'She thinks I'm grieving for my career' - Alan Brazil opens up on his struggles with mental health
“At a recent therapy session my counsellor said that she thinks I'm grieving for my career. No one has ever said it to me like that before but, you know, I think she's right. I'm grieving for my football career. And, unfortunately, I don't know how long that grieving process is going to take.”
So far, it has lasted a little over 15 years. Alan Brazil endures a daily struggle with his mental health and wells up as he recounts the events of early 2006. It was a five-week period when he believes his promising playing career as good as died.
This story originally appeared in Nutmeg, a Scottish football periodical. Visit https://www.nutmegmagazine.co.uk/ for more details.
Brazil, the son of former Hibs cult hero Ally Brazil, was playing for Arbroath at the time and banging the goals in as the club's No 9. He was averaging a goal every couple of games. In November 2005 he bagged a 24-minute hat-trick in a 7-2 victory against East Stirlingshire and was fully justifying his decision to leave Aston Villa to return to Scotland in search of first-team football. Life was good for Brazil and it got even better when the Red Lichties were paired with Hibs in the third round of the Scottish Cup. It was the dream tie – a chance for the striker to run out at Easter Road, the ground where his father 'Benny' had starred for a decade. “Everyone was looking forward to it,” the 36-year-old recalls. “The whole family was excited. It was at Easter Road, it was the Scottish Cup, it was a chance to show what I could do on the big stage – perfect.”
But the week before the cup clash in Leith, excitement turned to despair. On 2 January 2006 Arbroath travelled to Montrose on Third Division duty, bringing in the new year with a battling 1-0 win at Links Park. “In the first half I was booked for dissent,” continues Brazil. “The linesman put his flag up for offside. I'm convinced I was onside and so I got a yellow card for mouthing off. Then, just before half-time, I was challenging for a ball with their midfielder Jamie McKenzie. He went down clutching his face and the referee thought I'd smashed him with my elbow. If anything, Jamie pushed me! I certainly didn't lead with my elbow. But I was shown a straight red card.”
Brazil trudged off to the dressing-room. A couple of minutes later his team-mates joined him for the half-time interval and that's when the penny dropped. “One of the guys turned to me and said 'that sending-off means you're banned for the Hibs game next week', and I just burst into tears. I was devastated. My dad was at the game but I didn't see him until I got home that night. I walked through the front door and burst into tears again. 'I can't play next week, dad.' His face dropped and I could see right away how disappointed he was. He was upset for me because he knew how much I was looking forward to that fixture.”
Arbroath considered lodging an appeal to try to get the red card rescinded but ultimately decided that they couldn't afford the fee to do so. “Knowing how special the occasion was to me and my family, the club tried to organise for me to take part in the warm-up at Easter Road and sit on the bench with the rest of the squad. But the SFA blocked that – they said that rules are rules and I would need to watch the match from the stands.” So from a seat in the West Stand, Brazil looked on with envy as his team-mates kept Hibs at bay for 40 minutes. The part-timers from Angus eventually wilted and a Scott Brown double plus goals from Ivan Sproule, Michael Stewart, Garry O'Connor and Steven Fletcher eased the hosts to a 6-0 victory.
Brazil appeared to bounce back quickly from the disappointment of sitting out the cup clash and scored a double the following Saturday in a 3-2 league win against Stenhousemuir at Gayfield. But three weeks later, on 4 February 2006, came another crushing blow. And it was a setback that he admits he has never fully recovered from. “We were playing a Third Division match against Queen's Park at Hampden and during the first half I went in for a challenge with Paul Paton. He was possibly a bit high but it was just a routine tackle between two very committed players. I could feel right away that the injury was a bad one and I was stretchered off and taken to the dressing-room. The fear was that I'd broken my leg and, sure enough, I was taken to hospital and an x-ray showed that my tibia had snapped.”
The leg healed but the mental scars became apparent very quickly. Brazil was sidelined for six months – ironically, his first game back was a return to the national stadium against Queen's Park in the opening match of the 2006/07 campaign – and he found the rehabilitation process immensely difficult. He hasn't been the same player or person since. “I found it very hard coming to terms with the injury. Being out of action is a lonely process for footballers, especially those at part-time clubs. I still travelled up from Edinburgh to watch all the home games but I really missed training with the boys and being part of the team on matchdays.”
