Republic of Ireland legend Niall Quinn said he hit a “black wall" of depression when he called time on his playing career and concedes he may not have escaped his misery without the offer to start a new career as a TV commentator.
Quinn enjoyed a successful career at both international and club level, playing a leading role in Jack Charlton’s Ireland sides in the late 1980s and early 1990s as well as starring for Arsenal, Manchester City and Sunderland.
However, he told ESPN FC at a Sky Sports studio in London on Friday that, after hanging up his boots in 2002, he suffered serious lows.
“It’s not nice to talk about this because I fell into a bad space when my football career finished and I think most footballers would feel the way I did after they quit,” he said. “The end of my career was not ideal.
“I was fed up with the way things were going at Sunderland and decided to retire in an instant. I hadn’t thought long and hard about it -- I just came to the conclusion that my time was up. It seemed like the right thing to do at the time and as I played a lot of goal for the first few weeks after that, all seemed to be fine but, four weeks in, this black wall hit me.
“The adulation had stopped. You go from being a major star to Mr Joe Public overnight and it’s not easy. You instantly feel as if you become the forgotten man. You don’t like people pointing at you saying: ‘That’s yer man who used to be a footballer’. You end up picking fights with yourself. It’s a tough place to be.
“What I had been used to all my adult life had ended in an instant and you cannot really prepare for that. My life revolved around football for as long as I could remember and, while you know it will end one day, you never really think about it until it happens. I wasn’t ready for it.
“My family were around me and they were very good to me, but you don’t notice how supportive are when you are feeling as I did and while I would not want to go through anything like that again.”
Quinn’s escape route came via an unlikely source, with the persistence of Sky Sports to get Quinn back into the game as a TV pundit providing him with a light amid the darkness.
“I will always be grateful to Sky for giving me a huge hand in getting out of that hole,” he said at the launch of Sky Sports new season of football coverage. “Their reporter Geoff Shreeves kept ringing me and asking me to do games and eventually I gave in, even though I really didn't want to do it.
“I so nearly turned back from the airport in Dublin when I came over for the first game, but my wife literally pushed me out of the door of the car and thankfully she did. It proved to be the start of my next life.
“I was so nervous doing my first game as a pundit. I didn’t want people to see me on TV -- I worried how I might come across. I suppose I wasn’t ready to contemplate life after football and, after my first appearance for Sky, I honestly thought I was hopeless offering views on the game. So much so that I was hiding in the airport on the way home in case anyone spotted me after what I viewed to be a TV disaster. That is how I felt at the time.
“My confidence was low I suppose, but Sky rang and asked me back again the next week and it went from there. I ended up working for them for two years.
“Then the opportunity came up for me to get involved with a consortium buying Sunderland and everything turned around for me. I rediscovered my love of the game that had been such a massive part of my life and that helped me to get myself back on track, but other sports stars are not so lucky.”
The suicide of former Leeds and Newcastle star Gary Speed in 2011 highlighted the growing problem of depression in the game, and Quinn insists the problem needs to be taken more seriously.
“Depression in sportsmen is a problem that is overlooked in many ways and maybe we need to do more to make sure sportsmen are given help if they need it when their careers end,” he said. “You see the odd story in the paper of players struggling when their sporting careers have finished, but a lot slip through the net as well and we don’t hear about them. Believe me, they are out there.
“The fall for a Premier League star now when he hangs up his boots is even more exaggerated than it was in my day because the guys at the top of the game these days are not just sportsmen -- they have the profile of rock-and-roll stars, big celebrities.
“While I did quite well in my career, I never had the profile of some of the big stars in the game today. I was on the back cover of Shoot magazine occasionally and got a bit of publicity in Ireland and I found the fall from that to be really big when I finished playing. I’m not sure how I would cope if I had been part of the modern game and all that goes with it.”