MARTIN Ling feels football clubs must learn to look past “coffee stains” of depression on the CVs of players and managers.
Ling, part of the Swindon Town side which won promotion to the Premier League through the play-offs in 1993, has fought the battle against mental illness twice since hanging up his boots and moving into management.
From his experiences, the former Cambridge United, Leyton Orient and Torquay United boss has come to think the sport is unaware of how depression manifests itself, how it can be overcome and how competent those who have emerged from it actually are to fulfil demanding roles in the professional game.
Ling was dismissed as manager at Torquay in May last year at the end of his contract with the Gulls, with the club citing footballing reasons for the decision. But the 47-year-old believes that his struggle with the disease caused those in charge at Plainmoor to doubt his capacity to lead when that could not have been further from the truth.
Now back in work, in four part-time roles both domestically and internationally, Ling has made the brave move to reveal all of his past demons, the inner workings of depression and their effects, as he looks to encourage fans, players, managers and chairmen to make more considered choices and judgements in the future.
Ling tells the Advertiser that, with mental illnesses as poorly understood as they are, clubs are likely to overlook candidates with such ‘blemishes’ on their records.
He says: “If there are four of us sitting in a room and the other three are on a level playing field because I’ve had depression then I feel it’s hard. I think I have a very strong CV but it has a little coffee stain on it, with the word depression, which people are going to have to look beyond to see I can still do the job.
“If one in four people suffer from it in the country, then some of the people who are making the decisions have probably gone through it. Barry Hearn (Orient chairman) said to me once ‘what did you learn in The Priory?’ and I said there are an awful lot richer people in this world than him and most are sitting in the Priory.
“The people who are running these football clubs have probably had someone suffer this around them or maybe even suffered it themselves, so they can realise that you can manage your life with depression.”
Ling’s first signs of depression came in 2010 while he was manager at Cambridge. His father David had just come through a serious, life-threatening illness.
He recounts: “We were at Rushden and Diamonds and I was a bit more anxious than I usually was. I was sweating and everything seemed a bigger decision than it ever seemed before.
“I palmed that off, took on a bit of fluid and a week later I couldn’t get out of bed. I felt no energy, no spark, no anything at all. I felt totally drained. I thought it was a virus but I spoke to the LMA through my wife and they said go and see your doctor, but they also sent me to see a stress counsellor.
“I went to see him and he said ‘you’ve got a mild form of depression’. He described the symptoms and that was how I felt. He put me on a course of therapy, CBT, which is cognitive behavioural therapy, and medication and within time it seemed to disappear.”
Ling would go on to be sacked by the non-league side within the year but soon established himself again at Torquay, where he manipulated a small budget brilliantly and reached the League Two play-offs in 2012.
It was during his second season in charge when his depression returned. This time it was much more potent.
With his team due to play live on Sky Sports the following day, Ling checked into Exeter Hospital feeling as though he was suffering from “a brain tumour”. His assistant manager, Shaun Taylor, took charge of the match and Ling set off the next day to return home to London.
“I felt like I was having a heart attack and pulled into Taunton Services,” Ling says. “That day I saw a specialist on Harley Street and by the next day I was in The Priory at Roehampton for five weeks.”
Ling is thankful to the League Manager’s Association, who picked up the tab for his stay in the rehabilitation clinic as his insurance did not cover the onset of depression, and the likes of Sir Alex Ferguson and Sam Allardyce, who called him with messages of support, but he was still at odds to explain why he was hit so hard.
He tells the story of lying on a hospital bed following his initial admission to Exeter Hospital, after being put through every medical examination under the sun: “While I was laying there in my hospital bed I started to rationalise it and I thought I was laying there in that hospital bed with nothing wrong with me.”
Of course that couldn’t have been further from the truth. Ling was one of the quarter of the UK population who suffer from some form of mental illness every year. But its invisibility was confusing – for him, for his family, for his employer and the fans of the club of which he was at the head.
“It’s weird because deep down you don’t want it to be depression,” he says. “You want it to be a physical ailment that someone can give you a tablet for and make it disappear. I didn’t want it to be depression because I knew how low it took me before, but the second time it hit me twice as hard.
“When I speak about it now people say ‘you were the last person I’d ever thought would get depression because you’re very outgoing, very jovial’ but it isn’t about that. I’ve had it under control for a year now and feel in a much better place this time.
“All I know is that some people’s brains are susceptible to depression and mine is or was.”
Torquay went public with the line Ling was taking time off work to recover from a stress-related illness. When his rolling contract in the summer he felt he was ready to return to work. The club did not.
“The truth of the matter was I was fit and well to go back in May but Torquay decided they wanted to go with Alan Knill and dispense of my services.
“The rumours when I left Torquay were that I had a brain tumour, that I had cancer, that I was an alcoholic. I’m not being disrespectful to any of those scenarios but if I had a brain tumour they couldn’t have and wouldn’t have sacked me, I honestly believe that.
“They honoured their contract, they paid me the year’s money but if anyone can find footballing reasons for why I was sacked from Torquay then they’re a better person than me.
“I feel I was ready then to tell this story, to explain to everybody where I’d been, to explain depression and that I was on medication to cope with it. I felt in a much better place.
“If I was working in any normal job I wouldn’t have to go public with this and no one would have needed to know where I was for the three months I was missing because, in a normal industry, they write you off ill, they write you off work and it would all be hush hush.
“At Torquay they had a daily paper and then a weekly paper and you had to be accountable. In a male-dominant sport it’s probably harder to deal with depression, particularly when you’re the head of that club.
“You can work with it. There are many people in many different industries who are working with depression.”
Having learnt to deal with his depression, Ling feels he is now able to thrive once more and he’s been able to enjoy family life with his wife Caroline, daughter Charlotte and son Samuel – who’s making waves in the Orient youth department.
He’s also using his experience to enlighten others of the very real but often unrecognised dangers of mental illness, its remarkable commonality and how it needs to be understood; with regular media appearances and work for anti-mental health discrimination charity ‘Time for Change’ at the top of his agenda.
But there is still a very pungent sense that Ling is desperate for a return to full-time management. And he feels he’s more than capable to do the job.
“I don’t see why I can’t work in football again just because I’ve had it because for a year now I’ve handled it very well and had no signs for a year,” he says. “People are always going to say ‘what if he comes back into a stressful environment? Is he likely to have depression again?’ I don’t think that’s the case now because I think I have the tools to deal with life situations.
“I want to be back at the coalface. I want that buzz of working within it. I’ve worked in it for 32 years and the only reason I’m outside looking in now is because I’ve had a bout of illness. If you look at my CV it’s a strong CV. I’ve never taken a team down, I’ve always left a team stronger than when I started with them. Cambridge maybe not so much but certainly at Orient and Torquay.
“I’d have no hesitation coming back if the right opportunity came my way.”