Theo Vassell leapt joyfully in celebration of scoring his first goal for Salford City. To most watching, Vassell appeared to be in good spirits.
But four days earlier, he had experienced the despair of depression while sitting in the away dressing room at Sutton United following a goalless draw.
Speaking to Laurie Whitwell at The Atheltic, Vassell explained: “We got a clean sheet, but I wasn’t myself. “After the game I started crying. Nobody saw, I had my head down. My eyes filled up with water. I felt lonely. All the players were happy at a decent result, but I just couldn’t be happy with them, much as I wanted to be. I sat there thinking, ‘I can’t keep going on like this.’”
Vassell was familiar with the feeling of depression. He enrolled in Stoke City’s academy when he was nine years old, but before he was 16, he sought counselling and was given a diagnosis of anxiety and depression.
Now at the age of 25, he is in a place where he can discuss how he attempted suicide ten years earlier.
Even though he has put those "Demon thoughts" in the past, he sometimes has low points.
He missed three months of the 2019 season while playing for Port Vale as he battled depression. Only the manager, physio, and doctor at the club were aware of his absence.
He was forced to leave the game mid-match. “My anxiety got so bad my body was shaking, I had a headache, felt like I was going to pass out. I knew I wasn’t right because I ate a slice of pizza. I never do that. I just needed food in my body.”
The one person Vassell has always been able to confide in about his depression is his grandmother. “Every time I feel like I’m having a bit of a breakdown, I tell my nan. She knows straight away what’s wrong with me, I don’t need to go into detail. She asked me, ‘Do you speak to anyone at Salford?’ I said no. She said, ‘You should try to speak to the manager or doctor.’”
Vassell spoke with club doctor Mubin Ibrahim the following day, who handled the conversation compassionately and also asked if Vassell wanted to tell manager Gary Bowyer or co-owner Gary Neville.
Initially Vassell was hesitant, “I said, ‘No, no, no. I was thinking they’re gonna judge me or I’m not gonna play. He said, ‘They will be supportive.’ I took a deep breath and said, ‘OK, cool.’ Ten minutes later the gaffer called me into his office. I was like, ‘Oh no.’”
“It was a very positive conversation. I felt good because the manager and assistant knew my problems and were supportive.
Vassell says he does feel better after talking and letting others in, which has inspired him to share his experience in public. “Sitting here now, I can shut my eyes and smile. If I’d not spoken out, I would feel a lot more closed and pressure on my shoulders. Since it’s becoming known to more people it’s getting easier.
“I do hope that whoever is suffering will speak out and get the support they need. It is not easy to speak out. But I know how difficult it can be holding things in.”
To promote awareness, Vassell also sat down with Gary Neville, and the video of that conversation was shown to team members in Salford during a squad meeting. Although Vassell's issues have been known to manager Neil Wood, who replaced Bowyer in May, and he frequently checks in, none of the players were aware of the entire nature until lately.
Vassell said: “You could have asked people over the past five years and they would have never thought this is happening to me because they see my character in football — always laughing, one of the loudest — yet I am on my last legs. I have been crying my eyes out away from football every night all week, pleading out for help, then gone to football bubbly.
“If I didn’t speak about it, I wouldn’t get that extra support and I’d feel more lost. Whereas now I have a fleet behind me.”
Salford have since employed Janet Hartley, a mental health professional, to offer any individuals who may want it on-site treatment, including talking therapy and cognitive behavioural therapy.
Vassell spent seven years in Stoke City’s academy, there was constant pressure to get a contract.
“I don’t think that helped me because that made me feel pressure and worry a lot more, ‘I can’t put a foot wrong because I’m gonna get told off and then — am I gonna get a new contract, are they gonna play me?’ All these thoughts would start rushing round over this one minor thing.”
Vassell made an attempt at suicide when he was 13-years-old, and again two years later. Considering everything going on in his personal life, he did very well to advance through the age categories.
After leaving Stoke, Vassell went on to play for Oldham and Walsall, before making his professional debut on loan at Chester going on to make 31 appearances. He then moved to Gateshead and on to Port Vale.
In 2018 tragedy struck and his academy best friend took his own life.
Vassell expanded: “I knew something was up. He’d taken his own life. It was hard to take. Still, to this day, it feels like he’s still here. I would have never thought he was going through that. I spoke to him a couple of days before. He was asking me about clothes. Afterwards, I was annoyed with myself, ‘Why didn’t I just ask him if he was OK?’”
Vassell's depression worsened later in the season, and he had to miss three months. The PFA arranged counselling sessions through Sporting Chance Clinic.
“I told the counsellor the trigger was probably football, a lot of the problem is me living ahead of myself, thinking of things in the future that might not even happen.
“I was scared to play football, I hated stepping on the pitch. If I was selected on the bench I’d feel a massive sense of relief. If I was starting the game I’d get a rush of thoughts through my head. I’d have a panic attack inside. I was petrified to play, so nervous.”
After receiving physical rehabilitation through the PFA at St George’s Park, Vassell went on to sign for Salford last November.
“It was something to be proud of having come through that. If that happened to me a few years ago I don’t think I’d have survived it, mentally.”
The staff at Salford are mindful to ask how Vassell is feeling. “Sometimes thoughts do creep into my head,” he says. “A few weeks ago the doctor asked if I was OK. He must have seen I was not myself. I asked if I could up my medication. I felt lost. But this only lasted one or two days then I was back to my happy self. Before it could have lasted weeks and affected my game.”
He committed to a two-year deal in the summer, and he played the full 90 minutes recently as Salford defeated Northampton Town. At the beginning of the month he scored his second goal for Salford in a draw against Grimsby Town and in the match before he helped secure a late comeback victory at Sutton.
Vassell said: “I love football. After that game, I felt like I’d won the lottery. I’d headed the ball away and the ref blew the whistle. We were right by the away fans and I walked up and they went mad. That’s what it’s about. It’s the best feeling in the world.
“I do have that drive and fire inside of me to feel like that. All those years I’ve been through, it’s moments like that which really matter. In a sense, after all these bad times, this is what I’ve worked towards.”