DURING his time at Swindon Town, Vincent Pericard contemplated taking his own life.
For a 29-year-old who had represented his country, France, at under 15 and under 17 level and had played alongside the great Zinedine Zidane at Juventus, the suicidal thoughts represented the culmination of a spiral of depression which began several years earlier and ruthlessly ripped his world apart.
Pericard battled with the invisible illness for several years, mostly in silence, rejecting the approaches of those closest to him, his partner, teammates, managers and friends. He fell back on alcohol and spending sprees to layer over the cracks. He felt unable to share his emotions for fear of being excommunicated by the industry he relied upon for an income.
By the end of it the striker was turning out for Fairford Town in the Hellenic League when he should have been at the peak of his career – in his own words a “surreal experience” which made him recognise the need to turn his life around.
The Advertiser meets Pericard at a hotel set against the backdrop of St Paul’s Cathedral in London in the hours before he makes a speech to a Kick It Out conference on the subjects of tolerance and equality in football.
He’s a very different character now compared to the timid, introverted man who shied away from any and all meaningful questions when this reporter last interviewed him back in 2011. Back then it was almost impossible to understand why he was so reserved. Three years later, over the course of an hour in his company, it all becomes abundantly clear.
Pericard is willing to share very personal experiences of his battle with depression – an ailment which, according to the Mental Health Foundation, affects one in five people nationwide. To put it into perspective, that would suggest that a seventh of Swindon’s current dressing room suffer from something similar, if perhaps much milder, in some way.
“The lowest I’ve gone is I’ve been suicidal,” he reveals, leaned forward into the conversation and maintaining eye contact where before his words were muffled into the floor as he looked for the quickest escape route.
“That’s crossed my mind, like ‘I can’t do it anymore, what is the point of me being here, what is the value I bring to the people who come here on Saturday, my life has got no worth’.
“It didn’t reach a point where I acted upon it but I did do things that would be detrimental behaviour, destructive behaviour. Getting very drunk because you just don’t care, spending lots of money because you just don’t care, disregarding relationships because you just don’t care, disregarding friends because you just don’t care. Those are destructive behaviours that players use to offload their depression.
“That’s the coping mechanism to help you cope with it.
“For no real reason, just because I had to let out that frustration, that inner trouble that I didn’t have any one else to support me . I was going out, drinking, taking my relationship for granted when I shouldn’t have.”
Pericard’s problems began during his second season at Portsmouth. Having impressed during a year on loan at Fratton Park, with nine goals in 32 appearances, the Cameroon-born forward ruptured his quadriceps four times in quick succession before injuring his cruciate ligament within days of his comeback.
He was sidelined for a year and his demons began to manifest themselves. In 2006, Pericard joined Stoke City where he enjoyed sporadic success under Tony Pulis, before he began to rediscover his love for the game during a short spell at Carlisle United in 2009.
When he arrived at the County Ground in 2010, signed by Danny Wilson, he felt as though he was finding his feet again. But he joined Town with a hamstring injury that had not healed in time for his debut.
Wilson wanted him to play anyway and he agreed.
“Obviously me, raring to go, I said yes when I shouldn’t have said yes because I wasn’t fit,” he recounts.
“When I played, not being fit, I broke down again. The fans didn’t know about this, they said ‘he doesn’t really run fast, he doesn’t really do this or that’ and the negativity was there.
“At that time I was competing with the likes of Charlie Austin and Billy Paynter and they were scoring for fun. When Billy left the fans expected me to replace him just like that, but it doesn’t happen like that. That went against me.
“I never really had the time to get myself right mentally and physically and show what I could do and that was hard. When I look back at my time there – the fans, the club, the environment – it was lovely, but I was disappointed to never get to know them and they didn’t get to know me.
“One of the main triggers (of depression) is injury. When you are injured you use your other coping mechanisms and for me that was destructive behaviour. I did that at Portsmouth, I had it at Stoke and I did it at Swindon.
“The first thing is on a Saturday night you go drinking and you drink to an extent which you know you shouldn’t but you want to forget. The next day you go to training and you don’t care – you don’t care how you perform in training, you don’t care if anyone finds out because you are just in that mood.
