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Martin Gould is a gloriously straight cue artist, but arguably a more impressive straight talker these days. Which he has had to be to quell the turbines of his inner turmoil.
Gould’s act of bravery beyond the old green baize in realising he required help for his mental health has been career-saving, and potentially life-affirming, in his battle to beat the black dog of depression amid a striking penchant for potting black balls.
He has cut a rejuvenated figure in Sheffield, producing arguably the performance of the first round at the World Championship with a 10-3 win over Stephen Maguire – the former UK champion and recent Tour Championship winner – that included four centuries and five breaks over 50 in a resounding triumph that left his opponent flabbergasted by Gould's lowly ranking of 60.
It followed victories over Amine Amiri, Chris Wakelin and 2006 world champion Graeme Dott in the qualifiers, but it is a minor miracle that Gould has made it back to the Crucible Theatre after teetering on the edge of quitting the sport for good.
There was a point in the not too distant past when Gould would prefer to be left alone with his thoughts rather than discussing feeling “ashamed and pathetic” as his self-loathing burned violently inside, proving to have a debilitating effect on the rest of his system.
The grounded Londoner known as the ‘Pinner Potter’ can pinpoint the moment he decided to admit that he was having serious problems as a golden snooker career – that saw him lift the German Masters in 2016, reach world number 11 in 2012 and compile over 200 centuries – threatened to completely disintegrate in the morass of a caustic mental compass.
Gould vividly remembers the moment he opened up for the first time to a member of the World Snooker Tour team about his problems during the Shoot Out at Watford Colosseum in February after losing early on left him confronting a colossal problem.
“I spoke to a few people at the Shoot Out. They could have taken it a different way because I had been drinking all afternoon,” said Gould.
Image credit: Getty Images
“I had lost my match at the Shoot Out, but stayed at the venue with a couple of friends to watch. It was one of the days where I wondered if I should go home or have a beer because I knew I didn’t have any events coming up.
“I decided to have a few beers. One turned into 10 or 12 and then I saw Mark Williams, who works on the security team at World Snooker. I pulled him to one side. I said to him: ‘Listen, I’ve got a real problem and I don’t know what to do about it. You are the first person I’ve managed to speak to about it’.
He told me World Snooker have some system in place to help, but I said I have no idea what to do. He just looked at me in complete and utter shock because whenever he sees me I’m always chirpy.
“I told him: ‘That’s just a complete front’. If there was an award for it, I’d be able to pick up an Oscar for some of the acts I used to pull off making out I was fine. Mark said he was concerned and contacted a few people. I went to see my own doctors. It turned out, I was getting restless, wasn’t sleeping. For six or nine months, I hadn’t had a proper night’s sleep.
“I felt mentally and physically drained. My legs and body constantly ached. It turned out I had a Vitamin D deficiency which can have an effect in bring you downwards. I was sent for blood tests. I didn’t speak to too many people. I wanted to stick to one or two people. My dad (Michael) used to buy what I told him when he asked. I’d say there was nothing wrong. I knew there was, but didn’t want to say anything. I found it really difficult to explain anything. Some people don’t quite get it. They think you can click your fingers, wake up the next day and everything is rosy.“
Gould believes he started to encounter serious problems when matters of the heart took a turn for the worse a couple of years ago in his personal life.
“I kind of know where my problems started. About two years ago, I had some personal stuff going on away from snooker. It had a huge effect on me when it came to an end,” said the former English amateur champion.
“I had a really nasty break-up and it hit me for six. It really did have a huge effect on me and things started to spiral after that time. It is one of those horrible moments in life. I understand it is hard for males to open up. I found it very difficult. I felt ashamed and at times I felt pathetic. That’s how bad I felt. I do feel bad for my family because they probably wonder how could he not trust us? It wasn’t trust, just that I couldn’t explain what was going on in my head. I felt like I couldn’t speak to anybody.”
Gould admits the anguish of losing his mum Shirley to cancer in 2004 a year after he turned professional had helped in storing up problems for himself in later life. He was only 22 when he suffered the pain of her death after caring for her.
