Whatever you make of Jadon Sancho as a footballer, wherever you come down on his complicated relationship with his own potential, it was impossible not to despair a little this weekend.
Not at the player, his omission from Manchester United’s squad for the game against Arsenal, or even really at the specifics of his situation, however confounding they may be. No, this was a factor of something broader: football’s unerring myopia when it comes to the mental wellbeing of those who play it.
Taken in isolation, Erik ten Hag’s explanation for leaving Sancho out was not particularly explosive. He referenced the winger’s performances in training, suggesting that he had failed to meet the level expected. You would struggle to call it a character assassination.
Set it against the relevant context, though, and it takes on a different texture. If you were being generous, you might call it unhelpful. Other adjectives are also available.
We know that Sancho has struggled off the field as well as on it over the last year. He missed three months of the 2022-23 season, training alone in the Netherlands. While the circumstances remain slightly opaque, his mental health was cited as one of the reasons for his absence from United’s post-World Cup training camp in December.
Cited by Ten Hag, that is. “He wasn’t fit enough to be there, […] physically and mentally,” the Dutchman said. “Sometimes there are circumstances with fitness and mood.”
It would be interesting to know whether Sancho himself consented to that information being disclosed publicly. Either way, he would have been justified in assuming that there would be a level of empathy going forward — one that might entail more tact on the part of his manager.
None of which is to say that Sancho is a perfect professional. He was fined for lateness on multiple occasions during his time at Borussia Dortmund, and the issue has persisted at Old Trafford. If Ten Hag feels that Sancho does not pull his weight in training, a degree of frustration is understandable.
In opting to air his grievances, though, Ten Hag has invited increased scrutiny — and, let’s be honest, disapproval — from the wider world. This might be a justifiable man-management technique for certain players (“Go on, son, prove me wrong”) but in the case of someone with mental health issues, it looks insensitive.
Sometimes bad behaviour is just bad behaviour. Some players, like some human beings, are lazy and unprofessional. But often there is a root cause, something unsaid or unseen that explains everything. This may or may not be the case with Sancho — we don’t know the exact nature of his difficulties, let alone about their genesis — but the very possibility should guide us. If public criticism risks aggravating things, it should be avoided.
You don’t have to go back very far to find an appropriate cautionary tale. It is only six weeks since Dele Alli revealed the extent of the mental health issues that have cast a long shadow his playing career. Sorry, not his career. His life. His entire existence.
It was a powerful, profoundly moving interview. It engendered universal sympathy and, in that big wave of “wish we had known,” ought to have led to some real soul-searching by those inclined to forget that there is a human being behind every footballer.
And yet here we are again. Have we learnt nothing?
Ten Hag is a busy man. Maybe he missed the Dele thing. But there is a galling irony in a club that made so much of its duty of care towards Mason Greenwood treating Sancho in this way.
If all this seems a little abstract, a little removed from normal life, you will hopefully forgive a brief detour into the personal.
There is vanishingly little overlap between my life and Sancho’s, but I too have had long periods of absence from work over the last 18 months. In the in-between times, I have been distracted, on edge, often present in body but not in spirit. The work I have produced is not anyone’s idea of my best, and knowing this is its own kind of torture.
Two things are worth saying here. The first is that mental health conditions can, to the untrained eye, look a lot like laziness. The second is that the very worst thing that could have happened in my professional life during that period would have been some kind of public rebuke from my boss. And if that seems blindingly obvious, then… well, yes, that’s exactly the point.
Precisely no one follows top-level football for lessons on empathy. But it is remarkable just how often the sport fails to clear the laughably low bar we set for it.
(Photo: Matthew Peters/Manchester United via Getty Images)