Former Palace striker Leon McKenzie is now devoting his time to fighting depression in sport, and has released a book detailing the struggles he faced. A year to the day that football lost the popular Gary Speed to depression, Leon talks to FYP's Rob Sutherland about his troubles, and his time at Selhurst.
Leon McKenzie isn’t your typical football player. The professional game is one in which openness is often frowned upon, in which being honest is considered a weakness. It’s a sport where bravado is preferred over fragility – an intense environment in which depression can thrive. McKenzie has seen just how dangerous the grip of depression can be – the former Crystal Palace trainee attempted suicide in the later stages of his career; repeated injuries, financial difficulties and life’s stresses becoming too much for him.
Few will openly speak about depression or failed suicide attempts, but in his book released this week, Leon opens himself up to the struggles that a footballer can fall victim to. In this interview with Five Year Plan, McKenzie discusses his six years at Palace – from the highs of promotion to the lows of administration – and provides some insight into his future plans.
You’ve praised Steve Coppell in your book – what made him such a good person to work for?
It was his way in managing people – he was humble in his approach and man management. It was his way of dealing with certain things, how he addressed me as a kid coming through. He saw something in me that he saw in others that he worked with. He took time after I finished training with him and he’d ask me to practice more with him; he didn’t have to do that. I really appreciated him as a man and appreciated him signing me professionally. He gave me a chance and believed in me – he gave me a lot of confidence.
He’s not a shouter and screamer, is he?
He’s a very intelligent man. I don’t think you need to shout and scream to get your point across to players. Sometimes it might have been needed, but he was just at a different level to get his point across. He preferred to be a one-on-one manager to try and convince you; you’d take away something from that. He motivated me more when he pulled me aside individually.
Was it a shock when Simon Jordan replaced Steve Coppell with Alan Smith?
The first thing we heard when Simon decided to bring in Alan Smith was that he wanted change. Jordan had a lot of influence over Smith at that time. I was just a kid at the time but I was one of Steve Coppell’s boys so it was surprising.
You wrote at length about Alan Smith in your book. You didn’t see eye-to-eye with him?
I didn’t appreciate the way he treated me at the end of my time at Palace, it really upset me. I was still very young but he wanted to transfer me out for £25,000 and it was quite a shock; I could have gone somewhere for a little bit more than that. I believed that the fee should have been more for Palace, especially if you look at how I went on to play top level football anyway.
In the book, you mention that he wasn’t very hands-on?
It’s the way a manager treats you personally that can be difficult. It’s football though. You can have one man dictate your future because he doesn’t like you – that can become a problem. For me, I wasn’t really thinking about Crystal Palace – it was my career that he made a decision on. Things could have gone a lot better than they did.
Being forced out of the club after you’d worked through administration must have been difficult?
I went about four months without getting paid – the only person who was keeping me going on was Steve Coppell. He would say he was sorry at what was going on, that we didn’t have to play but that it would mean a lot if we did. He made the difference then.
How did you make ends meet during that time?
I had my fair share of difficulty – I just had my first kid. I had my family supporting me at times and I took out lots of money from my overdraft. I wasn’t on the biggest wages at Palace anyway. Money was never the main focus for me though.
Do you think young players nowadays see it that way?
It’s different for kids nowadays. When I signed professionally for Crystal Palace it was just ‘wow!, £250 pounds a week and they want me to play football!' As time went on I wanted to get a better contract but I’ve never been a greedy footballer.
You played with some good players during your spell at Palace. Who were your favourites?
I loved working with Dougie Freedman. He had great ability and I always knew he wanted to be a coach – he would talk to me in training and would give me great confidence. He was a very clever player. Atilio Lombardo was another fantastic professional. There were a few people there that I enjoyed playing with.
You won a Coca-Cola bicycle for a Man of the Match performance in your debut for the club – what did you do with it?
I think I gave it to charity. It was a weird Man of the Match award – I wasn’t going to start riding it around Crystal Palace [laughs] – it was a great gesture but perhaps it was because I was so young. They couldn’t give me a car so decided instead to give me a bike!
You were voted into Peterborough United’s hall of fame a few weeks ago and got to see Palace play too – what did you think of Wilfried Zaha?
It was a pleasure watching him. He’s got amazing ability when running with the ball and his skill is on another level. He’s a fit lad as well and he’s playing with confidence. He clearly doesn’t like a whack – so that something he’ll need to get used to, but he’s just a kid. He’s in the best hands with Ian Holloway to guide him though. He should stay with Palace another season to keep growing.
You have been vocal about your depression – when did you realise that there was a problem?
I didn’t say much for a good few years. The problem with depression is that it just snowballs. It goes from something simple into a much bigger issue – until you find yourself in a situation where you don’t want to be here anymore. That was for many different reasons.
It is a year to the day that football lost Gary Speed? Does the game do enough to support players?
Not at this moment in time. It’s getting better but it’s one of the things I’m working on to raise awareness and keep pushing. We have to push help into the clubs. It’s about getting support from clubs and about managers peaking openly about issues. There are a big percentage of players who are really suffering. Clubs have physiotherapists and doctors at clubs – perhaps it’s time they also had psychotherapists too.
Do you see yourself working in football in the future?
I’m working towards getting some qualification to help players. Obviously you can’t just use life experiences but you have to have some qualifications. I have to talk to the PFA about that. We don’t want to see players suffering or taking their lives – we want to make them aware that they have more help available than they think.
Leon McKenzie’s book, My Fight with Life, is available to pre-order from McAnthony Media, for £7.99 with a release date of 29th of November, 2012. Pre-order a copy HERE.
Follow Leon on Twitter HERE.