‘You see a ball of problems, it weighs you down’: Rob Green on mental health, art and that World Cup goal

During his playing career, Rob Green made more than 250 appearances in the Premier League, went to two major tournaments as an England international, and successfully navigated two Championship play-off finals – among many other accolades as one of his country’s best goalkeepers.

But how did Green come to find himself standing in that 24x8ft space at the end of the pitch, one of the smallest yet simultaneously most cavernous in all of sport?

“I couldn’t run as a kid,” he tells The Independent while stroking his chin – his little finger jutting out sharply due to years of injuries. “I was a head on a stick really – long and gangly.

“I went in goal one day when I was six or seven, and I never came out. There was a sense of not being allowed out, more than anything else. My dad, who ran our Sunday league team, said he knew when I was eight that I’d be a professional footballer. Even if we were 15-0 up, I wasn’t allowed out of goal.”

Our discussion coincides with the release of BT Sport’s new goalkeeping documentary The Special 1, which features interviews with a number of renowned keepers. Jordan Pickford, Aaron Ramsdale and Ben Foster are among them, as are Neville Southall, Chloe Morgan and Rachel Brown-Finnis.

Green also plays a key role, debunking myths around getting beaten at one’s near post, diving with the “wrong hand” and more. The 42-year-old is clearly grateful for the chance to contradict some misconceptions, and he offers more insight as we speak over Zoom.

“You feel most at home when you’re part of a cohesive unit, when everyone buys into one goal,” Green says. “Playing for QPR in the 2014 Championship play-off final, Gary O’Neill got sent off and we had half an hour of just defending, but in that you feel so at home because you’re all in it together.

Green celebrates QPR’s Championship play-off triumph over Derby in 2014 (The FA/Getty)
Green celebrates QPR’s Championship play-off triumph over Derby in 2014 (The FA/Getty)

“But when you’re in a team that’s struggling, you’re trying to second-guess other people’s mistakes while also not making your own. Say at West Ham, when we got relegated, that’s when you feel really detached – when you think: ‘I’m not sure what you’re going to do here, and I’m not sure how I’m going to pull you out of this because I’ve got my own issues going on.’”

Green’s spells at West Ham and QPR followed a long period at Norwich, where he started his career. He went on to join Leeds, before retiring after stints at Huddersfield and Chelsea – though he appeared for neither competitively.

While fans of those clubs have many fond memories of Green – even Chelsea supporters, aware of how loved he was in the dressing room – more distant observers will read the goalkeeper’s name and at once think of England’s 2010 World Cup opener.

While a number of The Special 1’s contributors are confronted with individual errors during the film, the goal Green conceded in England’s 1-1 draw against the USA is conspicuous in its absence – so much so that I’m reluctant to mention it.

Eventually, though, I note that he seemingly has the ability to detach his worth as a person and goalkeeper from that incident.

“I didn’t talk about it in the programme because they never asked me. It’s not a... It’s not one that...” He trails off. “Realistically...” And again.

“I think Paul Robinson touched on it with his [error against Croatia], that there’s nothing you’d do any different in that scenario. You know immediately what went wrong and how, so you can analyse it until the cows come home, or...

Green fails to stop Clint Dempsey’s shot at the 2010 World Cup (Getty)
Green fails to stop Clint Dempsey’s shot at the 2010 World Cup (Getty)

“It could have been something that happened when I was 12, or it could have happened at a World Cup. As one mistake, it’s fundamentally so small that you say: ‘It’s just the size of the game that makes it what it is.’ You put it to bed. Yes, it took more than a 10-minute conversation, you go through a process, but you know you’re not going to make that mistake for the next 10 years – and I didn’t.”

Fabio Capello, England’s coach at the time, dropped Green for the rest of the competition in South Africa, where the Three Lions exited in the last 16 with a 4-1 loss to Germany.

“The problem with that tournament was that it had been built up to be something far greater than our actual chance of winning it,” Green says. “We were so far behind Germany. People say: ‘Oh, Frank Lampard had a goal disallowed...’ We got pumped. We got pumped by a better team who didn’t even win the tournament.

“Capello, who’s got the eyes of the world’s media on him, probably thinks: ‘If I don’t do something [after Green’s part in the USA’s goal], I’m there for the chop.’”

In another life, Green might have lined up against Germany. In another life, Robert Enke might have lined up against England. The most poignant section of The Special 1 focusses on mental health, with Chris Kirkland opening up on the role that depression played in his early retirement, Robinson discussing death threats, and Enke’s father Dirk reflecting on his son’s suicide.

In 2009, Enke looked set to be Germany’s No 1 at the 2010 World Cup, but the goalkeeper took his own life in 2009, aged 32.

Green always found escapism from football in the cultural contrasts of art (“surrealism, street art, Keith Haring, Bridget Riley”) and music (“I think the last gig I went to was Caribou at Leeds”; plus I spy a banjo behind his chair), but such distractions are no substitute for tackling mental-health issues head on.

Green was named West Ham’s player of the year in 2008 (Getty)
Green was named West Ham’s player of the year in 2008 (Getty)

“I think using sports psychologists is a massive step forward in football,” Green says. “Mental health is still possibly viewed with a stigma of: ‘That person needs help.’ That’s a stupid thing to say, because everybody needs help all the time.

“On a personal level, I would see this big ball of problems, because that’s what I did with my job. You get overwhelmed by the size of the ball, it weighs you down.

“One time it stood out for me was when was at West Ham. I spoke to a psychologist, he completely unpicked it, and the next day my wife said to me: ‘How do you think you’re going to do?’ I said: ‘We’re going to win and I’m going to be man of the match.’ We beat Tottenham 1-0.

“Going to someone to find out where you are, where you want to go and how you get there... It’s not about how far away that thing is, it’s where the next step is going to take you.”

Importantly, some of the lessons Green learned as a goalkeeper have also been of benefit in his personal life.

“As a goalkeeper, you’re there to fight fires, you’re there solving problems but at a million miles per hour,” he says.

“You make the best decision in life at that moment in time, and you stick to it. You then have the ability to have less regrets in life.

“You’ve just done the best you thought you could do.”

BT Sport will premiere ‘The Special 1’, the latest documentary from BT Sport Films, on BT Sport 1 on Tuesday 8 February at 10.45pm. It is also available to watch via the BT Sport website and app thereafter