In an in-depth interview that first appeared in the Everton Matchday Programme for Saturday's clash with Aston Villa, Aaron Lennon discussed his mental health journey and why his struggles at Everton has never impacted his fondness for the Club. The former winger also opened up on adjusting to life under Sean Dyche at Burnley, and why he believes the new boss is perfect for the Blues.
After overcoming a difficult period in his own life, Aaron Lennon has now become a custodian and key figure in helping to raise mental health awareness across football.
His willingness to honestly discuss his own struggles, which came to the fore during his three-year spell at Everton, has been a source of comfort for many facing similar difficulties.
And the former winger is determined to continue using his own experience as a tool to help those struggling find the strength to reach out and get the support they need. Especially in football where, up until recently, the importance of mental health awareness had too often been overlooked and undervalued.
Speaking to the Official Matchday Programme, Lennon explains: “The past couple of years, you see more players speaking out openly about the issues they have had. Some players probably still don’t want to do it while they are playing.
“I fully understand that. But there’s been progress in the game. I don’t think it’s enough, but there’s progress, for sure.”
By his own admission, the deterioration in Lennon’s mental health was a gradual one impacted by many different factors. However, he reached his lowest ebb in April 2017 during his time with the Blues when he was detained under the Mental Health Act after concerns for his welfare were raised.
“The Club did as much as they could,” tells Lennon. "But I kept a lot of it in for a long period of time, until it was too late. I was in a bad place.”
Reflecting on the period, the former England international admits it was an extremely tough time, but one that proved important in helping him develop into the person he is today.
“Once Everton found out, they supported me the whole way,” Lennon reveals.
“I got the help and came out the other side. I can honestly say now I don’t look back on that period as a bad time. It needed to happen; I was in a bad place. I needed to work on myself.
“I had to go through that to get where I am now. It’s made me the person I am. I am in a really good place.
“Everyone will go through bad spells in their lives. Whether due to their job, family or just them as people. It can come out of nowhere.
“Now, though, I would have probably picked up on the signs because of what I’ve learnt from that period.
“It’s about learning what works for you and developing the tools to help. What is good for you and what is not. Sometimes you need to go through these things to come out better.”
Lennon initially joined the Toffees on loan from Tottenham Hotspur in February 2015, having spent 10 years in north London following a switch there from Leeds United, the club he made his debut for aged 16 years and 129 days.
He quickly became an integral member of Roberto Martinez’s Blues side and featured in 14 of Everton’s 15 remaining Premier League matches, missing only the concluding fixture of the campaign against his parent club Spurs.
After a brief spell back at White Hart Lane, Lennon re-joined Everton permanently on a three-year deal in the summer of 2015 and went on to make 77 senior appearances across his three years at Goodison Park.
Following time away to work on his mental wellbeing in 2017, Lennon return to Everton’s First-Team fold later in the year before departing for a new challenge in January 2018.
It was Burnley, managed by current Everton boss Sean Dyche, who swooped in to secure his services.
At that time, the former attacker admits he was still on the road back to full recovery and hails the role Dyche played in providing him with the support he needed to continue that journey.
“I really enjoyed it at Burnley, I settled in quickly,” Lennon explains. “Within weeks I was comfortable there. That was down to the manager, staff and a great group of lads.
“It is one of his [Dyche’s] strongest aspects. For me, he is
really underrated as a manager. His man-management skills are first-class.
“From the moment I got there, his door was always open. He would call me into the office, we’d have a chat. Not just about football, he’d ask how I was. Not many managers do that.
“He was great for me, and I cannot speak highly enough about him.”
Not too dissimilar to the situation Everton’s current Men’s Senior squad find themselves in following Dyche’s appointment last month, Lennon arrived at Turf Moor midway through the campaign and had to adapt quickly to a new way of working.
The now 35-year-old admits it was a disciplined environment he really enjoyed, along with the strong team spirit around the squad.
“As soon as I got there, I noticed a togetherness throughout the team,” he admits. “Not just the players but in the training ground and across the whole club. The manager built that pretty much himself.
“You felt it as soon as you walked into the building. Everyone is on the same page.
“I think Sean Dyche is the perfect man for Everton. Because of the levels he expects and what he demands. Not just on the training pitch, not just on a matchday... But every day.”
Pondering over Everton’s current predicament, he adds: “I believe Everton still have so much quality in their side to get out of the situation they are in.
“Things haven’t been helped by the high turnover in players and managers. When I went in, it felt like a very settled football club.
“You’re always going to struggle when that is not the case, but with the gaffer (Dyche) going in, he’s great at bringing everyone together.
“Not just the players, everyone. Staff, fans... Everyone. He wants it all as one big unit and I think that will benefit Everton. He’s a great match.”
Lennon takes this opportunity to point out he still holds strong affinity for Everton and explains his own personal struggles while at the Club had no bearing on how he reflects on his time at Goodison Park.
“I look out for Everton every week,” he says. “A lot of people probably think I reflect on my time with Everton negatively and harbour bad feelings. But I really don’t.
“Especially when I first arrived. That first squad under Roberto Martinez, the way we were playing, everything like that. It was great.”
He adds: “As soon as I got there, I knew it was where I wanted to be. I remember going back to London after the loan finished and thinking, ‘I can’t wait to get back up there’.
“I loved playing at Goodison, the feeling there was great. The fans were fantastic with me. It’s a special place.”
Lennon laughs when asked whether some of those external preconceptions could have originated from his first photoshoot as an Everton player shortly after his arrival.
The released reveal images went viral at the time due to the underwhelming look on the former winger’s face.
“That was more to do with being up to 3am!” he laughs. “I was pretty tired from all the travelling and paperwork. We took other pictures, ones where I was smiling! But then I remember seeing the ones that got released and thinking, ‘Oh, no’.
“The irony was, I really wanted to come to Everton. I had a few opportunities [to move out on loan], that one came late in the window and that was the move I wanted. I was buzzing.
“Whenever I get any pictures taken now, it’s always brought up. It’s a good laugh.”
Before rounding off the conversation, Lennon was keen to pay tribute to his former Everton teammate Christian Atsu who was killed in the recent earthquake disaster in Turkey.
Atsu spent the 2014/15 season on loan at Everton, and Lennon explained he was a popular guy and lovely person to be around.
“It was so sad to see,” he admits. “Obviously, we all initially thought he had been found. That was a relief. I thought, ‘Wow, great news’. But then we got the sad truth last week.
“He was such a lovely man. I remember first meeting him, he was always smiling, always happy. So welcoming, every day you saw him. He’d light up a room.
“He never had a bad bone in his body. Honestly, such a genuinely nice fella. It’s devastating news for his family.
“You can see by the clubs he played for how good of a player he was. You don’t get signed by the likes of Chelsea and Everton if you aren’t a top player. We got to see that day in and day out in training.
“Sometimes you need a break or a run of games, he never really got that at Everton while I was there. But he had all the qualities as a footballer, but he was an even better person. Such a lovely man.”
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