You don't have to dislike football to welcome the new Premier League season with arms firmly folded. The first Saturday of the season, heralding another nine-month burst of feuds between managers, savaging of referees, flawless triple Salchows with pike in the penalty area, and men on £100,000 a week agitating for better pay deals, always seems to arrive just a little soon. This is not, however, a broadside questioning the sanity of those of us still in love with the beautiful game, despite its disfiguring scars. On the contrary, it is intended, on the very day that we roll our eyes at the thought of more Premier League madness, to show football can do wonders for one's sanity.
Three years ago, a club called Derwent Valley Rovers was formed, affiliated to Derby County. The 26 players in the Derwent Valley squad had one significant thing in common: they had all battled mental health problems. Some had been sectioned, some had battled suicidal tendencies, some had been diagnosed as schizophrenics. But since starting to play football regularly, every one of them has made positive strides.
The team was founded by Ann Edwards, senior lecturer in mental health at the University of Derby. "These guys have experienced some grim, dark days," she says. "Life had been hell for them but football, and being part of this team, offers them hope and a focus. The change in their body language, their outlook on life, has been fantastic to see. Not one of the players has suffered a relapse in the three years we have been together." Peter Collins, Derby County's disability football officer, offers further insight. "As well as the physical aspects of the sport and the mental aspects of teamwork and tactics, the squad socialise together and have made friends," he says. "Some of the players also take part in committee matters, which adds a further focus."
It's uplifting news, and Derwent Rovers duly feature on a new Football Association website encouraging mental health sufferers to take up the game. Of course, one can also find examples of those whose mental health has been damaged by football. Paul Gascoigne springs to mind, as a man who could not cope with the waning of his extraordinary talent.
Moreover, football crowds are not particularly celebrated for their warm-hearted empathy towards those with personal problems, least of all in the case of mental illness. Football people often joke that goalkeepers are mad, and one can easily enough compile a list of great goalkeeping eccentrics, from the original, William "Fatty" Foulke, to John Burridge, Bruce Grobbelaar, Fabien Barthez and Rene Higuita. But when the then Rangers goalkeeper Andy Goram was diagnosed as being mildly schizophrenic some years ago, the old joke acquired real substance. "Two Andy Gorams, there's only two Andy Gorams," went the gleeful chant from Kilmarnock fans. It is a chant frequently cited as an example of the quick-wittedness rather than innate cruelty of a football crowd – indeed there is a book called Two Andy Gorams: The Funniest Scottish Football Songs Ever – but it shows that a football field is no refuge for a man suffering some sort of mental frailty.
Tell that, though, to Goram's counterpart between the Derwent Rovers posts. Michael Street, 28, has no doubts about the healing powers of football. He spent three years in Kingsway psychiatric hospital in Derby, having "freak-outs". He still takes medication but rarely needs to see his doctor any more, and ascribes it all to playing for Rovers. "It has changed my life," he says. It has done great things, too, for 23-year-old Philip Marke. He was hospitalised after stress-induced schizophrenia left him unable to leave the house; now he is club captain. And midfielder William Spicer, who suffered from delusions that he was a prophet, considers himself transformed by football. He is now studying for a degree.
On an altogether different level of football-induced sanity, diehard West Bromwich Albion fan Frank Skinner once told me that he was once on the terraces at The Hawthorns when a man in front of him started an expletive-strewn harangue of the players. Eventually it became too much even for the hard-bitten characters around him, one of whom leant forward and pointed out that there were youngsters in the crowd, and could this bloke please tone down his language. Far from doing so, the man gave him a volley of terrible, asterisk-heavy abuse. "I work all ****** week in a horrible ******* factory for miserable ******* pay, and give it all to my ungrateful ******* wife to spend on our fat ******* kids and her stupid ******* bingo," he snarled. "This is the only ****** time I get to let off steam, and it keeps me ******* sane. So **** off!" And Skinner thought, "Yes, actually, that's fair enough."
Whatever, it's worth sparing a thought for football as the restorer of mental health, as Premier League madness resumes.
The cruel faith of Everton fans
My zeal in indoctrinating my children into the Evertonian faith sometimes seems like cruelty. This summer my 13-year-old son Joe has seen his two favourite players, Lee Carsley and Andy Johnson, transferred, without either being replaced. Joe asks me on a daily basis whether Everton have signed anyone. All I've been able to tell him is that 31-year-old Phil Neville has agreed a new four-year deal.
For Becky, joy is a pair of Christian Louboutins
Amateurism long ago vanished from the Olympic Games, and if Baron de Coubertin starts spinning in his grave at the news that the wondrous Michael Phelps has bagged, as well as all those gold medals, a £1m bonus from his sponsors, Speedo, then let the old boy spin. That said, it is pleasing, sometimes, when the ghost of amateurism puts in a spirited appearance. It was nice to learn that Heinrich Romeike, the 45-year-old German who won individual gold in the three-day eventing, has a parallel life as a dentist. Similarly, it was lovely to see Becky Adlington, the first British woman to win an Olympic swimming gold since Johnny Kidd and the Pirates were No 1 in the hit parade with "Shakin' All Over", shakin' all over with excitement at the prospect of a pair of Christian Louboutin shoes, which her mum had promised her if she came home with a medal.