George Ndah admits he became severely depressed at Wolves as he opened his heart in a powerful message about mental health.
Now 44, the popular former striker also admitted experiencing financial trouble after his career ended at the age of 32 when he could take no more following years of injury hell.
Ndah’s frustrations at his lengthy spells out of the game were well documented at the time.
But little was known of the mental torture they induced until he featured in a documentary with current Burton Albion forward Marvin Sordell where both talked about their own battle with mental health problems.
There might be 17 years between the pair, but there are parallels which bring plenty of common ground, as they showed in the revealing programme for Premier League World, screened on Sky Sports Premier League, BT Sport 2 and BT Sport 3 recently.
Both players made rapid strides as exciting forwards with Premier League clubs before big-money moves that ultimately turned sour, which is where their problems started.
Prodigiously talented with electric pace, Ndah was a natural and enjoyed a meteoric rise through the ranks at Crystal Palace before joining Wolves via Swindon, only to break his leg in a Black Country derby in only his third game for the club.
Despite scoring some spectacular efforts in a record of 19 goals in 96 games from 1999 to his premature retirement in 2005, Ndah admits he could never fully rely on his body again as he suffered a catalogue of injuries.
“My first club was Crystal Palace and we got to the FA Youth Cup final in my first season as a first-year apprentice and I did very well,” he recalled.
“In my second year I think I got a four or five-year contract and a year later I was playing for the first team in the Premier League.
“As soon as I signed for Wolves everything changed for me. I was only there for a week and we played West Brom in a local derby. Myself and Ade Akinbiyi were doing really well up front.
“I remember it as if it were yesterday. Big Matt Carbon playing for West Brom was a friend of mine. The ball was there and I could tell I was quicker than Matt and I was going to get to the ball first.
“So I got to the ball and touched it past him but for some strange reason, Matt kept going and took my leg and I spun into the air.
“I had a feeling that something was not quite right so they took me to hospital. I had my scans and the nurse said to me ‘You were a waste of money because you have broken your leg!’
“I thought ‘Pardon?’ and she said, ‘Yes, you’ve broken your fibula and your tibia.’
“After that it just seemed to be a catalogue of injuries. I never seemed to be able to get up a head of steam to play games back to back.
“For some reason my body just kept breaking down and it stemmed from the leg break. After that my body was not quite the same again.
“Looking back now, I was depressed, a million per cent, but at that time you didn’t realise that.
“Yes, there were some seriously dark times and I was severely depressed.”
Ndah is shown meeting Burton Albion forward Marvin Sordell in a corporate area at the Brewers’ Pirelli Stadium.
As the pair engage in a very frank chat, it quickly becomes evident that they share experiences beyond football, and Sordell admits he tried to commit suicide after being told to take a complete break from the game.
Still only 28 and currently on loan at League Two side Northampton Town, the former Premier League player, a one-time £3m signing for Bolton who later played for Burnley, was diagnosed with depression after being urged to see a doctor by his then girlfriend and now wife when he became withdrawn.
Sordell asked Ndah if there was ever a moment where things changed for him.
There was; the game that proved to be his last for Wolves, on December 28, 2005 and sadly, signalled the end of his career.
Ndah revealed: “Sheffield Wednesday away. We were playing really well and I got a kick from the side and my knee went in. I went off the pitch into the dressing room and the physio came in to ice my knee.
“The physio said ‘Listen George, when we come back in at half-time, we’ll come back in and have a really good look at your knee’, because the game was still going on.
“The kitman was getting me bits and pieces and then he went out and the door closed.
“I just broke down into tears and I hadn’t cried for years, probably not since my childhood.
“But I knew then. I thought ‘You know what? That’s it, I’ve had enough’. That was that but even from then, the depression spiralled because then I had to come to terms with being out of the game.”
Ndah, who was always a happy-go-lucky character around Molineux and the training ground, admits he put on a facade to hide the way he felt.
“I was an extremely good actor,” he said. “I could have won academy awards – I’m talking about Oscar level I think because I was one of the guys who were the life and soul.
“I liked a laugh and a joke, but when you’re at home by yourself and you’re reflecting on things a lot of the time . . . mental health is very dangerous because what it does is feed you a lot of lies.
“It tells you ‘You are not good enough at this’ and there’s a lot of self loathing.
“We can all put on a facade. I think as a footballer, we have got like an armour on and sometimes it’s tiring to carry that armour.
“When I retired, it was a relief because I was at the end of my career.”
Ndah admits his depression got so severe, he couldn’t wait to be away from the game he grew up loving.
