Cian Manning's mental health journey has found moments of joy and inspiration in football and the League of Ireland.

Depression like football styles comes in many forms. It’s not something that occurs overnight like World Cups being awarded to Russia or Qatar. Despondency or melancholy develop over a sustained period of time. It is a negative manifestation of general gloom morphing into pessimism and reaching the ultimate of apathy. If there ever was a football analogy it would be like the malaise of Sunderland in recent times. 

The start of this year had seen me burn out to a low ebb. Over the course of four years I had written a book, contributed a 16,000-word chapter to another, edited three journals, written for various publications combined with carrying out various forms of volunteering. This was all combined with a full-time job as a tour guide in my native city of Waterford. To borrow all the clichés possible, the well was dry. I could no longer bring the donkey to water (probably because the well was empty), this was squeaky bum time. 

I’m 26 years of age, to say that depression crept up on me over time would suggest that there were no moments of joy throughout the last few years. There were great football trips away to Milan, Newcastle, and even Bucharest. Those trips were shared with great people such as friends from college and school, and my brother Olin. We enjoyed good food, plenty of beer and great laughs. Yet the buzz one would feel was starting to feel increasingly numb. In order to feel any emotion was to go to the greatest excess, be it writing for hours, cycling for hours, drinking excessively, etc. 

Even football was becoming less pleasurable. As a primary school student I’d revel in memorising stats (I’m particularly good on the 2003/04 season) and learning football philosophies and tactics.

Most ten-year-old’s favourite books were by J.K. Rowling or Eoin Colfer but I adored David Winners’ Brillant Oranje on Dutch football. John Foot, Jonathan Wilson and Brian Glanville were my go-to writers. 

It got to the stage that I would bypass football completely. I continued to follow Waterford FC in the League of Ireland but the rest was just noise. In fact I would say to my friend Eoin and brother that I would go to games so I’d have something to give out about. What started out as a jokey quibble slowly became truer as the months went on and seasons changed.

The end of February saw me reach that lowest ebb. I spent the night in my bedroom wide awake in fear of doing something because there was no one there to stop me. I counted the hours until I heard one of my parents in the kitchen. That sunny morning saw me dissolve into a flood of sad tears telling my mam and then my brother about how I wanted everything to stop. With the support of my dad, we went to the doctor and that was the start of the road back from the feeling of darkness. 

I met a very kind and empathetic doctor in Paul Campbell who listened to me struggle to explain my troubles and re-assured me that there was a way back. It wouldn’t be quick but it would get better. I was 26 years of age and suffered with depression. It is the same age that the Juventus and Italian goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon noted in an autobiographical letter on the Player’s Tribune that “you will have difficulty finding joy in life” when at the height of his powers. He was the top keeper in the world, adored by many and well-off that finances certainly were not to the foremost of his mind. He later wrote: “Mistakes are important because they remind you that you’re human”. Anyone’s worries or problems are just as important whether you’re an international footballer or a tour guide in a small Irish city.  

On Friday the 28th February a few days after my diagnosis I sat with my father and watched Shamrock Rovers versus Dundalk on RTE. I had little expectation of the game and really only had it on as noise in the background. But slowly I was sucked in. The sound of a packed Tallaght Stadium, the colours of the sides respective strips, as a Blues supporter you want to be like Dundalk and hate Rovers in that tribal sense over 90 minutes. Rovers took a deserved lead through Dylan Watts after 20 minutes.

My interest racheted up a level. The Lilywhites equalised through a Jordan Flores volley. No words can adequately describe the finish. I would argue that no goal in any sport televised on Irish TV will match that effort, not goals by John Fenton or Jimmy Barry-Murphy in hurling or Cora Staunton in Gaelic football. Flores’s finish displayed the poise, balance and athleticism that no video game can ever come near. It was poetry in motion. It was the beautiful game. I was hooked. 

The contest ebbed and flowed before Hoban put Dundalk ahead on 63 minutes. In the last 30 minutes or so of the game all my worries and sadness drifted. It was just me and my dad Ollie enjoying one of the great League of Ireland ties. There was more to come. Roberto Lopez equalised. Was there ever a Cape Verde international footballer so revered in Dublin 24? 

Jack Byrne showed the magic that I had seen him display in scoring two belters at the RSC in Waterford the previous season. He was cool under pressure, demanded the ball, pulled his team along with his desire, his sheer strength of character. When he scored the winner he didn’t just strike an exquisite shot, that had been years in the making from his days of street football to honing his skills in Manchester, he willed the ball into the back of the net. Byrne’s goal and his story is an exemplification of the greatest human emotion…hope. 

Football can demonstrate our best qualities such as endeavour and community. I’m heartened to see Waterford FC supporters promote these values like many a club in Ireland. Cobh Ramblers who I pen some articles for are a wonderful community club with their main goal to serve their town first before any ball is kicked. 

The corporatism of the English Premier League may have raised its ugly head in recent weeks where greedy owners serve to maintain their interests over those of the many who suffer during these deeply uncertain times. But the League of Ireland has always sought to help and encourage perhaps because it has always struggled. Though our league may not be at the standard in comparison to its European equivalents is not a criticism. The fact it survives is a great testament to those volunteers and supporters who have endured over the years of lack of investment and even interest from the FAI. 

I’m still on the road to getting better. It has been helped by my parents and brother. My great friends have demonstrated the depth of their understanding and caring by showing me support and encouragement. It’s as if I’m 7-years-old again learning the off-side rule. I’ll never fully understand it but will learn to deal with it. 

Just like following your teams there will be ups and downs but don’t forget to make the most of the journey. I’ll have my family and friends to thank for that support. Jack Byrne and Jordan Flores have played their part too in providing me with a great Friday of content. I’ll probably never meet them but their efforts have had a greater impact than YouTube views or three-points. They’ve brought joy to thousands and certainly that late February made my week. 

Main Image: Portrait of Cian by Ian Jones