As a professional footballer, if he is fortunate, begins his career as a child and ends it as an adult having known nothing but the same well-organised, rigorous daily schedule. There are even some of us who spend all those best physical years of our youth and adulthood at the same club.
Institutionalised is a description I would apply to my life as a footballer at Manchester United.
I had been there from the age of 14 to 42, and my life had been so distinctively shaped by the rhythm of life at Old Trafford that I realised, when it was coming to the end last year, I had to make some preparations for the change.
Aaron Lennon’s story has made mental health of footballers an issue again and I think that for his sake and everyone else in the game it is important to be open about how we feel as professionals, and how we cope with stress.
I know that those outside of the game will point to our wages and the kind of lives we live and to an extent that does cushion us from the challenges that many face, but it does not make us immune.
When my life as a player and then coach at United came to an end last summer When my life as a player and then coach at United came to an end last summer When my life as a player and then coach at United came to an end last summer
There were little things too. I joined a gym for the first time in my life, and his simple suggestion that I join one half an hour from my home forced me to make a routine.
My whole life had been mapped out during my 28 years at United. From my schooling and then my life as a player, week after week, year after year, even the close-season summers. Then finally I had never been busier than the last two years as a coach under Louis Van Gaal.
I am grateful for everything the game gave me but I also realised that my career was ending at the age that a lot of people outside football achieve seniority and success in their own lives.
I was looking forward to watching my son play football at the weekend for the first time, and being able to do that has been fantastic. Spending time with my children these past 10 months has been a great pleasure, but they have their own school lives and the hours between drop-off and pick-up have to be filled too.
I knew that would be difficult psychologically and that I had to prepare for it, and for the most part it has been fine. I can still remember Steve Bruce and Bryan Robson telling me when I was a teenager that my career would go past in a flash and that suddenly I would be wondering what was next. I never paid them much attention, but they were right.
A s for the life of a footballer itself, I can say that it does come with stress of its own. I have to admit that I never really enjoyed the games. There was too much at stake playing for United. Unless you were 3-0 up with 10 minutes to go you learned that football had a habit of tripping you up. It was never wise to look around and relax and to enjoy the moment.
I did love training. Although it was always intense, there was not the pressure of matchday and you were with people you liked and respected playing the game you loved. We ate well, we were well looked after and that daily hit of endorphins from exercise has a big effect on your mood.
I do not know what has affected Aaron, but I always struggled in the periods I was out the team or playing badly. I had a feeling of worthlessness. As a footballer you wonder if your team-mates are looking at you and asking the questions you are asking of yourself. Why can’t he hit a decent pass? Why’s he always injured? What’s wrong with him?
I took defeat personally, and there were times after we lost a big game that - if we were not required at the training ground - I would not come out the house for two days. I know now that it is not helpful or normal – but it is hard to know what is normal when you are in that environment.
T here are people who do very stressful jobs – doctors, nurses, policemen, teachers, lawyers. I have nothing but respect for that. The one thing I felt was unique to a footballer’s stress was that every day when I left my house I never knew what I would encounter.
There might be 30 autograph requests over the course of the day, or 30 selfies. There might be none. There might just be nice things said. Or there might be aggro, and a harsh comment. It was the uncertainty about what the day held that got to me.
During my playing career I saw a psychiatrist once, when my hamstring injuries got bad. When I started playing no one did that. There was a mentality that you had to get on with it. That one bad result changed nothing, that the cream would always rise to the top. That was one way of dealing with the pressure I suppose, and then gradually speaking to psychiatrists or experts became more commonplace.
I have seen team-mates changed by their experiences: David Beckham after the 1998 World Cup, Phil Neville after Euro 2000. They had to distance themselves from events around them. They had to become stronger. At times you have to put on a face for the world. Fame – notoriety if you can call it that – is a strange thing, and you have to handle it as best you can.
I know that with some players, the end of their career has been a relief.
S tress is something I learned to take seriously as a player and I can say that I struggled with the pressure at times, just as I worried about what it would be like when I final stopped playing. And I guess, looking back, I have been one of the lucky ones.