Alan Burrows is the CEO of Motherwell Football Club.
In 14 years at Fir Park, the boyhood supporter of The Steelmen has worked his way through the ranks in a variety of roles — from website administrator to Head of Communications, from General Manager to Chief Operating Officer before settling into his current position.
He is a force for good in Scottish football and today he joins FC United.
The wording changes, but the question is always along similar lines. I get it a lot.
“Do you see yourselves as a football club with a cause, or are you a cause with a football club attached?”
I don’t think we should apologise for trying to be both.
Our cause — for at least the last decade — has been around mental health.
Motherwell Football Club should always try to represent our supporters and the people of this area. We want to involve ourselves in their concerns and their issues.
Let’s be straightforward about it. Where we’re from is the area of the country hardest hit by male suicide. It is a plague in Lanarkshire.
That’s the problem on our doorstep, but the same is true across Scotland, particularly in areas of deprivation and places that have been deindustrialised, where unemployment rates can be high. It’s a lethal mix of social circumstances that can ultimately lead to suicide.
We’ve lost family and friends. We’ve lost season ticket holders. And in a football context, that image of someone not being back to sit in their seat is heartbreaking. At one point, it felt like we were doing a minute’s silence or applause every other week.
In a demanding, intense industry, we’ve had players open up to us about having suicidal tendencies.
It’s not something we’re prepared to sit back and do nothing about. We’re by no means alone or unique in that, and there is some excellent work being done across the game, but I can only speak for what goes on within Fir Park.
Looking back, it probably really started with Paul McGrillen’s passing in 2009. We were playing Steaua Bucharest when the news filtered through, and it shocked us. It brought the topic so close to home.
He was in the team that I first remember watching with my Dad, and I think those players stick in your head. They’re early heroes in your football life.
I can only describe it as feeling like an earthquake had hit. Because it was suicide, it made it all the harder to take.
Shortly afterwards, one of our senior members of staff lost her husband to suicide, and I saw, first hand, the utter devastation that it caused. I saw the torment, the mental deterioration and the perceived guilt, which is misplaced but understandable.
She was a hard-as-nails, typical Motherwell woman. Resolute and determined. Everything, in my opinion, that encapsulates the people of his area. But it broke her.
That spurred this club, initially led by Leeann Dempster, to get involved with Breathing Space and Choose Life. Leeann drove it because she’d tried to help our colleague pull through that period in her life.
When I became General Manager, it felt important to try and build on that early work. By that point, we were hearing more and more similar stories. Each one was so sad.
As a football club, we have an excellent platform to connect with the people in that high-risk category. We should do it, and we have an obligation to do it.
Suicide is the biggest killer of males under the age of 40 in this country. It’s not a comfortable conversation, but I can’t think of a more important one to have.
So, we want it to be front and centre of what we do.
Almost one person every week dies by suicide in North Lanarkshire. On the sleeves of our strips, you’ll see the Suicide Prevention North Lanarkshire branding, in partnership with North Lanarkshire Council, and we have helpline information around the stadium.
Previously we’ve had Breathing Space and Choose Life logos on our strips. It’s space we could otherwise use to make money, but we want to display our support for the cause publicly.
Our annual Christmas video isn’t designed to sell stuff in the club shop. It’s to deliver a hard-hitting message.
We have mental health drop-in centres, classes around topics like debt and drug awareness.
The biggest thing, for us, is the repetition of that message. We’ve all seen examples in football of something being highlighted once a year and then forgotten about it, and it’s hard to shake the feeling that it can be a tick-box exercise.
We can’t let that happen with this. The stakes are too high.
If we want to make an impact, you need to be on it all the time, and it needs to figure in your daily decision-making process.
We’ve been told that that messaging has saved lives.
One person messaged me privately on Twitter and was honest enough to tell me that he’d found himself in a phone box in Paisley calling Breathing Space on the back of seeing the signage at Fir Park.
I remember speaking to our small, hard-working team at the club and telling them that everything we’d done was worth it on the strength of that one story.
