If ever there was a sportsman from the money-mad professional era who was guaranteed to put a smile on the face of the fans – or even the opposition – then it was Freddie Flintoff. Ebullient big-hitting, big-hearted fast bowling, smacking sixes for his father to catch in the crowd, even consoling Australia's Brett Lee at the moment of victory: this was how he will be remembered, playing as if he was still an amateur, even like the fans themselves would dream of performing.
So it comes as a shock to hear how he suffered from depression. He seemed invincible in mind, if not in body, and yet it shouldn't surprise us if he really was just like us, just as weak as the next man.
The crucial difference, of course, is that Flintoff was in the public eye. Not only was there the necessity to maintain his level of performance to keep his place in the team but there were also those same fans to keep happy and, crucially, the voracious media to keep at bay.
In Freddie Flintoff: Hidden Side of Sport (BBC1, Wednesday) he interviewed an impressive array of depressive sportsmen, but perhaps he might have expected to receive a less sympathetic reception from Piers Morgan. The former tabloid editor doesn't seem to experience too many moments of self-doubt. Thanks to his unscrupulous ilk, Freddie will also be remembered for his water sports: being rescued while drunk in charge of a pedalo.
Morgan admits sports journalists have "grown up" since he left the newspaper industry – no coincidence, surely – and they tread more warily around their subjects' less visible injuries. But Morgan still comes out slogging: "I don't think they should worry too much about how they report sport. It's visceral." Presumably that doesn't include divulging a sportsman's medical records beyond the treatment table.
It was a couple of months before the pedalo incident when Flintoff's depression struck hard, while he was captain on the disastrous Ashes tour of 2006-07. Morgan admonishes him for not showing leadership when his best friend Steve Harmison was struggling mentally deep Down Under. He should have pulled him out of the side – a straightforward suggestion in the black and white world of the redtops, but life is more complicated than that.
At least Morgan takes the point of view of a fan rather than a hack. He claims not to understand how you can be depressed if you are a sporting hero. That's an important point which Morgan unwittingly lays bare: depression can strike anyone, in any walk or run of life. Sport may not cause depression, but just as the highs are unnaturally high, the lows are correspondingly more abject.
* So how low can you go? Just ask Natasha Giggs, sister-in-law of Ryan, with whom she had an affair for eight years – which qualifies her for Richard Desmond's desperately sad Celebrity Big Brother (Five) if not for anything else. Before being voted out of the house on Friday night, she had spent most of her time fawning over Kirk Norcross from The Only Way is Essex – she must be convinced that the only way is sex. But as the joke goes, she entered Big Brother; shouldn't it be the other way round?Reuse content