Anton Ferdinand: As a footballer you’re brought up to not show any weakness

As part of MHAW Takeover, our Sports Guest Editor sits down with reporter George Bellshaw to talk about the impact grief has had on his mental health.

‘I’m not proud of it,’ Anton Ferdinand says before he closes his eyes and scrunches up his face. ‘I cringe now talking about the fact that I’d have a drink before a game. It’s just not me.’

Ferdinand had reached a low point in his life. Overwhelmed by the loss of his mother, Janice St Fort – who had passed aged 58 after a battle with bladder cancer, he felt unable to find solace in his usual escape route: football.

‘I was secretly drinking,’ he says. ‘Drinking the morning of a game. I got to the point where I didn’t really care about football. I always pride myself on how I played or if we get a result. I was a winner and I always wanted to win. But all of a sudden, I didn’t have that in me. I didn’t care.

‘I’d wake up and I wouldn’t have a beer or wine but I’d have a spirit because you couldn’t smell that on your breath. I’d have a shot of straight vodka or whiskey and I’d go about my day. Sometimes I’d have more than one but that was just me trying to deal with stuff that I panicked at and couldn’t deal with.’

Four years on from his mother’s death and now retired from professional football, Ferdinand is a different man. Through a thorough inward examination, he has confronted demons of the past.

In our Zoom call lasting well over an hour, our Guest Sports Editor speaks calmly, openly and honestly to about his mental health struggles, the racist abuse he faced and how it contributed to a collapse of a promising Premier League career, and the ongoing challenge of handling grief.

Ferdinand, the former West Ham and Sunderland defender, was captain of League One side Southend when he lost his mother to bladder cancer.

She first experienced bladder infections in 2011, shortly after a high-profile racial incident where John Terry, then captain of England, used the words ‘fucking black ***t’ in an on-field argument with her son.

Six years later, with his mother in hospital, his older brother Rio – the former Manchester United and England centre-back – called to tell him that she didn’t want to fight anymore.

‘I’d never heard my mum say that in her life, I took offence to it to be honest,’ says Ferdinand. ‘Me and Rio had a discussion, I didn’t believe him. He just said, “Anton, come home and hear it for yourself”.

‘I came home and hearing my mum say to me she doesn’t want to fight anymore was probably the hardest thing I’d ever heard.

‘From someone who is your rock, who is the strongest person you know. To hear her say, “I don’t want to fight anymore, I’m going to stop fighting because I’m hurting and I’m tired”. It was the hardest thing for me to hear. I just broke down.

‘I said to her, “Mum, I’m not being funny, for 32 years of my life you’ve put me first so I can’t stand here and say to you, no, I want you to fight. So whatever your blessing is, I’m with you. Whatever you want to do, I’m with you. I’m going to be here fighting with you. I’m here”.

‘It was hard to even say that to her because what I wanted to say was, “No mum, you’re a fighter, you need to keep fighting”. I couldn’t do that because I knew how hard it must have been for her to even say that to me and my brother and sisters. That was hard.’

Ferdinand struggled to watch his mother, who he describes as his ‘rock’, deteriorate before his eyes. He blamed himself – as he admits, irrationally – for being the person who drove her to the hospital for the last time. Then, she was gone.

‘From that day I no longer had the person who I spoke to every day, who was my soundboard,’ he adds.

‘A mother’s love is just different. A mother’s talk is different to anyone. I no longer had that and I really, really struggled.

‘We as human beings, we tend to know and understand every emotion we go through, that’s the way the mind is. But when it’s something you don’t quite understand, your mind becomes inquisitive and it wants to find out more, it wants to search. That’s when it becomes dangerous.

‘That’s when you start to do things you shouldn’t do. I started to drink stupidly. Drink didn’t help at all, it made me more emotional and it didn’t help but it was only me searching to try and get to the bottom of these emotions that I didn’t quite understand.’

In the months after his mother’s death, there was concern over his wellbeing from his wife, and a couple of Southend team-mates – despite, in his own words, ‘trying to mask it and being the happy-go-lucky person in the dressing room’ – but it was a physio, Ben Clarkson, who encouraged him to seek professional help from a grief counsellor.  

‘At first I was like, no chance am I doing that,’ says Ferdinand. ‘As a footballer you’re brought up to not show any weakness and to us men, especially ethnic minority men, to speak to somebody that you don’t know and go to seek help and counselling is not the thing to do.’

Clarkson was persistent and organised a session through former Arsenal defender Tony Adams’s mental health charity, Sporting Chance, near to the training ground.

In his first session, a story of the events leading up to his mother’s death – that takes a mere five minutes to recount now – took him an hour as he was so overcome with emotion.

‘It was the best thing I ever did, to be honest,’ he smiles. ‘When I got home from the counselling session, about half 8 or quarter to 9, my wife wanted to speak to me about it but I couldn’t. I just needed to go to sleep. I was sleeping before my head even hit the pillow.

‘I was so emotionally drained. Speaking about it, so much had come off me, the weight had been lifted. I no longer have to put a front up. It’s out there. I’ve said it out loud.

‘I was club captain at the time, I knew the team relied on me heavily and I didn’t want to move away from that responsibility. I took great pride in wearing the armband for Southend United but after that counselling session it was like I no longer have to hide, I no longer have to pretend. It became a great, great help to me.’

That emotional outpouring proved the first step for Ferdinand to confront the trauma of being racially abused by John Terry almost a decade ago. Through counselling sessions and inner exploration via his documentary he’s found peace with the anger that resurfaced after the death of his mother.

‘It was more through anger,’ he replies when asked how that incident manifested itself in his grief. ‘Anger that my mum was no longer here. It then triggered anger towards football, anger towards why I don’t love football anymore. And it always reverted back to that situation, to that incident. That allowed me to understand that was part of the problem.’

