Sport Football shocked by Ryall's torment as cruelty of spotlight exposed
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It's one of the most iconic moments from the A-League's oldest and fiercest rivalry - and it drove the man at the centre of it to the brink of suicide. Twice.
In fact, Sebastian Ryall wanted Sydney FC's plane to crash on its way to Melbourne so he wouldn't be subjected to the public ridicule he knew was coming on Australia Day, 2012.
It began before he even set foot onto AAMI Park. "As I’m walking into the hotel someone yells from across the road, ‘Seb you’re a paedophile!’ I look at him and laugh, but I’m f---ing already cut," wrote Ryall in his tell-all book, How To Die Today, which he self-published this month.
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It was the first time Ryall had played against his old team, Melbourne Victory, in a match where he wasn't a starting player. He sat on the bench metres from the crowd, who abused him from the start of the warm-up to the 88th minute of the match, when he was finally brought on to a chorus of boos.
Ryall got his revenge, scoring a goal with his first touch from a free kick to make it 2-2. He taunted Victory fans, celebrating like "an idiot on drugs". On the outside he seemed fine. But the feeling was fleeting, and he soon turned to drugs to numb the pain of his depression instead of seeking help.
On the inside, Ryall was a "ruined" man desperately struggling in the aftermath of the court case that derailed his career and left him incorrectly branded by rival fans as a child sex offender, even after being cleared of all charges.
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As his two former teams prepare to renew hostilities, it's a story worth pondering again. Sydney FC and Melbourne Victory will battle for the ninth annual Beyond Blue Cup on Sunday at Netstrata Jubilee Stadium, at a time when the topic of mental health in professional sport has never been in sharper focus.
Ryall is maintaining the dignified silence he said he would in his book, which has set tongues wagging in A-League dressing rooms. He wrote it not to draw attention to his plight but to help others - and the timing of its release, although probably unintentional, could not have been more perfect.
"I was just like everyone else - I didn't know what he was going through," said ex-teammate Andrew Redmayne, who consumed Ryall's book on his flight to Jordan on Socceroos duty. It was talked about there, too, among the players.
Redmayne spent only a year with Ryall at Sydney FC before he quit the game early last year, but the two are close friends, having come through the Australian Institute of Sport together and rubbed shoulders in youth national teams.
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"It was pretty confronting, reading his book and hearing what he was going through, and I didn't know. What could I have done better? How could I have helped?"
Ryall's circumstances were unique, to a point. The allegations levelled at him were the lightning rod for the fortnightly vitriol he copped from opposition supporters, but Redmayne believes there are parts of his journey that should strike a chord with every player.
"Any footballer that says they cannot relate to Sebba's book in the slightest way is lying," he said. "I cannot even imagine the pain and angst that Sebba went though ... but anxiety and public retribution are things that I think all footballers experience to varying degrees.
"In no way can the finger be pointed in one direction as a single cause, but everyone can point the finger at themselves and ask, 'what can I do to help?'"
That goes for fans, who Redmayne believes need to take more ownership of the things they say in the stands and on social media, and occasionally curb their overly tribalistic tendencies. "You never know what someone's going through, you never know what their story is or what could push them over the line," he said.
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And it goes for clubs, who Redmayne reckons can be guilty of treating players like "commodities" rather than human beings with complex feelings.
"With technology now, a lot of the personability of footballing staff is taken away - [you're] filling out questionnaires to derive a players' ability to train on that day, where I think an open conversation about how a player is can tell you far more," Redmayne said.
"Most of the questionnaires I have filled out are very subjective, and there are no questions that relate to mental wellbeing."
According to FIFPro research, footballers are more likely to suffer from mental health issues than the rest of the population - 38 per cent of active professionals reported symptoms of depression in 2015, its study found.
The good news is that in Australia, more players are seeking help. The number of psychological support network consultations recorded by the PFA over the past three years has more than doubled, from 77 to 162 last season.
"This is a real live issue, health and wellbeing for our members," said Beau Busch, the PFA's head of player relations and, like Ryall, a former A-League defender.
"It is something that really is discussed more openly than it previously was and Seb's book has definitely brought it to the surface again. He did it for others going through the same difficulties that he faced in his life, and he should be really commended for that."
A speaker from Beyond Blue addressed the Sydney FC playing group this week, emphasising there was no shame in seeking help if it was needed and driving home Ryall's core messages.
"It's very brave, what he's done," Sydney coach Steve Corica said. "Our boys are aware of it now and, since the book came out, reading that, we probably didn't even know a lot of that stuff about Sebba. We just want to make sure he's all right."
If you or anyone you know is suffering from depression, call Lifeline on 13 11 14, Beyondblue on 1300 22 4636, or Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800.
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