Brazil says he has always been self-conscious about his weight. He recalls a trip to a tournament in Blackpool with Hutchison Vale Boys' Club when new strips were passed down the bus for the kids to try on. “Even back then I hated taking my T-shirt off in front of the rest of the team and when the coach said 'yours looks too tight, Brazil', I wanted the ground to swallow me up.”
A six-month lay-off with a leg break was never going to be ideal for someone who struggles with his weight. “I developed an eating disorder,” he admits. “I regularly skipped meals. If I was out with mates, they'd all order burger and chips and I would sit and pick away at a salad. I weighed myself every single day – in fact, I started weighing myself twice a day. If I had gained a pound, I would immediately put my trainers on and head out for a run. I was never out the gym once my leg healed. I was struggling to sleep at night. I was terrified that I wouldn't be the same striker I was before the injury. My whole day revolved around trying to get back in shape.”
He came on as a 56th-minute substitute in that Third Division opener at Hampden in August 2006 and his worst fears were realised. “I had lost a yard of pace. It was obvious right away. That's to be expected for any footballer after a long injury lay-off, I know, but as time went on I still wasn't as quick. It niggled away at me and it's still niggling away at me now...”
John McGlashan, who died of motor neurone disease in early 2018, was the Arbroath manager at the time and did his best to help Brazil conquer his demons. “I didn't know it then but my mum and dad arranged to meet John in private in Dundee. My parents could see I was struggling mentally with the after-effects of the injury and they wanted to let the club know. John was great and I miss him a lot. From that moment, he took me under his wing. He didn't show me any favouritism and he would still pull me up for below-par performances, but he knew when to put an arm around my shoulder. I really miss our chats.”
Brazil had been immersed in football since the day he was born. He wasn't here for his dad's ten-year Hibs career but watched from the terraces every weekend as 'Benny' turned out for Forfar Athletic and then wound down in the junior leagues. Following impressive displays for Whitburn, Hutchison Vale, Salvesen, Hearts and Edinburgh Schools, he was scouted by Aston Villa and signed a four-year contract with the Premier League club on July 5, 2001 – the day of his 16th birthday. Aside from bouts of homesickness, a few minor injuries and some aggressive coaching from “bully” Kevin MacDonald, Brazil enjoyed learning his trade alongside the likes of Gary Cahill, Steven Davis and Gabriel Agbonlahor. He failed to break into Villa's first team, however, and returned north from Birmingham after three years.
His career became stop-start following the leg break at Arbroath. Deciding that a fresh challenge might be the answer, Brazil opted to leave Gayfield in 2008 and signed a one-year deal at Stenhousemuir. “That's a big regret,” he says. “I should never have left Arbroath. I love everything about that club. I thought the grass might be greener on the other side but it wasn't.” After a relatively unproductive season at Ochilview he then switched to Third Division rivals Berwick Rangers. Aged 24, the striker started to hit the goal trail again at Shielfield Park but there's a fixture that still rankles, still occupies his mind.
Berwick hosted Celtic in the fourth round of the Scottish Cup on January 9, 2011. Brazil had scored in the third-round victory against Cove Rangers and was a first-team regular at the time. In the four games leading up to the televised clash with Celtic, he started as the team's lone striker. “I was really looking forward to that one. I have supported Celtic since I was a boy and it was a chance to test myself against some of the best players in the country. I was Berwick's main striker at the time and it hadn't really crossed my mind that I wouldn't get the nod to play.”
Manager Jimmy Crease dropped Brazil to the bench. He was given only the last 14 minutes of action in a game Celtic won 2-0 thanks to goals from Daniel Majstorovic and Scott Brown. He didn't get to share the pitch with the Parkhead club's high-profile debutant Freddie Ljungberg, who had already been substituted. “It was a great occasion to be involved in, of course,” says Brazil, “but it's another one filled with regret. I was pretty shocked not to be playing from the start. I had scored in the previous round and played all the games in the run-up. Jimmy put me straight back in the team the following Saturday, too, and the week after that, and the week after that. He just didn't fancy me for the Celtic game.”
