It is a couple of years since Kane Hemmings put his feelings down in words. A professional footballer, he wrote Scared, almost 900 words detailing a medley of emotions born of the fear of failure in which he talks about being petrified before a game of letting people downand weary of putting on a brave face to mask anxiety and suicidal thoughts. “When you feel that way, physically you feel tired and maybe a yard off it sometimes because you have all these emotions running through your body,” he says now.
The piece begins with a dictionary definition of “play” which no longer resonates. “We don’t ‘play’ football,” the striker, who joined hometown club Burton Albion last summer, says now. “There is so much more riding on it, you can’t just go out there and ‘play’. There is a structure to it, there’s a gameplan, you have to do this, you have to run this way and that way, and you can’t just run about like you did with your mates. Having a good game only makes me feel like, ‘I need to do that again next week now’, but when you’re just playing for the fun of it, there are no expectations.”
He accepts pressure comes with the territory but it is something he has grappled with since the beginning of his career. Going from Rangers, for whom he made 10 appearances, including in the Champions League at Malmö, to playing part-time for Cowdenbeath, training twice a week and washing his kit after games following his release at 21, was a shock.
“It was a kick in the teeth, a kick to the ego. I loved my year at Cowdenbeath … but it’s not Rangers. I had to get rid of my car and I had to move in with a friend because it was the only place I could afford to live. I started a college course in sports coaching and I was going to college more than I was playing football. I held on to that for many years, thinking, ‘I could get this taken away from me at any point’, and that really, really scared me. It still scares me but I’m in a better place to deal with it now.”
Five years ago, Hemmings was suffering in silence. He felt alienated living alone in Glasgow and was “drinking a lot during midweek, drinking on a Sunday and I would go out on a Saturday after most games”. At the end of a season in which he scored 26 goals for Dundee, he pulled on to the hard shoulder of the southbound M6 and spent 15 minutes crying, wondering why he was so low. Hemmings alludes to that moment in his writing – “I’ve just had the best season of my life and I hate it?” – but last year, after a “meltdown” at a friend’s partner’s 30th birthday party, came the realisation that he needed professional support.
“I had a few drinks and I was just running about telling people I wanted to kill myself. I got took home, passed out, woke up in the morning, got picked up and took to training and I remember I went and sat in the kit women’s room and just broke down to her. She went and got the manager [James McPake] and he was brilliant. He said: ‘Listen, just go home and get your head right.’ That was a Monday and he said to come back in on the Friday … In a way, it was the best thing that happened to me because I got the help I needed.”
Hemmings’ partner, Sophie, reached out to Mark Fleming at Positive Mental Health Scotland and he had a dozen sessions with Fleming’s wife, Aileen. The biggest takeaway, Hemmings says, was recognising the value of being open and expressing emotions. Scared was published anonymously in Mark Fleming’s book, Confessions of a Football Chaplain.
“I would never have had these conversations two or three years ago. Never. I didn’t understand why I felt like I did so if I couldn’t figure it out, what was I meant to say to someone? Now I’m happy to talk to anyone about it. People are going to have bad days and bad weeks but it shouldn’t fester for years and years to the point where you’re saying the stuff I was saying.”
He talks candidly about the impact of online abuse. “How’s it right that people can just go on to social media and say what they want?” Hemmings asks. “What are people getting from racially abusing someone? Or from abusing someone after a game? When I was at Barnsley, I didn’t play particularly great. I used to open up my phone on a Saturday evening and I didn’t know how to deal with these people telling me I’m terrible.”
He turned to writing while at Notts County, during a season that culminated in the club dropping out of the Football League for the first time. “There’s people’s jobs at stake, money on the line, people’s careers … you have to be mentally strong to be able to deal with all that. Having to be like that all the time … it can take its toll. I get scared before every game. I’m not embarrassed saying that. I’ve tried to flip it on its head and turn it into a positive. ‘All right, I’m up for it,’ and embrace it. I feel I’m much more ready to deal with that pressure now.”
Burton are bottom of League One but have won three of their past four matches under Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink and could move out of the relegation zone if they beat Sunderland on Saturday. Hemmings has scored eight goals in his past 13 league games but, away from matchday, he has prepared meals at a local food bank and attended vaccination rollouts at Burton’s Pirelli Stadium. The club have made Hemmings aware of the support available to him from the club and the wider community should he feel he needs it. The club and the Burton Albion Community Trust are signed up to the mental health wellbeing charter.
As a kid, Hemmings went to the half-term camps laid on by the Trust he has since helped at as a player. “If I left the club, I’d like people to think I was out in the community and tried to make some sort of difference. One thing that became evident when I spoke to Aileen was that I feel like I need community around me. Moving home to Burton has been a massive weight off my shoulders. I moved away from home when I was 16 to go to Rangers so I was not at home for the first 10 years of my career.”
Billy Kee, Marvin Sordell and Kevin Ellison have spoken powerfully on depression and Hemmings knows his story will resonate with many. “If you speak to someone to get help … I can’t tell you how good it feels after,” he says. “It makes you feel unbelievable, once you delve into how you feel and openly speak to someone without feeling judgment. You walk out feeling like a totally different person. It feels like you are floating.”
In the UK and Ireland, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or email email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org.