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Aaron Lennon’s open battles with mental health were an inspiration

To me, the winger will always represent something bigger than himself.

Newcastle United v Everton - Premier League Photo by Ian MacNicol/Getty Images

Earlier today, Everton and Burnley confirmed the transfer of winger Aaron Lennon to Turf Moor for an undisclosed fee. We’ll miss you, Aaron.

Aaron Lennon has never been a perfect footballer.

He’s generously listed at five-foot-five, he’s an average passer, and he sometimes struggles to find the final ball or correct shot in the attacking third.

But, for each of his weaknesses, there is also an obvious strength. He’s still got lightning speed (especially for a man who turns 31 in April), he’s happy to take players on 1-v-1, and his defensive work rate is among the best you’ll ever find in a winger.

If you were to create the platonic ideal of a Premier League mid-table winger, you’d probably wind up with someone resembling Aaron Lennon — occasionally short on technical ability, but never short on desire, effort, or pace.

Maybe that’s why I was drawn to Lennon from the first time he played for Everton Football Club. He’d probably be the first player to acknowledge his flaws, but he’s also never let them detract from what has been, by all accounts, an impressive Premier League career.

Ultimately it’s those flaws that see him now depart Everton for Burnley — with more stylish, technically-gifted, goal-scoring wingers ahead of him in the side. But I wouldn’t necessarily say that Yannick Bolasie and Theo Walcott are better players than Aaron Lennon; they are simply players with different skills.

Everton Players Join Coaching Session With a Junior Team Photo by Everton FC/Everton FC via Getty Images

And I will confidently say that no Everton player will ever have the personal impact on me that Aaron Lennon has.

Under Roberto Martinez, Lennon put up 8 goals and 3 assists in 3157 minutes over a season and a half — far from gaudy numbers, but more than enough of an offensive contribution that when combined with his defensive work rate, made him a regular first XI player.

When Ronald Koeman took over at the start of the 2016-17 season, that all changed. The English winger played 14 minutes on the opening day of the season, then didn’t appear in Premier League play again until October 30.

Even after Bolasie’s knee injury, his spell in the first team didn’t last long. He played 17 minutes against Middlesborough on February 11, and didn’t play a single match the rest of the season. He only managed to make the bench one time in that spell.

Then, on April 30, 2017, the news broke.

I’ve suffered from depression and anxiety my entire adult life. It’s hard to explain.

There are days, even when things in your life are all going according to plan, when just getting out of bed feels like an enormous chore. So, life gets tough, it can become nearly impossible to function — even the briefest glimpse forward into an unpleasant day, week, or year can have a crippling effect.

Despite all my struggles, I’ve never seriously considered ending my own life. But, there have been days that I’ve looked into oncoming traffic and briefly thought: “How much worse could that be than where I am now?”

So when I found out that Lennon was detained under the Mental Health Act while wandering near Old Eccles Road, my heart sank. In Lennon’s life, I saw so many parallels to my own, and surely to those of so many others who have struggled with mental illness.

First, the initial shock — “How could this happen? What really happened? What’s going on with Aaron?”

Just as anyone who has struggled with mental illness has probably fielded questions like “What do you mean you’re depressed? But you’ve always seemed so happy? How did this happen?”

Then, the less than ideal response from parts of the community — media outlets reporting his state alongside his weekly wage, as though money was supposed to cure all his ills — people wondering, “Surely there’s something wrong with him, then? What does a professional footballer have to be depressed about?”

Just as those with mental illness have probably heard: “Why should you be depressed? You want to go on medication? What makes you so special?”

Last, somewhat to my surprise, an outpouring of support from the community. Both from Everton and the English football community at large, there were overwhelmingly positive words directed to Lennon. His incident served as something of a rallying cry for the sport as a whole to get serious about the way it thinks about mental illness. The long-term effects, if any, of those moments are yet to be seen, but it was a positive step for the sport.

After the first few weeks though, Lennon’s status went silent — and that’s the reality of mental illness, not just for footballers, but for everyone. It’s a lot of working in private to identify your problems, better yourself, find the right medications, and work your way to being the person that you want to be.

As someone who still identifies as being in that “working to get to where you want to be stage,” there was no bigger joy than seeing Aaron Lennon back on the pitch in the preseason ahead of the 2017-18 season.

I don’t think I’ll ever celebrate a pre-season goal more than I did July 17, when Lennon scored against FC Twente in an utterly meaningless match. The result might have meant nothing — but the goal meant the world.

There was a man, who three months prior stood on the edge — an edge I knew more intimately than I’d care to admit — scoring a goal for a professional football team. It didn’t matter that it was a friendly. It didn’t matter than the Premier League season didn’t open for another five weeks.

There was Aaron Lennon, having come from a place of darkness into a place of pure joy and triumph — and if he could do it, why couldn’t I?

Of course, as anyone who has struggled with a mental illness will tell you, things never just become perfect and wonderful. Lennon, despite that strong pre-season, still was not a favored player under Ronald Koeman, and spent the first part of the season largely out of the picture while the Dutchman was in charge.

Once Koeman was sacked and David Unsworth took over, though, Lennon was immediately brought back into the picture. Unsworth tasked the winger with an important job — protect the young, inexperienced right-back, Jonjoe Kenny.

It wasn’t a glamorous job, but dammit, Lennon answered the call. His contributions, defensive and dirty as they were, helped to stabilize things under Unsworth, then Sam Allardyce after his hiring.

In the end, his lack of attacking contribution caused Big Sam to move to acquire Theo Walcott though, a player whose goals and assists Lennon is never going to match. Once the interest in Walcott was confirmed, Lennon’s departure from Everton to a club who would more fittingly utilize him was all but assured.

Maybe it’s fitting that Aaron Lennon’s final scoresheet contribution for Everton didn’t come on a breakaway goal created by his pace, or a crossed-in assist after a bit of 1-v-1 trickery. Nope, Lennon’s final scoresheet contribution came on a headed assist.

Newcastle United v Everton - Premier League Photo by Ian MacNicol/Getty Images

All five-foot-five of Aaron Lennon used his tactical and spatial awareness to find open space in the box against Newcastle United, then rose up and connected on a header with power and accuracy that simply shouldn’t be possible for a man of his stature. He forced a strong save from the Newcastle keeper, but Wayne Rooney was there to force home the rebound.

The goal was the decider a 1-0 Everton victory.

It was one final act for the Englishman, one last instance of turning what should have been a weakness into a strength — and lifting his team to victory as a result. We should all be so lucky to be able to do the same.

Thanks for everything, Aaron.