Gary Speed, mental health and 'brilliant' walks - former Sheffield Wednesday keeper Mark Crossley on how he's 'giving a bit back'

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There’s a quiver in the eye of the otherwise happy-go-lucky Mark Crossley when he discusses the tragic passing of Gary Speed.

One of the most well-respected players of his generation and known as one of the finest pros to have played the game, Speed took his own life in November 2011 to widespread confusion within footballing circles. It left a gaping hole in football in this country and particularly in Wales, who Speed was still manager of and for whom Crossley played alongside for seven years.

Like most of us, the former Sheffield Wednesday goalkeeper finds it difficult to believe it is nearly eight and a half years since Speed’s death, which took place just hours after an appearance on national television that showcased a happy, jovial mood.

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Nobody – even those closest to him – knew anything about what must have been going through Speed’s head.

“We’re fellas, we’re proud,” he said. “You look at what happened to Gary. You have to talk. And I hope we’re talking about it more.

“I knew him very, very well. He was the most genuine, top man I’ve ever met in my life. It was totally unexpected. I had no idea.”

Suicide remains the biggest killer of men aged between 20 and 49 in the UK, but football is at the very forefront of the chipping away at taboos around men’s mental health in particular, with a number of pros and ex-pros having tackled the subject with openness and honesty. They encourage conversation with those who need it most.

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It’s a battle Crossley feels he has scraped with himself since his time out of football, which has been on pause since his sacking as a coach at Chesterfield at the turn of the year.

Mark Crossley spent half a season on loan at Sheffield Wednesday and has gone on to become a mental health advocate in his retirement.Mark Crossley spent half a season on loan at Sheffield Wednesday and has gone on to become a mental health advocate in his retirement.
Mark Crossley spent half a season on loan at Sheffield Wednesday and has gone on to become a mental health advocate in his retirement.

Speaking to The Star columnist Alan Biggs, the eight-cap former Welsh international said: “I don’t know if you’d call it depression but it started to affect the mind, certainly.

“I’ve got my family time, which was much-needed. I’ve got two young boys and my wife at home who have supported me through everything and this is my time with them as well now.

“I’d been in the game as a player and then a coach for 32 years. I left Chesterfield on January 2 and it was just, well, wow.

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Football is very regimented, the same as most sports. You’re told what time to be in work, you’re told what time to eat, you’re told what to eat, you’re told when you’re travelling. Lots of things like that. And then that’s gone.”

It was a struggle shared by current Owls boss Garry Monk when he found himself out of the day-to-day cycle of football after he was sacked as Swansea manager in 2015.

He told Coaches Voice in 2018: “It’s the first time in 22 years that I’d not been in a changing room environment or the environment of a football club. It was strange.

“The first two months of that was very difficult emotionally for me.

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“I’ve always been very balanced and I got good at keeping those things to myself. I didn’t want to show my family, although my missus could probably see it in me, but I was very conscious around the kids not to show it. It was hard to take.”

Crossley, a larger than life personality known in football circles as ‘Big Norm’, has developed a defence mechanism in what he describes as one of the best things he’s ever done; walking.

On leaving the Spireites he said: “You have 32 years of it and then there’s nothing. It gets you thinking ‘what am I going to do?’ I got anxious.

“My dad has the cancer and is going through chemotherapy. I was just sat there thinking ‘what am I going to do?’.

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“So I started walking. I can honestly say it’s the best medicine.”

Together with two fellow former Owls – stopper Chris Kirkland and short-term loanee Dean Windass, father of current player Josh – Crossley has built a small community on social media platform Twitter.

They’ve been joined by mental health sufferers all over the country and indeed the world in their discussion of some of society’s most difficult talking points and all three are now seen as advocates for positive mental health.

Crossley’s method is to film himself in this discussion while taking on long walks. His catchphrase “Int walking brilliant?” has in part inspired hundreds to get out into the fresh air.

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“I put the videos on Twitter for a bit of banter, I’m that kind of guy and I like to have a bit of fun,” he said.

“But people with mental health issues started saying I was an inspiration to them and that it had started them getting out and walking.

“That’s my favourite word at the minute – inspire – you’re lucky to have a career in football that spans so long. If I can give a little bit back, then great.

“I was thinking about my good friends that have suffered; Gary, Dean Windass, Chris Kirkland. We’ve come together because it has inspired to get people out there and have a walk. It is the best medicine.

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“The endorphins and everything that it gives to you, going out for a walk, especially in the cold air. It makes me feel brilliant.”

Alan Biggs will host an evening with Wednesday legend Carlton Palmer at Abbeydale Sports Club on Friday March 20.

Tickets cost £25 from 0114 236 7011. Doors open at 6pm and a pie and pea supper starts an hour later. The talk starts at 7.45pm.

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