x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Our time on earth is limited and precious

I was lucky enough to play for big clubs and there are plenty of people wanting my time. And how I value that precious time and good health when I hear of footballers like Bryan Robson and Eric Abidal facing serious illness with such bravery.

Arsenal’s David Rocastle, left, was only 33 years of age when he died from an aggressive form of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, which is a cancer that attacks the immune system.
Arsenal’s David Rocastle, left, was only 33 years of age when he died from an aggressive form of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, which is a cancer that attacks the immune system.

I have just returned from a week in Brunei and Malaysia playing a veterans' tournament. I was in Kuala Lumpur with Bryan Robson, the former Manchester United and England captain who is now the Thailand national coach.

Robson was on good form, so I did not expect to return to England on Wednesday to read that he had been having treatment for throat cancer.

I was shocked, but like everyone else I hope that his treatment is a success. It is a big fight for him, but there is not a person with a better fighting spirit in the world than Robson.

The news came just hours after I read that Barcelona's Eric Abidal is having treatment for a cancerous tumour in his liver. That stunned me too; life seems so unfair.

One minute you are with someone or watching them play football, the next you read they have a big battle ahead with cancer.

I am no good when it comes to dealing with the emotions surrounding illness and death. I block things out and struggle to deal with the bad news. Eventually it gets through and it puts things into perspective, especially in football where trivial issues can be taken far too seriously.

I remember when David Rocastle died in 2001. He was a big star for Arsenal and England and looked after me when I was a kid at the club. Rocastle and I had a lot in common and his parents had also emigrated to England from the Caribbean. He was 33 when he died from an aggressive form of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, a cancer which attacks the immune system.

Rocastle's funeral was beautiful and I treasure the booklet they handed out at the service. So many people showed up and while you have to move on in life, I am pleased that so many of those people keep in touch with Rocastle's children and family.

Again, it put everything into perspective for me. I would think, "Why I am getting wound up because I'm getting slaughtered in newspapers?" It just does not matter in the greater scheme of things.

Marc Vivien Foe was another footballer who passed away, in his case he died after collapsing during an international match in France.

The Cameroon midfielder was a Manchester City player at the time, but it is a little known fact that he came on trial to Manchester United as a youngster.

He was really highly rated, but he had broken a leg and there was a feeling that the edge had been off his game so United did not sign him. I was sickened when I heard that he had died, just as I was when I heard that Dale Roberts, the Rushden & Diamonds, goalkeeper had taken his life recently.

When I heard that on the news I jolted forward. The name rang a bell. Then I realised that he had been a youngster at Nottingham Forest when I was there, a quiet polite young footballer with his life ahead of him.

The German goalkeeper Robert Enke committed suicide in 2009 after a history of suffering from depression. People could not understand why the German international would do this - or even a promising full-time footballer at Rushden.

People don't see what it's like being a footballer when problems seem anything but trivial.

There were many times when I felt like leaving the game. You can never speak publicly. Who would have any sympathy for the millionaire footballer? I did not want sympathy, but I know how I felt and know how other footballers feel. Football can be a horrible industry, where bullying and instability is rife. The opinion of one coach can crush a career.

Players are sent to clubs at the other end of the country with little choice in the matter, hundreds of miles from their families.

I have seen injuries screw players up completely mentally. It impacts on their lives in a terrible way. You do not read about them in the news, you read about the heroes and the goal scorers.

I was lucky enough to score plenty of goals, to be that smiling face on the back page, but that's not the reality for most footballers. And even for the best footballer, the adulation stops, almost overnight.

You're a star one minute and then the focus is on someone else. Nobody tells you how to deal with it. People deal with it in different ways. Some players see their marriages break down after football, others do not look after themselves properly.

I am enjoying my life after football, but I was lucky enough to play for big clubs and there's plenty of people wanting my time. And how I value that precious time and good health when I hear of footballers like Robson and Abidal facing serious illness with such bravery.