Tony Bryson is a youth coach within Ayr United’s academy setup.
He wouldn’t wish the experiences he endured early on in life on any of the aspiring footballers he works with on a daily basis, but he knows they will face struggles of their own.
There is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to coaching. Some will need to be cut some slack. Others kept on a tighter leash. A few require an arm around the shoulders while there are those who need some blunt home truths.
Having been to hell and back, there are few better placed than Tony to help steer these youngsters through a testing period in an unforgiving industry.
Ayr United supporters will remember Andy Geggan’s headed winner over Kilmarnock in the League Cup back in July 2017 for different reasons to me.
It was a famous goal that sealed a famous result. As an Ayr fan — now a coach at the club — it’s the kind of day you’d want to replay over and over in your head.
For me, it was the last time I saw my brother-in-law before he took his own life.
Two days before what happened happened.
He was 26. I saw the impact it had on the people around him at the time and, truth be told, the impact it continues to have.
My wife and I have been together since we were teenagers. He was a couple of years younger, so I’d known him for 13 years. Grown up with him.
You never get over it. The grief doesn’t change. You maybe just grow around it. The questions and regrets remain. It just always feels unfair.
Unfortunately, I’ve grown up around addiction and the helplessness that comes with seeing people you care about become consumed by it.
When I was nine I had to call the ambulance for a family member who had an overdose. I remember standing in the street in my pyjamas dealings with the paramedics.
I know people who had to steal on behalf of others — whether it was to, reluctantly, fund habits. Often it was just so they could put clothes on their back or afford the food they needed to get through the day.
At one point I stayed in a homeless shelter that overlooks Ayr United’s Somerset Park, where I found escapism. Getting lifted over the turnstiles to find my own personal freedom.
I always had the football and I had good role models within those environments. Looking back, I don’t think I ever had a target that didn’t involve sport in some way.
It was a constant for me in a life that didn’t have many other constants.
I think about role models a lot. The right voice or lending the right ear, at the right time, can save a life. So, as a coach, I take the responsibilities that come with that very seriously.
There’s no one way to coach but, for me, I think you need to be a big brother for them and emphasise that they can talk to you about anything.
I see things changing for the better in some respects. In 10 years of coaching, I think it’s only in the last 18 months or so that people have come and talked about things that are impacting them negatively.
I don’t for a second think those problems didn’t exist in years gone by, so maybe — as a society — we are getting the message across better that you have to share these things to overcome them.
So I’ll say to them, ‘tell me what you need’. Maybe it’s not to play or not to train. Maybe they need to play every minute for their escapism.
I’ve learned coping mechanisms of my own. Giving up alcohol was a big thing. I would never have considered myself an alcoholic, but I do think there were occasions when I’d use it to distract from how I was feeling.
Exercise is another one, but the most important thing is to talk. I don’t think it’s an instant solution, but if something has a power over you then you tackle that by sharing the load.
That’s part of the reason I wanted to support FC United and tell my story. I’m choosing who knows these things about me, I’m choosing to confront it and rid myself of any lingering burdens from past experiences.
There are still triggers and sometimes it can feel like a constant battle.
But I’m not alone and you’re not alone.
Directly or indirectly, football has saved my life. It probably has less to do with the sport itself than the community around it.
For that, I feel very fortunate. Now I just want to put my experiences — good and bad — to use, and be the kind of role model for the kids I work with that others were for me.
Mental health and, by extension, suicide, is a major issue in Scotland today. The only way we’re tackling it is together.
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.