ex-Premier League player – football lack of understanding

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Age: 66
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16 Mar 2024, 6:48 pm

I’m an autistic ex-Premier League player – football never tried to understand me

In unlaced Yeezy trainers and a black designer coat with garish fur trim, Greg Halford appears a model of the modern footballer.

A tattoo peers out of one sleeve, a Louis Vuitton bracelet the other. Now 39, he’s soft-spoken and bright-eyed, framing his strikingly expressionless baby face with a trucker cap at one end and an unkempt chinstrap at the other.

Throughout the hour we share in the pleather booth of a soulless street-food outlet, you can’t help but notice he has some quirks. The parka stays on, fastened like he’s got something to hide, and he absent-mindedly fiddles with a zip on his left arm while ruminating over every word, confident without seeming wholly comfortable.

His fingers betray the superficial facade, nails compulsively gnawed into nubs. He makes eye contact when he thinks it’s appropriate, but is more comfortable glancing at the shuttered fish and chip bar over my shoulder. A wry smile periodically rises and falls.

Reaching closing time on a 22-year football career, Halford is now elder-statesman-for-hire at seventh-tier YouTube upstarts Hashtag United.

He’s there to provide both experience and ability. Hashtag will likely be the last of 20 clubs from the Premier League to the Isthmian Premier Halford has represented across England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland, including Wolves, Portsmouth, Aberdeen, Reading, Sunderland and Nottingham Forest.

But he has lasted longer than a season at just four of them, in part because he’s always struggled to fit in. Eight years ago, he found out why.

After his now-12-year-old son was diagnosed as autistic, Halford’s mum pointed to similarities between the pair as kids. Greg then sought a diagnosis of his own, aged 31, and the man who had always believed he was different, especially in an ever-more homogenised footballing world, suddenly knew why.

“[Diagnosis] wasn’t going to change me as a person, but it’s about the understanding more than anything else,” he tells i.

“It’s nice having another connection to my son, to be able to talk about feelings and help him try and open up, because it is hard at that age, whether you’re diagnosed or not, doubly tough when you do know you’re autistic. It’s teaching him the pitfalls that I ran into and hoping that he doesn’t make the same mistakes.”

Many autistic people diagnosed later in life wish they’d known earlier, but Halford doesn’t share those regrets.

“I wouldn’t have changed anything, purely because I may not have turned out the way I am now,” he says. “I always thought I was … unique. I didn’t need a diagnosis to tell me that. I felt like I had more empathy towards people, I could read body language a bit better. I could see things coming before they’d happened to a certain point.

Would I have made the same mistakes if I did know? I don’t know, but I’m happy with the person that I turned into. Every day is different but obviously every day I learn more about myself and how people react to stuff. Now I want to start giving back.”

Halford is one of just three ex-Premier League players to have disclosed their autism diagnoses, alongside former Manchester United youth product John O’Kane and Irish winger James McClean.

Given, as of January, 4,776 players have played in the rebranded top flight and current estimates suggest between 15 and 20 per cent of the population are neurodiverse, this statistical dissonance is baffling on the surface but depressingly obvious once you scratch beneath it.

Players are commodities. Until football isn’t run as a business, I can’t see [attitudes to neurodiversity] changing. At the minute, if players don’t fit in, if they’re not performing, then we cast them aside and bring new ones in.”

His solution is an appeal to the rationality and avarice of modern hedge-fund managers and petrostates.

“[Owners] have to understand that even if you see players as commodities, you have to understand your commodities to get the best out of them,” he explains.

“Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, but they’ve invested a lot of money in this commodity, so they should be taking an interest, investing in their personality, understanding them.

“I want to be a part of instigating that change. Football is a brutal business and something has to give. If they’re going through players left and right, then they are losing money. That’s the last thing a business wants to do.

“The quicker we can get the right people into clubs – whether that’s psychologists or a go-between the manager and the players – I could pretty much guarantee they’d save millions.”

While he came through the age groups at Colchester, Essex-born Halford, whose dad is former Saracens rugby player Simon, had the option of trying to make it in rugby, volleyball, basketball or athletics.

He eventually took elements from all of those sports into a footballing career in which

played every outfield position at one time or another, and even trained as a substitute goalkeeper under Neil Warnock. He earned four caps for England Under-21s – three as a striker and one as a defensive midfielder, while most will probably remember him as a right-back or centre-back.

This was largely down to his neurodiversity, his ability to approach situations differently. He told me “I wanted to work out every position” and has previously said he learned to play up front by knowing what centre-backs hated to face. Almost every manager he has worked with had a different view of the sort of player he was.

And Halford has played under enough managers to know what makes a good one. “I work best with coaches who showed me respect, and treated me like a person, not a footballer,” he says. “People like Neil Warnock, Billy Davies, Michael Appleton.