“It got so bad that I was only happy when I was driving out of the training ground car park to go home,” he confessed.
“It got to the point where I was playing so little football because of my injuries that I no longer felt I was a footballer.
“As a footballer, you train all week for the game on a Saturday or the game in midweek.
“I was training just to get fit, and I had a lot of time on my hands, so when I finished training or my rehabilitation, I would go back down to London to see my family.
“But I would go out partying too. I used to life the finer things in life, so I would do a lot of shopping, just to get my mind off the things you’re trying to run away from, because you know things are not right.”
Ndah asked Sordell if speaking about his mental health had been a big weight lifted off his shoulders.
“Yes, massive,” he said. “You keep that bottled up for so many years, so telling close friends and family was huge for me, and to talk about my emotions was empowering for me.
“Since then I have written a lot of poetry and I’ve written a book which I’m hoping to get published.”
In his poems, Sordell has created a persona for his suffering called Denis Prose, an anagram of the word depression.
The former Watford academy graduate describes Prose as “something living inside my mind trying to control your body, like a vehicle driving.”
“It’s just a way to make it visual about what was going on inside my mind,” he said, adding that his creative writing came ‘on a whim’.
“I felt like I’d been controlled and crushed by depression and that being able to share it was such a feeling of freedom.
“It gave me a new perspective and it’s the strongest I have ever felt.”
Ndah feels opening up about depression is vital to the sufferer and those around them in their recovery.
“When you can show you’re vulnerable, that’s when people relate to you,” he said.
As a £1m signing and a recent Premier League player – still considered a big fee in the late 1990s – Ndah got used to the high life when he was at Wolves.
But he revealed he hit financial problems once the cash dried up following his premature retirement at 32.
“I was one of many footballers who invested in certain schemes that promised good returns 10 years later when you’re long retired,” he recalled.
“Then you get a letter through the post saying you can’t call that scheme in and you think, really?
“But you obviously can’t pay it because you’re not on that money any more.
“That’s when everything in my world came crashing down around me and that was when, for me, I was the most vulnerable in my life.”
That was when he found out who his true friends were.
“Through this adversity you know who your mates are,” he added. “Everything is stripped back and you have to re-evaluate yourself, your own life and who you have around you.
“What it did then was made me focus on my faith and made God become my source and my foundation, which it had always been, and because of that, I am well. I know I have got that peace and contentment in my heart.”
At the relatively mature age of 44, Ndah’s struggles have only just come into public view, more than a decade after his retirement.
All of which only increases his respect for Sordell – 17 years his junior – to reveal his own battle with mental health in what are considered the peak years of his career.
“I’ve got big respect for you because you’re still playing,” Ndah tells him. “You’re saying ‘Look guys, this is me’ and you really should be commended for that because there are a lot of players out there who will be strength and courage from yourself.
“Depression has always been there but we just didn’t speak about it back then.
“We (now) live in an environment where people are more open and more understanding and I think the more players that speak about it, the more people have a platform and it’s beneficial, because when you’re in that mental state of mind and that dark place, you just feel so alone. You feel like it’s never-ending.”
Sordell believes he would have found it less difficult to come forward and seek help if he was a youngster now.
“You see high profile people coming forwards now and it’s a really big thing,” he said. “The hardest thing is having that initial conversation. Since then, everything has been so much easier.
“In fact, it would be a lot easier now and I was at school and saying ‘Did you see what Danny Rose or Andy Cole was speaking about?'”
Sordell believes that initial step can be made by talking to anyone – even a stranger – anywhere.
“With mental health, you have to find a way to cope, so just talk, whether it’s having a conversation with someone you don’t know in the library or in a shop,” he said.
“You’d be surprised by how much people can connect through that situation, so just talk.”
Ndah believes the ‘microwave’ society we live in where there is an expectation for things to happen instantly is not conducive for people to talk about their mental health.
“Everyone is an actor,” he added. “There are people going through tough times and mental health problems and they say ‘I am fine’, but you’ve got to look a bit closer.
“I think in society we do not look closely enough (at others’ lives). Everyone is so busy and the world today is so busy – everyone wants everything now, now, now.”
Turning to his own experiences again, Ndah reflects: “I look at it as a refining process that I have done.
“For me it’s a positive move: My marriage is stronger and my relationship with my kids is stronger and my relationship with my friends is stronger.
“But if I had not had those dark times, I would not be where I am today.”
Ndah ended the programme with another strong message to those who are suffering, saying: “Just keep going and just stay in the race.
“Just keep moving and trust me, it will get better.”