that night and the next day he was in the Priory clinic.
Martin said: “I told Shaun over four hours on the car journey. Even after my breakdown I had trouble accepting I had mental health problems”.
Counselling at the Priory wasn’t shifting the depression and visiting friends even walked on the road-side of Martin in the grounds for fear he might do something stupid.
Martin said: “In the end they said we think you should try electro-convulsive treatment twice. I didn’t know what it was. Since then, people always bring up One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, but I’ve never watched that film”.
“I had about five treatments and thought my head is being fried and it’s rubbish as nothing was changing but the next time there was a chink of light – and that was maybe the turning point of my recovery. It knocks you out. You get a big shock through your brain, and even now I still don’t understand how it works”.
After seven weeks he checked out and had to go public as Torquay put him on sick leave until the end of the season, when they said they didn’t want him.
He said: “The rumours that were going about were worse than my mental health issues – like I was an alcoholic, I’d had a brain tumour – and the mental health wasn’t mentioned”. At the end of the season Torquay dispensed with Ling, blaming the team’s performances.
While Ling says he believes the team hadn’t been doing too badly, he magnanimously concedes he can understand the club’s situation and why they felt they had to make the decision.
Being the likeable bloke he is, he had no bad words about the club, and even spoke of a director at the club at the time fondly despite his departure.
He continued: “I didn’t look like someone who should be suffering. I had a loving wife, two kids, a nice house, two cars in the drive, I’d been doing a job that I love. But I don’t think it’s to do with what you’ve got, which is why millionaires in football can get it, which other people can’t understand. In the Priory, there was an awful lot of millionaires there”.
Martin, who hasn’t touched alcohol since then, thought he was better when Swindon came in for him. But he said: “After a few weeks I could feel the signs coming back although we were winning. But before I’d have another complete breakdown I chose to get out”.
“It didn’t go as deep and I recovered quicker, partly because I was totally honest with myself and challenged it head on talking openly. My daughter used to say ‘Dad, you’ve got that football face again’. I was talking with her but there was nothing going on”.
“But there are other high pressure jobs outside football, there’s pressures for people just paying the mortgage.”
Martin’s decision to leave management for good proved wise, and now after three years “upstairs” in charge of footballing affairs at Orient he was strong enough to help many others deal with their grief after Edinburgh’s shock death – and sack two managers.
“His wife told me first his machine was being switched off and so I had to tell everyone” he said. “Since then it’s been the hardest six months of my life”.
“Early on I went to the training ground and there was an eerie silence and the players didn’t know what to do. I said ‘What would Justin expect? With him there was a log of laughter so I said ‘it’s ok to laugh, it’s not showing disrespect to Justin’. You could see that free them up. I’ve told every player, staff member and Justin’s family ‘It’s ok not to be ok’.
He admitted one of the worst parts of being a manager was releasing players, particularly youngsters.
He said that after he had to fire Orient bosses Steve Davis, and later Carl Fletcher after just five games, people asked “How do you do that?”. He admitted: “If someone says they don’t mind doing that it’s a lie. But when I have to I think ‘have I been honest, have I done anything for them to lose their job, is it right for this club?’. And I made sure I told them face to face”.
“But the worst thing is releasing a 13 year old in front of his parents. He thinks you’re finishing him and he may well be right. I found that really tough”.