Interviews, Journalism

Troy Townsend: ‘Football needs to look at its dark side’

It was in October last year that Andros Townsend fired a low swirling shot past the Montenegro goalkeeper which virtually guaranteed England a place at this summer’s World Cup and made the team’s fans believe that the tournament might not be such a crushing disappointment after all.

For his father Troy, sitting in the stands at Wembley stadium, it was “a wonderful moment”; a reward for having spent his life working in the game and for sacrificing his coaching career to develop his son’s talent.

Meeting him for an interview it’s easy to see how much the game has taken its toll on the 48 year-old. Average height with broad shoulders, he walks with a pronounced limp, the product of an injury sustained much earlier on in his career. And despite living out most fathers’ fantasies and seeing his son play for his boyhood club, Tottenham Hotspur, every week, his relationship with football has been complicated.

Townsend didn’t pay much attention at school, choosing to spend all his free time at training sessions with Millwall FC, playing in the same side as Teddy Sherringham.

All his friends, the PE department and even his head teacher told him he would make it a professional, which made it all the more when he was released at the age of 17.

“I felt my whole world crashing down,” he recounts. “My whole life had been geared toward becoming a footballer and that was taken away from me.”

On being released he didn’t receive any support from the club and with his parents busy working to make ends meet he felt unable to reach out to anyone.

With no qualifications he spent of his days playing football with his friends, trying to adjust to his new identity, no longer the future football star.

He eventually came back to the game, working as a semi-professional coach and manager in the lower leagues, the highlight of his career seeing him take Boreham Wood on an FA Cup run which saw them face Blackpool, then managed by Steve MacMahon. Shortly after this, he was struck by tragedy.

His son Kurtis, a promising striker at Wimbledon was on his way to a match when he was killed in a car accident 12 years ago. The incident left Troy in a spiral of depression.

“Losing Kurtis gave me my darkest moments. I was in place that I never thought I would be in, and I didn’t know how to get out of it,” he says. “Football had taken away somebody from me, and I didn’t want to part it anymore. It took me a long time to turn that into a positive, but now I’m back involved and everything I do is out of love for the son who is no longer with me.”

On top of his job as Mentoring Manager at the anti-racist organisation Kick It Out, Townsend also runs a football academy and has recently worked to raise awareness of mental health issues in the game.

Over the last few months he has participated in events with Michael Bennett, the former Charlton Athletic winger who is now head of Player Welfare at the PFA.

The suicide of Wales Manager Gary Speed and more recently the death of former Tottenham Hotspur youth player Josh Lyons, who threw himself in front of a train after being released by the club, has put the issue of mental health into the spotlight.

Troy says the game needs to acknowledge its darker side.

 “As glamorous as football is, it also has a dark side,” he begins.

“I know people in the professional game who have turned to drink and drugs because of the pressures. We need to find a way of finding a way of supporting those individuals.”

“Yes there are helplines now, but when I was in my dark days I wouldn’t have called up a helpline because I didn’t want to open up to people I didn’t know. Football needs to appreciate that what we see on Saturday at 3pm is great, but there is a darker side to the game and that needs to be looked at a lot more. Otherwise incidents like what happened with Josh will continue to happen.”

WSC magazine - Mental Health - front cover

Sections of this interview are included in ‘Mind Games’, my feature exploring the the issue of mental health in football which can be found in the current edition of When Saturday Comes which is out now.