Brazil finds it difficult to articulate exactly why he struggles so badly with his mental health but those three big moments in his football career – missing the Hibs game, breaking his leg and getting dropped for the Celtic tie – are undoubtedly at the forefront. “I can't get them out of my head,” he says. “They're always there, niggling away at me. It's hard to explain; the feeling of regret and disappointment just won't go away. My weight is a constant issue, too. When I walk past parked cars I always check in the windows to see if my stomach is sticking out. And I'm itching to get out for a run as soon as we've finished talking here. I'm still desperately trying to get that yard of pace back.”
He adds: “I've never had suicidal thoughts but have I ever wondered what life would be like if I wasn't here stressing about all this stuff? Yeah, sure.”
Another thing Brazil can't get out of his head is the feeling that his career should have panned out so much better than it ultimately did. “My dad doesn't like when I say this but when I hung up my boots after Berwick Rangers I couldn't help thinking that I'd disappointed him. He says that's definitely not the case; my dad says he's so proud of me. But when I grew up there was an assumption, an expectation, from so many people that I would follow in his footsteps. My dad always said I had more talent than he did so, naturally, I feel I let him down by not achieving the kind of success that he had.”
Brazil now works as a landscape gardener at Heriot-Watt University. He enjoys nipping along to the Oriam in his lunch break to watch Hearts train, looking on intently as Robbie Neilson plays around with tactics and formations, and he still loves watching games on television. But he can't bring himself to pull the boots on again. “The guys at work keep asking me to join their game of fives but I keep saying no. I'm terrified about how I'd play. I'm pretty sure I'd come away feeling even worse about myself because I'd want to perform like the player who was banging the goals in at Gayfield. It maybe sounds silly to some but it's just how I feel. I was rarely happy with my performances.”
What about coaching? “I managed Musselburgh Athletic Under-19s for a while but I found it very difficult to deal with the fact that the players were more interested in socialising than playing. It was just a hobby for those guys so of course they were going to go out for beers and have fun but I wanted their total commitment and couldn't understand why they weren't taking it more seriously. It wasn't working for me.”
It seems football is all or nothing for Brazil, and at the moment it's nothing. He wonders if a full-time return to the sport in some capacity – perhaps as a mental health officer, making sure young players find their feet – would help fill the void and improve his mindset. “That's why my mum and dad told me to stick in at school!” he jokes. “There are a lot of big words I'll need to learn to get the necessary qualifications. Don't get me wrong, I like my gardening job and the people I work with but it's a struggle every morning to get out of bed and go to work. I'm not comfortable in that environment. Football is all I've known since I was born and I think I need to get back in.”
He now has a three-year-old son, Mason, and an eight-month-old daughter, Millie, to keep him occupied at home, plus the help of his attentive wife, Gillian, but Brazil admits he's been in “some pretty dark places” in recent years. He's on medication to help ease his anxiousness and goes to regular counselling sessions to try to understand more about his period of “grieving”. This summer he was also invited to attend a mental health awareness course at the Falkirk Stadium which was organised by the Chris Mitchell Foundation, the charity set up in honour of the former Scotland Under-21 player who took his own life in May 2016.
“The course was excellent,” says Brazil. “It's so important for footballers to talk to someone if they're having trouble with their mental health. There must be so many players out there – past and present – who are just like me. Maybe they're struggling to cope with a serious injury or maybe they've been released by their club. It can be a lonely place out there, especially for part-time players. They need to know that there is help available. Chat to someone at your club, chat to someone at home, or get in touch with me ...”
Tottenham Hotspur recently won praise for announcing plans to recruit a 'Mental Health and Emotional Wellbeing Manager' to work closely with academy players, while Livingston boss David Martindale has spoken of the benefits of hiring a clinical psychologist to work with his squad. They are developments that Brazil fully supports. “I wish I had spoken to someone far earlier about my problems, all the way back to my days at Aston Villa,” he says. “I went down to Birmingham as a schoolboy and during those times when I was homesick or injured I would sit in my room on my own. Just me and the four walls. I realise that wasn't the best way to deal with the situation, and I'd hate to think that another kid was doing the same now.
“The same goes for missing those Hibs and Celtic cup ties or breaking my leg – I bottled up my disappointment, didn't tell anyone how I was really feeling, and I think I became a frustrated, angry person as a result. At some clubs I was actually nicknamed 'Angry'!”
The affable Brazil certainly doesn't appear angry any longer, but he's still trying to find contentment. The hope is that it doesn't take another 15 years.