That was one success, but there are still too many people dying. We’re constantly challenging ourselves to try and do more. I feel like we do a lot with the resources we have, but you always want to make a bigger dent in the problem.
Perhaps in the past, we’ve signposted helplines at the very end of the process. When someone gets to that stage, they’re probably already in trouble.
Our focus now is trying to get involved in the factors that led them there in the first place. Maybe it’s alcohol or drug addiction, debts, family relationships, employment, whatever.
We’re giving free season tickets to the unemployed. At the very least, we want them to have somewhere to go every two weeks that lets them feel part of something. That’s football’s gift to give.
You can harness the power of an environment where they’re more likely to feel safe, relaxed and, in turn, more receptive than they might be going along to a clinic.
My DMs are always open on Twitter. In the last couple of months, I’ve had a couple of people I didn’t know get in touch to say they were feeling really low.
I am in no way any sort of white knight, and I’m not qualified to talk about mental health or give them advice. What I can do is talk about a subject we can both relate to, to provide a bit of a distraction, and nine times out of 10, that’s probably football.
They don’t need to be fobbed off. Sometimes they just need an ear.
Football itself is a hard school. A tough and testing environment. Everyone is looking for perceived ‘weaknesses’ and a reason not to sign players, making it difficult for people to speak up. We’ve made strides, but there’s a long way to go.
I remember we had one player who attempted suicide in my time at Motherwell.
The initial reaction is shock, horror and concern. It wasn’t anything to do with their next game, their contract or anything like that. Anything else fades into insignificance.
We had a decision to make as a club about how we would react to that, and, looking back, it was possibly the proudest I’ve ever felt to be part of Motherwell.
Gambling was the root cause, and I remember the boardroom discussion. Not one person questioned the need to spend the money we did on treatment. If anything, they were more horrified at the thought of the potential consequence of inaction. When you might find yourself in a situation when you’d give anything to go back and spend that money to help someone.
This wasn’t someone we thought was going to go on to make us a sizeable transfer fee. That kind of squad hierarchy never came into it. It was just the right thing to do, and it makes me so happy to see that player still playing now, albeit having moved on to pursue another opportunity.
We had another player come to us more recently and say they wanted to play an active part in our campaigns because they’d had thoughts about taking their own life.
He approached a member of our media team, and I’m so pleased he felt comfortable enough to do that. Hopefully, it says something about the culture here.
Hand on heart, I can say that I would never hold that against a player or judge them for it.
Unfortunately, as groups like Back Onside, Time To Tackle and PFA Scotland would testify, that’s not always the case.
The overwhelming majority of footballers would be wary of divulging anything that would showcase any sort of vulnerability. I can understand that. It just means we all have more work to do because, ultimately, it’s not healthy to bottle these things up over time.
I’ve had to work at my own mental health in the sense that I learned to compartmentalise some of the stuff that could negatively impact your thoughts.
When I started here, I maybe tried to be all things to all people. Supporting the club perhaps exacerbates that. You want to make everyone proud — your friends, family, supporters — but you’ll eventually hit the wall.
One negative comment in 100 can stick with you and prove damaging if you let it. So I try to keep things in perspective and get on with the job to the best of my ability.
The landscape’s changing. There’s a lot of great, inspiring work being done across the country by different clubs, but it’s clear we all still have more to do.
The passionate, tribal side of the game here is one of the things that makes Scottish football so authentic and such a privilege to be involved with.
With this subject, at least, we’re all on the same team.
The following services offer confidential support from trained staff and volunteers. You can talk about anything that is troubling you, no matter how difficult:
- Call 116 123 to talk to Samaritans, or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Samaritans are there to listen 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, and it’s always free to call from any landline or mobile phone.
- Call 111 to talk to NHS 24’s mental health hub.
- Call 0800 83 85 87 to talk to Breathing Space. The service is open 24 hours at weekends (6pm Friday — 6am Monday) and 6pm to 2am on weekdays (Monday — Thursday). The Breathing Space webchat is an alternative to phoning the service.
- Text “SHOUT” to 85258 to contact the Shout Crisis Text Line, text “YM” if you are under 19.