Prince William spoke of the impact of racism on professional footballers’ mental health as part of the Heads Up campaign as he visited West Bromwich Albion Training Ground in Walsall today.
The Duke of Cambridge, 38, who is President of the FA, met West Bromwich Albion players and also raised the effects of social media criticism on players.
The issue of racism in football has come to the fore after recent incidents in both the international and domestic game.
Bulgaria were sanctioned by UEFA after their fans’ racist abuse of England players in a Euro 2020 qualifier in October, with the game being stopped twice by the referee.
Last month, an FA Cup qualifier had to be abandoned after Haringey Borough and Yeovil Town players walked off in the 64th minute, when racist abuse was hurled at Haringey footballers.
Prince William meets members of West Bromwich’s first team during a visit to West Bromwich Albion Training Ground in Walsall today
The Duke of Cambridge’s visit comes as part of the Heads Up campaign, which is a partnership between the FA and his mental health project Heads Together
This week Liverpool and Netherlands midfielder Georginio Wijnaldum said he would walk off the pitch if racially abused.
William raised the topic while speaking to West Brom’s first team, who are currently flying high at the top of the Championship after a 4-1 win over Bristol City on Wednesday.
Greeting the Duke, himself an Aston Villa fan, there was good-humoured leg-pulling by club chief executive Mark Jenkins who told how club captain Chris Brunt had ‘played well against Villa’, in the past.
Midfielder Brunt, who has played more than 400 games for the Baggies, replied: ‘I wasn’t going to mention that.’
In a 90-minute visit to the club’s training ground, the duke met head coach Slaven Bilic and first team players.
Out on the training pitch, Gareth Barry told the prince players had become ‘more aware’ of how to better handle mental health, while midfielder Jake Livermore said ‘it’s definitely going in the right direction’.
England international Livermore, who has become an Albion regular since arriving from Hull City in 2017, lost his newborn son in 2014.
Talking to the No 8 and other players about mental health awareness, the duke said: ‘The stats are bad about men and mental health, really bad.
The Queen was photographed leaving Bucking Palace this afternoon (pictured)
The Duke of Cambridge will take part in a session led by a first-team footballer on mental health. Pictured, with first team players
‘Girls are pretty good, but guys are really bad at talking about it.’
He added: ‘It’s also not just about the footballing community but about guys who are out there watching… trying to get guys to be a bit more open about it.’
The duke then asked: ‘Do things like social media criticism – does that bother you, does that get to you guys?’
Bilic said: ‘It’s like what you say, you want to be a macho man, ‘it doesn’t affect me’ – it does, it does.’
The Heads Up campaign
The Heads Up campaign is a partnership between the FA and his mental health project Heads Together.
It is a season-long initiative that will hopefully see players and fans sharing their solutions to staying mentally fit.
The campaign will ‘harness the influence and popularity of football’ to ‘show the world that mental fitness is just as important as physical fitness,’ the FA said.
When Heads Up was first announced in May, the duke called the silence around men’s mental health a ‘crisis’ and encouraged football fans to ask after their friends as they would if they had ‘broke an arm or an ankle’.
William said at the time: ‘Just like physical health we all have mental health. Every one of us will face setbacks in our lives. And every one of us will face challenges with our mental health as a result.
‘The consequences of this silence – confusion, stigma, and even shame – have reached a crisis point in the UK.
‘At its worst, it has led to appalling rates of suicide in this country – the leading cause of death for men under 45.’
Former England international Barry, who has battled back from a serious knee injury, said: ‘That’s how football has changed from when I first started, to now.
‘The social media, the younger lads have had to deal with it and learn about it.
‘In football, especially, they’re trying to educate the young boys coming through, how to deal with it and try and take positives.’
The duke asked: ‘I know it’s slightly different but it must have the same impact – can we talk about racism?
‘How bad is it at the moment playing-wise, do you guys feel it at all?
‘Is it happening over here, week-in, week-out?’
Livermore replied: ‘Previous clubs I’ve played for, have had their fair share of issues.
‘I think the boys here are quite a together group, we stick together.
‘But we all know someone who has gone through it,’ to which William added:
‘That’s what worries me as well, is that you guys have to essentially carry that with you.
‘You’ve already got the pressures of playing that weekend.
‘You’ve got to worry about getting that right and you’re getting added criticism from people, unfairly.
‘That must weigh on your mind, be a burden, and it also must make you feel: ‘Why is that happening to me, why me?”
Livermore responded: ‘Of course, I think it’s important for us because a lot of people look at us.
Prince William’s arrival at the training grounds today marks the club’s first royal visit for 88 years
‘It’s massive if we can show we don’t stand for that.’
William as president of the Football Association, is spear-heading the Heads Up campaign, which is using the popularity of football to get across the importance of mental health, particularly among men.
Men are three times more likely to take their own lives than women, with suicide the most likely cause of death for males under the age of 45.
Later, William sat down with recently retired player James Morrison – now coaching at the club – and Baggies forward, Charlie Austin.
Both have each lost loved ones to suicide in the last couple of years, and the duke asked about the effects of those bereavements.
‘I was on a pre-season tour, got informed he had taken his life, and then – we’ve got a job to do, and you’re just trying to get on with it,’ explained Morrison.
For Austin, he found out his loved one had taken his own life the Friday before a game.
‘I was speaking to my wife on the phone all the way up (to the game) asking questions,’ he said.
‘He seemed sociable, worked for himself – he came to family barbecues and parties, he was like the life and soul.
‘But then we spoke and scratched the surface.
‘That big bubble, that front that we have, that we don’t speak, that must have been what he was going through.’
William also spoke to young academy players aged 13-16 about how they were being taught about maintaining good mental health.
Today marks the club’s first royal visit for 88 years.
Anyone needing support can also text ‘HeadsUp’ to 85258 to connect with a trained crisis volunteer.