Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp knows the importance of a good walk. When he was earning his bachelors in sports science, he wrote a thesis titled, ‘Walking - Inventory and evaluation of a sport for all,’ while the story goes that after one tough result with Borussia Dortmund, the German walked home from the stadium to clear his head.
Then there is the famous Anfield anthem ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ which is belted out before every game. So it’s little wonder then that the Premier League-winning gaffer has given his backing to the ‘Walking Is Brilliant’ campaign.
The brainchild of former Nottingham Forest and Middlesbrough goalkeeper Mark Crossley after he shared his love of walking on social media, it’s a brilliant initiative which came about through chance and urges people to get out and about to help aid the wellbeing of our minds. The movement has already helped hundreds and will now raise thousands for mental health charities too. With Klopp on board, Crossley has received support too from Manchester City boss Pep Guardiola and TV presenters Ant and Dec, as well as Match of the Day host Gary Lineker and pundits Alan Shearer and Ian Wright.
Joining forces with former professionals Dean Windass, Chris Kirkland, Steve Howey, Jon Parkin and Nigel Jemson - who themselves have endured personal struggles, says Crossley - they get together to walk and talk, finding sharing their issues really helps. Sharing his walks via videos and pictures of the stunning scenery he regularly ambles past, Crossley realised it was having a profound affect.
“I put it out there and the response was mad.” Crossley tells The Sportsman ahead of World Mental Health Day on Saturday 10 October. “Then Covid struck and it took it to another level, with people laid off work or furloughed, loads have taken up walking.”
With his five companions, all fellow role models in the public eye as former professional footballers, Crossley is proud of the good their searing honesty and openness has had on others. Next year, the six-strong group will take another giant step by climbing Mount Kilimanjaro to raise vital funds for various mental health charities. Two golf days have already raised £13,000, while there is a potential documentary in the pipeline and the PFA are also going to sponsor the cause.
On the day Crossley speaks to us, he’s already been on a 10-mile trek. While his desire to get out into the fresh air is infectious, it was actually a difficult time in his life which opened his eyes to the power of walking for body and mind. Talking openly and honestly, Crossley admits he was struggling with a lack of structure and knew he had to find something to fill the fresh void in his life.
“I hit a real low,” he says. “Mental health issues affect most people at some stage whether it be anxiety or depression. It didn’t hit me until 50 when I lost my job and my Dad got cancer. Life had been pretty perfect until then. I’d been in the game 35 years and was ready for a break, but the decision was made for me when I was relieved of my coaching duties at Chesterfield in January. My Dad got diagnosed in the same week.
“A pal of mine said ‘Why don’t you come out for a walk?’ I’d always been one of those that thinks ‘Well, the car is on the drive.’ Now it’s the opposite. I had no day-to-day routine - football gives you that - and then I found it through walking. It refreshes and starts your day. It’s thinking time and it’s done the world of good.”
Crossley has since opened up his personal Twitter account to help others directly too.
“I try to answer as many messages as possible,” he says. “Even if it’s just a thumbs up, I’ve realised it helps. I’m speaking regularly to a Forest supporter who had a car accident. His friend got in touch asking could I reach out. He’s in a good place and that makes me feel great. I was his childhood hero and all of a sudden I’m picking up the phone and having a chat.
“It’s good to give a little back. We’ve been fortunate as footballers. The people we help and the goodwill messages we get, it’s inspiring. We aren’t professionals but the more we share each other’s issues, it helps. We feel really proud. Walking and talking is free, so everybody’s a winner.”
Next month will mark nine years since former Leeds, Everton and Newcastle star Gary Speed sadly took his own life. The news came as a huge shock to everybody in the football world and Crossley lost a mate that day.
“I was really good friends with Gary through the Wales squad, a lot of people were. He was a footballer other footballers looked up to and admired because he was such a nice guy. He was a leader and would help anybody; if you were struggling you’d go and see Gary.
“To hear the news the day he took his life, it rocked football. ‘Not Gary Speed, no chance.’ As his mates, I don’t want to go into too much detail but if only he could have just spoken to some of us... who would have thought it at 40 years old. I can’t get rid of his number in my phone, I’ve got a picture of him that I can’t delete and when it’s his birthday we send messages.”
Speed’s untimely death brought more awareness to mental health in football and Crossley feels the issue is worse now than when he started his career in the late eighties.
“I’ve seen lads come in crying because they can’t pay the mortgage and their careers are coming to an end,” he explains. “Football is run by sports science now, the players are much fitter, much quicker…”
He insists help is available though.
“The PFA are trying but it’s a big issue. Football is based on results; players and managers are under massive pressure. I think football clubs should look to employ people full-time to work alongside a doctor where they can deal with players individually. A lot of clubs do have that already; we had Claire Davidson at Notts County, now the Lead Performance Psychologist at the FA and there’s help, it just needs to be exposed a little more.”
Crossley worked with two great man-managers in Brian Clough at the City Ground and Sir Alex Ferguson during a month-long loan at Manchester United in 1990. They were masters at looking after their staff.
“The best,” Crossley says of his former bosses. “What was unique is they made everybody feel important. The lady who cooks the dinners, the kit man… Cloughie instilled that and it was the same at The Cliff at Man United, they made sure everyone felt as important as the captain and the manager.
“I’ve been watching the Tottenham documentary on Amazon and couldn’t turn it off last night. Jose Mourinho is the closest thing to Cloughie in terms of management style.”
We asked Crossley whether he felt he was able to approach Clough and Ferguson with his problems away from football?
“Yeah, you could have. What Cloughie was brilliant at was he’d see it in you. If you were struggling, he had a knack of knowing. He’d say, ‘Right, stay with your family, you need the break, take time off. Don’t worry, you come back next week refreshed, you’re in the team.’ So when things weren’t going too well, he’d read it in you. He was always one step ahead.”
So too is Crossley. The former keeper is giving a helping hand and reminding people there is no need to walk alone. Klopp would certainly agree.