“People think footballers shouldn’t be depressed. But when all you know is football and it gets taken away from you, it is a lonely place and that is how I felt for a couple of years.”
The issue of mental health among men is increasingly well documented in the modern era.
While in 2020 the perception of men suffering mental health problems is more widely accepted than it was 10 or 15 years ago, in professional sport the topic is now being brought to the forefront of the conversation, through initiatives such as Prince William’s Heads Up campaign.
But amongst a section of society and in some corners of the sporting and footballing world the impression remains; ‘footballers shouldn’t be suffering depression, they’re footballers, they earn big money, they have everything’.
As Shrewsbury midfielder Dave Edwards explains, that isn’t always the case.
The midfielder is adored at two of the clubs he has played for. At Shrewsbury he came through the ranks and has now returned to finish his career with his boyhood club, and he clocked up almost 300 appearances at Wolves, a club he helped guide to the promised land of the Premier League, before making his final bow in their return to the Championship.
He’s also enjoyed the highs of an international career, and is in an elite club of Welshmen who have represented their country at a major tournament.
But for all the high points of his career, Edwards has revealed the low points he has suffered, where he slipped into a depression at a time in football where mental health issues had a certain taboo attached to them.
“In a whirlwind 18 months after leaving Shrewsbury I was in the Premier League. Nothing bad had ever happened in my career,” explained the midfielder.
“I then suffered a back injury in the second season in the Premier League and I was out for eight or nine months.
“It was tough to deal with. I had a stress fracture of my back and didn’t have a recovery date, I just had to rest.
“It was tough. At the time I didn’t really know what I was going through, but looking back it was definitely depression.
“That sounds silly, people think footballers shouldn’t be depressed.
“But when all you know is football and it gets taken away from you, it is a lonely place and that is how I felt for a couple of years.
“I got back in the team and then we suffered a relegation, I broke my foot and we got relegated again.
“With an injury you end up getting frustrated and things get worse and worse.
“I was difficult to cope with, and my wife would say I was probably difficult to be around during that time.
“I wasn’t in good form when I did come back and at a club like Wolves you’ll face criticism from the fans and the media, and that was something I had never had to deal with before.”
During an era in football where mental health wasn’t really talked about, Edwards couldn’t face the thought of addressing it with the club’s management staff.
Instead he turned to the club doctor, Matt Perry, who helped the midfielder deal with his issues.
That experience is one that the Salop midfielder believes has helped him to spot similar signs of mental health issues among the next generation of players.
“I couldn’t really talk to anyone at Wolves,” Edwards explained.
“I spoke to the club doctor Matt Perry who was fantastic, he sign posted me to a psychologist and I was diagnosed and was put on anti depressants for a while.
“It was nothing you could speak to the manager or coaching staff about. Back then there was a provado around it, you didn’t want anyone to see you were struggling with different things, you put on a front that you’re fine.
“I read books on personal growth during that time, and as hard of an experience as it was it was one of the better things to happen to me.
“It changed my outlook on life and now I’m in a position where I always look at the good things rather than focus on the negative. It has helped me both on and off the pitch.”
The help available for footballers is different now, with players more willing to speak about about their issues.
In May last year a report from the PFA revealed footballers seeking mental health support had rocketed, with 355 undergoing therapy with the help of the PFA between January and the middle of 2019.
“Things have evolved in a fantastic way now,” Edwards added.
“I feel myself I can spot signs in the younger lads who are struggling, so I go and speak to them.
“I know I would have appreciated that when I was younger. Football is more open now, and the issue among men in general is too.”
Edwards came out of that dark place to help Wanderers secure promotion back to the Championship, and via a stint at Reading he is now back in his hometown for the final stretch of his career.
The club he returned to in 2019 was a far cry from the one he left back in 2007.
The likes of Edwards and Joe Hart were emerging at a time when Shrewsbury were about to drop out of the Football League.
At the time it was a travesty for the town and the club, but as Edwards explained, it was the best thing that could have happened for his own personal development.
“Looking back me and the other boys were fortunate from a personal point of view that the club didn’t have a lot of money to attract players.
“They had to use youth and that is why we got a chance earlier.
“Nowadays, with the club in such a good position, it would have been a lot different.
“So being in the Conference helped us, I think I played in 20 games in that Conference season, and to be part of a promotion side was fantastic.”
Edwards took no time at all when it came to transitioning from academy football to the men’s game, adapting to life on in non-league’s top tier and the following years in League Two.
By the time he left in 2007, he had already clocked up over 100 appearances in professional football.
But after such a stellar few years with the club he supported as boy, Edwards left under a bit of a cloud that saw him omitted from the side who lost to Bristol Rovers in the play-off final.
“I believed I could play higher at the time. I was winning international caps at different age groups alongside lads who were playing regularly in the Championship.
“I never gave much thought to moving on, but there was a lot of noise in the January before I left.
“The club offered me a contract that was similar to a younger squad player, but it wasn’t about that in the end.
“If the club had been promoted to League One I probably would have stayed, but they weren’t prepared to wait for me and I think my mind was made up.”
18 months later and Edwards was in the top flight, so all in all it turned out to be the right decision.
After his Wolves days were over the Wales midfielder signed for Reading, a move he looks back on with a tinge of regret.
But he has now returned to Salop to finish off his disguinished career.
For all his career highlights, memorable games and personal accolades, it is awards he has received for work off the pitch that the midfielder is most proud of.
He said: “Of all the things I have in terms of awards, the community player of the year ones are the ones I’m most proud of.
“As a footballer you are put on a bit of a pedestal, you can make a difference. And those awards go beyond football, and I am more proud of that work.”
In amongst his hundreds of professional appearances, Edwards turned out 43 times for his country and was part of the Wales squad that progressed to the last four at Euro 2016.
“I never really thought I would be playing for Wales on that stage,” added Edwards.
“Just to get one cap was amazing, but to go on and play 40 odd times and at a major tournament was a dream.
“You had to pinch yourself in France. One thing I look back and think is that I was glad I did it later in my career when I was more experienced and I could take it in a bit more.
“It was a career highlight but I am hoping it isn’t going to be the top highlight.”
Edwards is hoping that top career highlight is yet to come.
He believes that Shrewsbury now have the infrastructure, stadium and backing of the chairman to make a real challenge for promotion to the Championship, something he wants to achieve to cap of a top career.
“My career is not something I want to give away too easy, and I want to continue working to play as many games as I can.
“The Euros was a career highlight but promotion to the Championship with Shrewsbury would top it.
“I think if the club managed to get into the Championship, they have the right infrastructure, the stadium and a training ground that is good enough.
“It was nowhere near good enough when I first left.
“The club has the backing of the chairman and is capable of making a push for it with a bit of luck and momentum.
“You look at a club like Wycombe who went up via the play-offs, and they are in the same sort of region as Shrewsbury.
“So there is no reason why we can’t make a push for it.
“Playing a big part in getting us to the Championship for the first time in donkeys years would really be the highlight of a great career.”