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PFA welfare programme encourages players to open up

Michael Bennett

By Jim van Wijk, Press Association Sport 

"Who are you? Not what do you do?" asks Michael Bennett, head of player welfare at the Professional Footballers' Association, as he finishes up his talk at the Norwich academy.

It seems a simple enough question, but one which is followed by silence.

"When you pose that question to them, you can see by their faces they are thinking 'what does he mean?," says Bennett, who has just spent the best part of an hour taking a group of first-year and second-year scholars at the Sky Bet Championship club through the PFA's Mental Health and Wellbeing Workshop.

"I say to them 'when was the last time someone asked you about how the football was?'. They reply: 'all the time', but then I say, 'well, what about the last time someone asked how you are?' and no one answered. That shows you it is not even on the radar.

"So it is just something for them to go away with and think about, because if you can learn who you are, then it makes this football world easier to navigate."

Brought up in south London, Bennett, 47, knows first hand just what an emotional rollercoaster the life of a professional footballer can be, both on and off the pitch.

Bennett signed for Charlton having been scouted when playing in the local park, and made his first-team debut while still a teenager. But in 1991 the England Under-20 winger suffered a knee injury which, at the time, had the potential to be career-ending.

Bennett spent the next nine months in recovery and when he eventually returned to action he admits was not the same player, with his own concerns over whether the injury would happen again.

The Norwich academy youngsters are clearly engaged as Bennett goes on to recall how he was "bombed" by a string of clubs, from the likes of Wimbledon, Brentford, a second spell at Charlton, Millwall, Cardiff, Leyton Orient and Brighton before eventually finding himself playing non-league football at Canvey Island before finally deciding to retire at the age of 29.

It is the mental aspect of such a journey, though, which Bennett wants the group to focus on and how that can directly impact their game.

Whether it is worries over getting that all-important contract, problems living away from home and relationships or raging at not being picked for Saturday's match, they are all issues which the young men are likely to have to face at some stage.

How they deal with them is therefore crucial, and Bennett hoped any pent-up frustration and anxiety would not manifest itself in an over-the-top tackle and a red card as soon as they get back on the pitch.

"That emotional rollercoaster is part of life and of football. I was trying to get over that it is okay to talk - and that does not have to be via the football club, it can be directly to us," said Bennett, who took his coaching badges before deciding to move into counselling full-time, obtaining an MA and now undertaking his PhD.

As well as a dedicated 24/7 helpline, the PFA also provides a nationwide network of counsellors.

"We just want clubs and the players aware of what is in place on a continuing basis," said Bennett, who gave similar presentations to Liverpool's under-18s and under-23s, at Portsmouth and Reading Women.

Assistant head of education & welfare at Norwich academy Mike Macias is glad the teenagers are encouraged to be thinking about their overall wellbeing.

"Sometimes even though you can create an environment in which they feel comfortable, it is nice for the boys to know there is another organisation like the PFA they can go to who will have their best interests at heart and will listen," Macias told Press Association Sport.

"When they see it and hear it coming from someone like Mickey, who has been there, done it and bought the T-shirt, they will think: 'this impacts me and there is someone there to help me'."