With television cameras not picking up everything Terry said, the court decided there was sufficient doubt and found him not guilty of a racially aggravated public order offence. The FA, however, held its own inquiry and found him guilty of ‘using abusive and/or insulting words… which included a reference to colour and/or race’. While those charges were pending, he was stripped of the England captaincy and Fabio Capello, manager at the time, resigned over the decision.

For Ferdinand, there was a ‘whirlwind of abuse’.

‘I’d get 1000s a day on Twitter, I’d go out the door, walk the streets and people would shout out racist slurs to me,’ he says. ‘Every ground I went to I got booed and heard racial abuse. I just couldn’t turn away from it, I couldn’t get away from it.

‘As far as they were concerned, I’d taken the England captain to court and when the England captain retired, it was because of me.

‘I had to take all of that hatred on me to the point where I received bullets in the post, I received hate mail with stuff saying the likes of I’m going to rape your mum and your sister in front of you. Loads and loads of stuff came my way and it felt like I couldn’t get away from it, it was constantly there.’

When facing Terry at Loftus Road for the first time after the incident, he ‘felt every set of eyeballs’ weighing heavily on him, despite having played in front of crowds more than four times the size.

Feeling let down by the authorities, Ferdinand felt alone. No club wanted him in the UK and he was forced to take his career to Turkey.

‘All of a sudden I’d become a bad egg for something that I didn’t do,’ he says. ‘I couldn’t get away from it. I was no longer known as Anton Ferdinand, the footballer or even Anton Ferdinand, Rio Ferdinand’s brother – I would have taken that again.

‘I was known as Anton Ferdinand, the boy who was racially abused by John Terry or Anton Ferdinand, the liar who accused John Terry of racially abusing him and the person who got a captain of England to retire. That’s what I was known as.’

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It took nine years for those feelings to subside. It was the words of a therapist in his documentary that struck a chord. ‘The first action of someone who is racially abused is silence,’ he recalls. ‘From that comment I no longer felt alone. That was nine years later. For nine years I felt victimised, I felt alone. The game treated me like I was the problem.’

It’s clear that Ferdinand is not seeking pity or retribution. He wants those in power in the game to take more responsibility for the mental wellbeing of players and, from his own standpoint, to help others who are struggling with their mental health.

‘Anton Ferdinand the footballer wishes it never happened. My career wouldn’t have taken a nosedive the way that it did,’ he says. ‘Anton Ferdinand the human being, the person – I don’t sit here and think I wish it didn’t happen because it’s made me the person I am today.

‘The next phase of my life is going to be about helping people. To be able to help people in the right way, you have to have gone through some stuff. That’s shaped me to be the person I need to be to help people the way I feel I need to.’

Indeed, he is mentoring young footballers and encouraging a move away from the status quo.

‘That’s the stigma, if you admit something you’re weak. Us as footballers, we’re brought up the other way. Don’t show people you’re hurt, it’s a sign of weakness,’ says Ferdinand.

‘There’s still that stigma in sport that you’ve got to be macho. I get and understand it but we need to make sure people understand: Anton Ferdinand the footballer needs to be macho but Anton Ferdinand the father doesn’t need to bring that home.

‘It’s hard to get that balance, it’s hard to separate the two. Especially when you’re at the top, playing elite sport. But when it needs to come out, it has to come out.

‘Don’t hold it in because it’ll have to come out somewhere else and in the wrong way. It’s only since retiring I’ve been able to separate the two. When I was playing it was Anton the footballer who can’t show weakness, can’t show vulnerability. Now, I’m definitely different.’

While Ferdinand credits grief with helping him find a healthier emotional balance in life, he admits he’s still getting to terms with the loss of his mother.

‘Everyone says it will get easier, it doesn’t get easier at all,’ he says. ‘Sometimes it gets harder, sometimes it does feel easier. But it’s always there, you just learn to deal with it.

‘Any type of celebration, my birthday, my mum’s birthday, Christmas, Mother’s Day – any type of event, my mum was always the life of the party. I expect her to walk in, I expect her to be in the middle of the dancefloor. Then you get a realisation that’s not going to happen.

‘You think to yourself after the first few times of that happening, you’d get used to it. But you don’t. It continues to come, every time there’s an occasion. But you’ve got to find your way of dealing with that. I like to think I have done.

‘The last few occasions, Mother’s Day and my birthday, I didn’t go to the grave before the day or on the day of the occasion, I went after and I found my mood on the day was a lot better then than it had been prior.

‘It doesn’t mean that I don’t think about my mum and it doesn’t hurt me, it does hurt me. But I’m able to control and deal with any emotion that I have. Yeah, I still cry on those days. I still go away and have time to myself because I need to. But it doesn’t ruin my whole day.’

Finding purpose and reason behind his loss provides some comfort.

‘When I looked at that asking why is it my mum who has died, my answer is my mum died first so I can help my friends and family who are going to go through that after me,’ he concludes. ‘I can be a person that helps them, that’s the reason why my mum went first.’

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For more stories like this, check our sport page. MHAW Takeover

This year, to mark Mental Health Awareness Week, has invited eight well-known mental health advocates to take over our site.

With a brilliant team that includes Alex Beresford, Russell Kane, Frankie Bridge, Anton Ferdinand, Sam Thompson, Scarlett Moffatt, Katie Piper and Joe Tracini, each of our guest editors have worked closely with us to share their own stories, and also educate, support and engage with our readers.

If you need help or advice for any mental health matter, here are just some of the organisations that were vital in helping us put together our MHAW Takeover:

  • Mental Health Foundation
  • Rethink Mental Illness
  • Samaritans
  • Mind

To contact any of the charities mentioned in the MHAW Takeover click here

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