“The so-called bigger names – Roy Keane, Stuart Pearce and Mick McCarthy – they just didn’t understand who I was and weren’t prepared to give me the time to understand and to work with me. They have an ego complex. I don’t blame them – they have a duty to go out and win games, but it’s frustrating.”

Keane took a particular dislike to Halford after he joined Sunderland in 2007, for £3m. In his second book, the Irishman wrote: “I shouldn’t have signed him.

“The older you get you realise that the lads who bring baggage bring baggage everywhere. So you can’t be bothered with them… He came into my office at Sunderland and I didn’t like the way he sat down… I didn’t like him after that.”

Keane provides a fascinating case study of elite football’s deep-rooted issues with neurodiversity – or difference of any kind. He was not aware of his player’s diagnosis, in fact Halford has never told anyone in football, but really, that’s irrelevant. A high-profile manager disregarded a young player because he behaved and thought slightly differently to his peers and the norm.

Halford’s dream is of a person-first footballing culture where all players are treated with the requisite respect and care they deserve, as both humans and footballers. This is a distinction he repeatedly makes about himself throughout our conversation, viewing Greg the footballer and Greg the man as almost two separate entities, because that’s how he has been treated over the past 22 years.

One of the key challenges of Halford’s peripatetic career has been overcoming the autistic aversion to change, something he struggled with early on but now views as hugely beneficial.

“Obviously in my early days, struggling to interact with people, I was sold and moved around,” he tells me. “That was a blessing for me as a person, but not me as a footballer.

“I needed stability to be able to progress as a player, so I feel like I was never able to fulfil my true potential as a footballer because I was always having to deal with moving around, trying to fit into new changing rooms.

“But every time I moved, I learned more about myself and how to behave, interact with people. It gave me the ability to grow as a person, to understand what I needed to do to be able to fit in.”

He also discusses the impact of mirroring and masking, autistic methods for trying to fit in by copying neurotypical behaviours. Aside from creating a complex relationship with your own identity, the process of trying to be someone you’re not is utterly exhausting.

“When I was at Wolves, they hired a sports psychologist,” Halford says. “I wasn’t diagnosed at this time, but he characterised me as a chameleon, that I could adapt to any situation I was put in.

“That got me thinking – it’s a good trait to have, but then does anyone really know me? Do I want to be a chameleon, where I can fit in anywhere, or do I want to be true to myself?

“Everywhere I went from thereafter, I was myself. I took the lessons I learned from moving around early, and I felt like I was more accepted at the clubs I went to afterwards.”

But an issue that has repeatedly come up throughout Halford’s career is the accusation that he’s arrogant. From Keane at Sunderland to Leroy Lita at Reading, Halford’s autism has often been mistaken for egotism.

“It all started when I was [a youth player] at Colchester. The senior players said that I was big time, but that was purely based on me looking different and playing different. I had a lot of attention around me in terms of moving clubs at that stage. I wore bright boots.

“When you’re on the spectrum at an early age, you don’t know how to voice it, so you act out, which is why a lot of autistic children get the label of ‘naughty kid’. When I grew up, I voiced my opinions, because I had the standards, and I felt that things would have been better if we did other things in a certain way.”

No part of elite football is well set up for an autistic player, but as Halford points out, wider dressing-room culture can be particularly alienating.

“Whenever you go into a new club, you’re put in front of everyone, you have to do the initiation song. It has some similarities to going to prison – you strip off naked and you’re searched.

“Since I turned pro, [dressing-room culture] has changed a lot, but I don’t think it’s changed for the good. It’s masculine and toxic and objectifying. Kids have too much money too early. Football doesn’t set them up for their lives.”

But as he explains, not all dressing rooms are like this. He talks about his 18-month stint with Warnock’s Cardiff as if he found the Garden of Eden in south Wales, providing an example for a more accepting footballing future.

Retirement is a taboo subject for almost any athlete, but can be especially difficult for neurodiverse people, who thrive under structure and routine, alongside the benefits of regular exercise. Despite only playing at a semi-professional level now, Halford is no different.

“I’m scared to death,” he says the moment the topic is raised. “Being autistic, having a schedule is essential. It’s having the schedule and being a footballer. Losing both is the scariest, because you can deal with one, but losing two, that’s the hardest thing.

To cushion his exit from football, Halford has set up two clothing companies. He proudly tells me he currently sells the second-heaviest hoodies on the market, inspired by the weighted blankets which bring so much comfort to his son and the wider sensory needs of autistic people.

And now he wants to help. Halford has no doubt there are more autistic footballers out there – “it would be a big number as well” – and he’s keen to provide an example of what’s possible for future generations based on his experiences.

Professionally Identified and joined WP August 26, 2013
DSM 5: Autism Spectrum Disorder, DSM IV: Aspergers Moderate Severity

“My autism is not a superpower. It also isn’t some kind of god-forsaken, endless fountain of suffering inflicted on my family. It’s just part of who I am as a person”. - Sara Luterman