Former Sheffield United favourite Mark Todd looking to give back after returning from brink and beating demons
He was just 16 years of age when he was plucked from a Troubles-ravaged Northern Ireland to sign for the mighty Manchester United, but arguably the most important journey of Mark Todd’s life did not take place until many decades later.
He lived so many kids’ dreams as a professional footballer, representing Sheffield United with some distinction after being released at Old Trafford and later adding to his two promotions with the Blades at Rotherham United. In his own words, he climbed the mountain and planted the flag.
Football’s ups and downs were encapsulated by the effective end of Todd’s career at professional level; a devastating knee injury came just weeks after a move to West Brom was mooted, at a time in the mid-90s when the rumoured £250,000 fee was not inconsequential.
“In football, you rarely deal with things there and then,” Todd admits. “I certainly didn’t. I was a mardy arse, but there was no reference point.
“I had three promotions in four years and then my knee went and I was suddenly scrambling around for work. I was 28 years old, and I was done.
“I had no time to feel sorry for myself; I had to earn. I moved into coaching and football in the community at Rotherham, so in my head I was still in professional football. I wasn’t a professional footballer, but it was a safety net that probably saved my life.
“My mum died in 2003, and I didn’t have time to grieve. I was working full-time at Rotherham and my then-partner Caroline was pregnant with our daughter.
“I always wanted to be a happy guy, so I probably parked all that. So I took six months off everything to sort my head out, and it ended up being 18. I did fall into poor mental health and for a year and a half, it wasn’t brilliant.
“It just took time. A wee bit longer than I wanted it to, but I got there.”
And it shows. Like so many of his former Blades teammates, Todd still lives in Sheffield and we caught up over a coffee at a local pub near his house in Stannington. It was in the school holidays and the café we planned to meet at was teeming with parents and kids enjoying the Sheffield sunshine. Life felt good.
It didn’t always, though and as the 53-year-old relives his darkest times, the emotion is as clear as the passion as he speaks about the next chapter and his future. The thing about mental health is that it doesn’t discriminate or find favour; it didn’t give a damn about Todd’s success at United, where he won two promotions under Dave Bassett and remains a popular figure amongst supporters over 30 years on.
“It's very prevalent now, in the public domain, and there's no stigma around talking about it,” he says.
“There are more homeless men, more suicidal men … there’s stat, stat, stat on that theme. But we're all supposed to be the bull and the stag and not let things affect us.
“I’m now the head of my family and people look to you for support and guidance. I’m the wise old owl, I guess. Or wise old Blade, I should say!
“They’ve seen me - dad, brother, uncle, friend, colleague - go through tough times and come out the other side. I didn't want my children to be asked: ‘What does your dad do?’ ‘Ah, er, he used to be Mark Todd, the footballer, but he's not very well at the moment...’
“I didn't want that pressure for them, and they weren't really old enough to understand. But now I'm in a happy place, although there were some proper ups and downs. It just takes time. Giving back now feels pretty special and emotional.”
To do so, Todd has established what he calls FFE – “my new wee thing,” he says – or the Football Family Effect, to give it its full title. The scheme is still in its embryonic stages but is already growing in popularity and sees Todd call on his network of contacts and relationships to create what he calls “magic moments” for youngsters who need them.
Teenager Harrison Walch, bravely fighting cancer for the third time, was cheered up by a visit and a few games of pool in his garden man-cave from former Blades boss Chris Wilder, a friend and former teammate of Todd’s at United. Young Freddie Fox received a visit from United’s greatest ever player, Tony Currie. And if Todd gets his way, this is just the beginning.
“It’s my volunteering back into the football family that helped me out of a poor wee spot,” Todd, who played over 100 times for the Blades after joining from Manchester United, added.
“I'm lucky I have high-profile friends who are legends of the game like TC and Chris, who are willing to give up their time and I can pull favours from. But we’re looking for sponsors to help take it to the next level.
“I’ve got two children and having kids with leukaemia? It tests my faith, to be honest with you. I'm a Christian by birth; my mum's up there without her cancer and the heart attack that took her, and my faith is through her.
“But to see kids that poorly, trying to live and concentrate as a parent without knowing what the outcome will be? I can't imagine. So this is just a way of trying to give back. It’s helping me understand what I went through, and who I was.
“I could have played for another 10 years professionally, until I was 38. I was fit enough. But I can’t look back at that, because then I wouldn’t have met Caroline and had my two amazing children. I missed 10 years of fame and a bit more fortune, but look what I ended up with instead.
“We spend too much doing rather than being. We’re human beings at the end of the day, aren’t we? But we’re always doing this or that, with deadlines and targets. But what makes us tick?
“We should have a good group around us, who we trust and respect. I grew up in civil war! I'm supposed to dislike Catholics. But it's not real life. Our family was open-minded. Yes, there was a bit of Rangers v Celtic banter but there were Catholics in my youth club team and international team. Keep an open mind.
“You might have strong views on X, Y and Z but we're all human beings, with different views and commitments and lives.
“We all come in the same way and go out the same way. So try and make as positive impact as you can.”
Todd certainly did that. The flag perhaps didn’t stay in as long as he’d have wanted, but he climbed the mountain. Now, with FFE blossoming and a return to football looming, he can enjoy the view from the other side.
** To find out more about FFE, visit www.linkedin.com/mark-todd-3b7384204.