“I remember clearly at Swindon when after a game I would go home and actually drink indoors. I would go out and drink all night.
“It’s very, very sad. I was very frustrated and it made me feel very sad because I wasn’t respectful to the people that cared about me, the people who believed in me and it was a far cry from being that professional player, scoring goals, winning games. It wasn’t that at all.”
Pericard seems genuinely upset that he never obtained the mental state that would allow him to prove to Swindon fans exactly what he was all about.
“It didn’t go according to plan, I couldn’t deliver what the manager wanted of me and understandably the fans were frustrated with me. That turned into a vicious circle from which I couldn’t get out,” he said.
“The outcome was depression – going home, feeling very nervous, not happy, not wanting to train, feeling lethargic during training and during games, feeling scared of going out. All that made me realise I couldn’t do it anymore and made me realise I’m not the only player in that situation.
“It’s a day to day battle to get out of bed and leave. That’s what it felt like for me. It’s not a case of not feeling it today, it’s like everything is depressing. You don’t want to talk to anyone and everything is a nightmare.”
He suffered in silence, for fear of appearing weak within an industry that casts aside weakness like rotting fruit.
“It’s simply because the nature of the game dictates that we can’t show any weaknesses within the dressing room,” he explains. “It’s not acceptable that you raise your hand and say ‘gaffer, I’m not feeling well, I’m depressed’ because we would be chopped and might not even be on the bench.
“If you don’t play, they don’t renew your contract and you’re out of a job. It’s the football environment that doesn’t give you the time and inclination to address any weaknesses like depression.”
Pericard made 40 appearances for Swindon, scoring just six times. He was mocked by his own supporters and heavily criticised by local media. He kept himself fit by playing for Fairford and then made the switch to Havant & Waterlooville, where the enormity of his fall from grace hit home.
“It was surreal,” he says. “I remember clearly I was on the pitch thinking ‘what am I doing here, why am I here?’ “I was looking around at other players, and I don’t want to appear arrogant, but you have to have to some self-pride. I was like ‘you had potential, you played with Zidane, now you are playing non-league football at 29 when you should have been at the peak of your career’.
“It was just surreal. I never thought it would get there. That’s what fuelled me to come out and make a difference. I wouldn’t want anyone to follow my career.”
Three years later, Pericard is using his own path to highlight the deep trauma depression can cause to sportmen and women.
His company, Elite Welfare Management (EWM) is making great strides in getting sports institutions – in the UK and abroad – to make an effort to understand the causes, symptoms and treatment of the disease. It’s having an effect.
Clubs like Manchester United, Manchester City, Stoke City and Reading have all welcomed Pericard into their spheres to speak to young players on the subject of depression and he and his team, including ex-Norwich City striker Leon MacKenzie, have held dialogue with the PFA, the FA and the Football League.
EWM has attracted greater attention in recent months, following the tragic passing of former Wales manager Gary Speed, and Pericard intends to make sure every possible step is taken to get football and other sports worldwide to understand, at least in part, the nature of the illness with which he was so badly afflicted.
“All through my career I’ve met players who have gone through what I’ve gone through and I realised that maybe there was a gap in the support for them. That is where Elite Welfare Management comes in,” he says.
“I think it has been fairly quick but I would say mainly because of the sudden death of Gary Speed. That was a tragic event that shocked everyone in the football community and really brought attention to mental illness and depression.
“Everyone saw him the day before or the week before as a manager, giving interviews, smiling and suddenly he’s not there. Off the back of that I’ve managed to convey the message ‘are we doing enough’.
“One of the examples Leon MacKenzie gives is one night he took a lot of pills, he had to be sent to hospital, the next day he went back to training and no one noticed what has happened. It makes you think ‘that is not normal. The major part is to get clubs to understand that it’s important to give players the understanding to address these issues and it’s not going to have an effect on their contracts or their selection on a Saturday.
“We see more and more cases of players getting in trouble or into depression because they haven’t got that faith.”