Friday, 20 April 2012

Duncan Bell: I wish I'd spoken out about depression years ago

The Bath and England prop talks candidly about his struggle with mental illness as he prepares for his final match at The Rec

“My battery’s running down,” says Duncan Bell, glancing down at his phone. “There are 300 messages. I can’t believe the response.”

It’s about five hours since the Bath Rugby prop announced that he'd been silently battling depression for half of his 18-year career. Since that announcement, fellow players, fans and strangers have all been in touch, leaving Bell taken aback.

Mental health experts say that it is young men who are most likely to keep quiet about their depression and let the illness fester. Few speak up. But imagine how hard it must have been to open up for a 19st tighthead prop, whose job requires him to try and push eight blokes backwards for a living.

The news that Belly – the jovial fans’ favourite who always seems up for a jape – has been struggling with mental illness initially wrong-footed many.

Duncan Bell talks about his illness

To that extent, his announcement has done the worthy task of blowing out of the water the myth that to be depressed you have to appear glum, quiet and introspective.

“No-one really wants to talk about it in society generally, and especially in a bruising, man’s environment like rugby where we beat each other up on the pitch,” explains Bell. “You don’t talk about your feelings or what’s going on inside you.
“But the head is such an important part of the body. Without it you can’t play.

“It’s no different to pulling a hamstring. If you can’t get up in the morning and you can’t train because of your head, what’s the difference? Your head’s just as important as everything else and you need to look after it.”

Bell, 37, announced his retirement to his team-mates on Tuesday morning at the same time as revealing his struggle with depression.

Bath coach Brad Davis said: “I didn’t know about it at all. It came as a surprise to all of us at the club.

“Duncan’s suffered silently and credit to the man for coping so well and credit to the man for having the courage to share it with our squad and the greater rugby community. Him admitting it can only help other players in a similar position to speak out sooner.”

Bell, capped five times by England, is clearly relieved at having unburdened himself.

“I wish I’d done it years ago,” he says. “Why not tell fellow sportsmen there is this issue?

“If I can help anyone by doing this – by helping them to recognise if something is going on in their heads – then I will consider that an achievement.

“I’d have felt guilty if I’d got to the end of my career and not spoken about it and tried to help other players.”

Characteristically, despite the heavy topic, Bell lets a few wisecracks and anecdotes fly.

When we touch on Somerset cricketer Marcus Trescothick’s own revelations about his mental illness, Bell pipes up: “He’ll never remember this, but I played with Marcus at Avon under-19s. I batted at number three, but I never got to bat with him – he was always out!”

Bell touches down against Worcester Warriors

But away from the team environment, Bell is all too aware of how vulnerable he could be when he leaves Bath Rugby for good in May, going it alone as a mortgage adviser.

“Taking myself away from the group ethos and working for myself is going to be tough and very insular,” he says.

“When you come to a club environment where there are lots of players, you are not on your own and inside your own head. You’re stimulated by your mates and go to war with them every Saturday.

“When I’m involved with the club, I’m fine. It’s when I get away that the beast rears its ugly head occasionally.

“It’s not that I’m always unhappy in my own head, but sometimes it takes me to places I don’t want to go to.

“I’m concerned about how I’ll respond [after rugby]. I’m not on medication at the moment, but I’m aware of the warning signs.”

Bell leaves Bath with a European Challenge Cup winner’s medal and a nagging sense that the club has not quite hit the heights it should have done.

“It’s not the way I wanted to go out – I wanted to go out with silverware,” he admits.

“That is my biggest regret in the nine years I’ve been here. We’ve been so close so many times but the club’s never quite reached its potential.

“But anyone who starts playing top-flight rugby at 19 and retires at 37 with the amount of injuries I didn’t have can be pleased.”

As for his swansong on Saturday, Bell is unlikely to start put could have a seat on the bench – and he still has a touch of mischief about him.

“I don’t wish injury on anyone, but maybe someone could have an injury in the warm-up so I can get 80 minutes!”

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Olly Barkley sends cross-dressing pitch invader packing

Former England centre Olly Barkley has joined Australia cricketer Andrew Symonds in the ranks of those sportsmen who have inflicted superb hits on unwanted pitch invaders.
After protesting with stewards at Edgeley Park on Friday that they were doing next to nothing to remove a transvestite intruder from the pitch, Barkley took stewarding responsibilities into his own hands - to great applause from the fans.
Despite his textbook tackle, Barkley's Bath Rugby still lost 16-9 to Sale Sharks in the Aviva Premiership match.
But who delivered the better hit, Barkley or Symonds? Take a look below and make your own mind up.

Don't try that again, Goldilocks

Should he have left that ball alone?

Monday, 2 April 2012

From the most exciting side in the Aviva Premiership to a wet rag of a side

Remember those halcyon days of spring-time electrification at The Rec? Those moments when, with the ground firming up, the daffodils sprouting and the days lengthening, Bath Rugby sent a shiver down the spine with displays of attacking audacity and top-drawer skills?
Days like this:

Where there was once 2,000 volts of electricity, there is now barely a current. And there is certainly no spark.
Bath's display against Northampton Saints on Saturday was awful and embarrassing. So much so that the club's own coaches described it as such, even issuing an apology to the 12,200 fans who had parted with their cash in order to witness such a car crash of a performance.
In both 2010 and 2011, Bath experienced truly grim starts to the season, but salvaged respect and league position with end-of-term displays that blended a heady cocktail of panache and skill.
Lamentably, it's been a different tale this campaign. No fightback, no resilience and all the flair of a wet rag.
What has been the main variable that has changed since 2010, when Bath last secured a play-off spot? The removal of their head coach, Steve Meehan. Following the arrival of Sir Ian McGeechan, Meehan was steadily marginalised during the course of the 2010-11 season, before heading back to Brisbane in June 2011 with a year still to run on his contract.
By his own admission since that parting, Meehan was not always the easiest of coaches to work with and his man-management skills were not up to scratch during his tenure at the club. But a coaching set up is primarily judged on its results, and on that criterion Meehan has the better of McGeechan hands down.
Bruce Craig's huge investment in Bath Rugby since he bought the club two years ago has yielded the square root of zilch. Bath are a flimsy proposition when they play at The Rec, and are currently an Amlin Cup-quality team. At best.
Big things were said at the start of the season about how The Rec would once more become a terrifying place for visiting teams. Yet Saracens, Harlequins, Sale, Gloucester and Northampton have all won there so far this campaign. That is not the record of a team on the right track, particularly given that the worst of those losses – against Northampton – was the most recent.
After Saturday's non-event, all bets will be off over what happens over the next few days at Farleigh House. That sumptuous rural manor was intended by Craig to be an inspirational club HQ from which plots of European domination could be devised. The Northampton debacle will have left Craig apoplectic. I think it unlikely that he will wait until the end of the season before acting.
Although unconfirmed, I understand that there are discussions taking place about the possibility of an immediate change to the Bath set up.
That would be the right thing for the board to do. The natives in the East Stand are justly pulling their hair out, while the players – on Saturday's performance – look bewildered.
Yet, thanks to other mid-table sides also losing, there is still a chance for Bath to sneak into next season's Heineken Cup. There is still more than pride to play for, although pride will surely be the principal motivation when Bath take to the field against Sale Sharks in south Manchester a week on Friday.
It has been a season in which Bath's ability to frustrate has been exceeded only by their capacity to botch up the basics. Bruce Craig, the city and the supporters deserve better.