How a Football Manager regen is helping raise mental health awareness

In Depth

Football Manager is a truly wonderful game, and one of its many obsessional fans is using the game for the greater good by getting young men to talk about mental health.

A few weeks ago, Jonny Sharples spoke to around 50 million listeners via the BBC World Service about Ivica Strok – an entirely fictional computer-generated footballer (called a ‘regen’) who appeared on his Football Manager 2013 game one day.

That might sound like a strange thing for the BBC to be interested in, but it’s all for an extremely good cause.

It started when Jonny’s brother, Simon, committed suicide in 2014, leading Jonny to use Football Manager as a distraction.

Jonny’s dad, Roger, meanwhile, decided to raise money for charity in Simon’s honour. This is when the family discovered charity organisation CALM (Campaign against Living Miserably).

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“My family and I were taken back when we heard stats like: suicide is the most common form of death for men under 40,” Jonny says.

“We didn’t want to buy Simon flowers for the funeral because he was a ‘lad’s lad’. We wanted to help others, so we decided to raise money for charity and eventually went for CALM because they closely associate with what we went through.”

Jonny has always been self-confessed Football Manager addict, having played every edition since the ’93 version. But this particular game, started in 2013, has been of certain significance for him.

“I had played this version of the game for a year when Strok first appeared,” Jonny says. “That’s when my brother Simon committed suicide.

“I then spent about three weeks in my sister’s spare bedroom, escaping my reality on Football Manager, while my family were carrying out the funeral arrangements over the Christmas period.

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“It can help because Football Manager is essentially the world’s biggest ‘Chose your own adventure’ book; one decision could affect the next 30 years of the game and it never ends.

“Also, what better thing to do when a loved one has passed away than delve into a game where you are the world’s best football manager and have the world’s best player.

“At first I started with Dynamo Dresden in the Bundesliga. I was with them for a couple of years, but I never got promoted. I then went to Brighton & Hove Albion, but they didn’t give me any money so I throw a strop and they sacked me.

“Finally I went to Hearts for a few years, but then I joined Celtic, where I won the Scottish Premier League in the first couple of seasons. Strok first appeared through my scouting network in the in-game 2017. He was causing a storm in Croatia and he was within my budget.”

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Under Jonny’s management, Strok became Celtic’s all-time record goal-scorer, a four time European Cup winner, a six-time winner of the European Golden Shoe, winner of the Ballon d’Or on numerous occasions and the highest ever scorer in international football with Croatia.

He’s now retired but with the date in the game now 2058, Jonny is still going.

“I did think that once I signed Strok, who was 18 at the time, and then win the Champions League, I would retire,” he says. “I thought that I will start again on a new game.

“But Strok was too good. Barcelona wanted to sign him at one point. I just couldn’t move on from him.

“I remember looking at the club’s top scorers for Celtic: Jimmy McGrory had 522 goals for them and Strok was only 300-odd, so I wanted to keep pushing to break that record, and only then I will stop playing. Trouble was Strok didn’t retire until the age of 40 and he did break the record by getting 836 goals for Celtic.”

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Eventually, Jonny realised that his method of using Football Manager as a form of escape could be used to help others. When he realised it covers the same demographic as those who are more likely to take their own lives – usually young males, he decided to turn his love of the game into something useful.

By using Strok as a figure-head, he has created awareness and raised money for mental health charities such as CALM by selling match programmes, stickers and football shirts.

Strok even had a testimonial match via Football Manager and raised £500. Some of the Celtic star’s merchandise, like his replica t-shirt, sits in the National Football Museum in Manchester alongside t-shirts of some of the world’s greatest like Diego Maradona and Pele.

“When I am not doing Football Manager, I am doing Photoshop,” Jonny says. “So one day I thought: ‘what better than to put Ivica Strok’s head on Georgias Samaras’ body?’

“When the image was created, it rolled on from there. I created Strok’s Twitter account and I shared it from my own Twitter account. Then Iain Macintosh, who is big on Football Manager, retweeted it, leading Strok to gain a large following – which is great because it spreads the message even further, which in turn helps more people that are struggling.”

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“We chose CALM to campaign for because they closely associate with what we went through when Simon passed away. Just two years ago, they only had about two members of full-time staff. I think even now a lot of them work part-time and are mostly on a voluntary basis.

“It’s important to get the funding to them because the message they are spreading is so vital. Another reason I decided to fundraise through Football Manager was because I am lazy and could never run a marathon If I tried. I am 30 and my knees are already shot.”

The message CALM are helping to get out there is vital. It could be the difference between life and death for some people.

“Men under the age of 50 are more likely to die by their own hand than by anything else,” Jonny says. “But that just gets swept under the carpet like it’s a taboo. It’s never really in the mainstream, so that message needs to be spread by as many people as possible.

“If you can do something to help someone struggling – even if it is one small Tweet saying ‘here’s a number you can call’ – and if one person sees that tweet and it helps them, then it’s one fewer person that’s not going to end up dead.”

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Despite Jonny’s great work, he still feels he is facing a battle against the social construct of ‘masculinity’, especially on social media.

“The main issue with some people is that they use their platform in a negative way,” he says. “Piers Morgan, for instance, has got that big platform. He’s on television every night to a large audience and he’s got six million twitter followers to take the mick out of him, but he’s delivering the wrong message.

“He should say: ‘if you’re struggling go and find help’, but he doesn’t. He says: ‘If you’re struggling, well, bad things happen to everyone. Why are you being a snowflake?’”.

Finally, Jonny is keen to point out that, to those who believe depression is simply a case of being upset, there is a stark difference between the two.

“To be upset by something is normal,” he says. “Things can upset you everything single day. You get upset when your football team loses, and you can recognise that feelings from within yourself.

“But when you can’t get out of bed because your dreading going to work, or if you are unable to function because of something that has happened, that’s when you got to find help.”

By Jacque Talbot

The Campaign against Living Miserably (CALM) is dedicated to preventing male suicide, the single biggest killer of men under 45 in the UK.

The fee for this article was donated to CALM. If would like to donate or find out more, visit: thecalmzone.net

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