The first thing you notice as Aaron Lennon walks into a room at Burnley’s training ground is the smile. There is a broad grin etched on his face as he warmly greets the handful of reporters present and it quickly becomes apparent that he is enjoying his football again and, moreover, relishing life again.
CREDIT: GETTY IMAGES
It is just over a year since Lennon was detained under the Mental Health Act. Police had been called to the side of a busy thoroughfare close to the M602 motorway near Salford Royal Hospital, on the outskirts of Manchester city centre, after receiving reports about a man in a precarious situation.
Officers arrived on the scene to discover Lennon in a distressed state and were believed to have spent the next 20 minutes negotiating with the England international, then with Everton. He was eventually taken to hospital for assessment and the start of care for what the Merseyside club later described as a “stress-related illness”.
This is the first time Lennon has spoken publicly since the incident, news of which prompted an outpouring of support from the wider football community, not least from those players, such as Stan Collymore, who have had their own mental health issues.
For the time being at least, Lennon is reluctant to talk in any detail about the events of that bleak Sunday afternoon on April 30 when his battle with depression peaked, but he explains that, for as long as four or five years before then, he had not been enjoying his football.
After a decade in North London with Tottenham, Lennon left for Everton, initially on loan, in February 2015 after finding himself on the periphery at White Hart Lane. Under Roberto Martinez at Everton, he played fairly regularly but opportunities became increasingly scarce for the winger once Ronald Koeman took charge at Goodison Park. At the time of being detained, he had not played for Everton for 2½ months.
“Probably for the last four or five years, I was not enjoying my football but for the period since joining Burnley [in January], I am really enjoying it again,” Lennon said. “I wouldn’t have said that I’d fallen out of love with football, but I’ve been through long periods of not being involved in the squads.
“You start getting to that stage where you don’t actually feel like a footballer. You train throughout the week and you’re not involved at the weekend, then it becomes difficult. So that was tough.”
“For me, not playing at the end of the week, you’re going home not a happy person and you’re not enjoying it,” he said. “There’s a lot of talk about footballers not caring but I don’t think there are many footballers who don’t get picked at the weekend, go home and are not bothered.”
On New Year’s Eve, a few weeks before his transfer to Burnley, Lennon posted a long message on Twitter thanking all those who had helped a difficult 2017 “end in such a special way” and paid tribute to friends, family, fans, Everton, “everyone at all the hospitals” and, in particular, staff at the Priory clinic.
“With all your help I’ve managed to get myself in a great place and loving each day like you should, also learning so much about myself and learning how important the mind is and what I need to do to look after it,” he tweeted. There are still people he wants to thank in person for their care.
“The football world has been brilliant to me, especially what I went through and the difficult times,” he said. “There are a lot of people I still need to thank and will thank.”
Moving to Sean Dyche’s upwardly mobile Burnley – who will be playing European football next season – has played its part in helping Lennon’s state of mind.
Lennon was part of the England squad at the 2006 and 2010 World Cups. Jermain Defoe’s recollection this week of being so bored during the 2010 tournament that he spent a night watching Wayne Rooney’s wedding on DVD resonated with Lennon.
“It doesn’t surprise me,” he recalled. “There were some long days in the hotel. There were a lot of computer games played, some read books but, after a couple of weeks, you are climbing the walls. The pressures are immense. At the time it is difficult to enjoy.”
Lennon is asked if he holds any hope of forcing his way back into the England reckoning one day. “I’ve not thought about it,” he says. “If it happened, great, but honestly just playing week in, week out again is, for me, brilliant.” That is a triumph in itself.
By James Ducker