“I lost my mum 16 years ago,” said Gould. “That could have had something to do with it because I never got the chance to grieve properly after helping to nurse her.
“It hit me hard when I lost my mum. We tried to make it as a peaceful and enjoyable for her in the last few months she had. That was a horrible time.
I went off the rails a little bit, but I’m only human and you are going to find some sort of solution at the end of a bottle.
“It wasn’t an easy time. Luckily I had my sister (Sue) around. We looked after each other. My dad moved away not long after that. I didn’t really have anyone I could talk to nearby.”
The loneliness of the long-distance runner is nothing compared to the isolation of the long-distance snooker player.
Gould dropped to 60 in the world prior to the World Championship and admitted before lockdown he was considering disappearing into the ether rather than resurrecting his career.
For a player who beat Belgium's leading player Luca Brecel 9-5 before a crowd of 2500 at the Tempodrom in Berlin to lift the celebrated German Masters title four years ago, it had been an inexplicable decline.
“The Welsh Open in Cardiff in February was a prime example,” explains Gould, who faces world number eight Kyren Wilson over the best of 25 frames for a place in the quarter-finals. “I was due to play Stuart Bingham. I travelled in the morning, got into my hotel, changed and I had already looked to see what the last train home was that evening so I could go home.
Snooker Win Gould
Image credit: Eurosport
“I didn’t want to be there. I just turned up and thought I’d get the match out of the way. I had no expectation of winning, and I thought to myself: ‘I can’t keep doing this’.
“I would have been more than happy to drop off the tour, give up playing on the main tour and concentrate on playing some seniors stuff later on after giving myself a year or two to get back to normal.
“While I was feeling down, I started to get some issues with my back and neck that started to restrict me. Quite a few bits and pieces started to really get on top of me. The more it got on top of me, the worse it started to feel. It got to a point where sometimes you wanted to say something, but just bottled it. You start to feel a bit ashamed.
“My ranking suffered. When you start turning up at tournaments and you are looking at how quickly you can get home again, you are on a losing battle.
“Snooker is one of the sports that can be very lonely. You tend to do a lot of travelling on your own," continued Gould, who has rejected the chance of anti-depressants or any medication to help him cope.
“Even when you are flying to other countries, you tend to do your own thing. More often than not, you are practising on your own. I find it very difficult to mix with people anyway.
It can be a very lonely game and when your head is not in it properly, it can get to you even more.
“There have been occasions when I’ve gone to China and paid stupid money to get myself back. The only difference was getting back an hour earlier to the UK than my original flight just to make sure I got home sooner rather than later.
“Some people like to have a drink and be themselves, but I’m not really a drinker. I like my own space, but the problem with liking your own space is you get to the point where you like it too much.”
'I had some demons to beat' - Martin Gould reveals struggles after reaching World Championship
Despite the grim seriousness of the global Covid-19 health pandemic, Gould feels the UK lockdown in late March played a huge role in saving his career.
“If lockdown hadn’t happened, I would probably have dropped off the tour and probably never been seen again,” said Gould.
“I really feel the pain of anyone who has lost their lives or lost loved ones during this period in time, but I used the time out to get a second chance to get myself back into the groove of wanting to find the love and the joy of playing snooker again at a high level.
"The lockdown helped me to refocus and get my head in its rightful position of where it should be. I was fortunate enough to be allowed into my club to allow me to practise. I had someone with me picking balls out every day so it meant I wasn’t on my own all the time.
“Everything I did in lockdown just proved that hard work can pay off. Gould realised he was facing problems when he could not countenance spending time in his own company inside his own house before quickly turning full circle into a hermit.
“I had spells at the beginning where I found it difficult to be at home, but I didn’t want to be around anybody,” he said. "I just wanted to go out. I used to get up, jump in the shower, get changed and then I’d be out walking with my headphones on. I’d be in my own little planet and I’d just got for a long walk. When I got home, it was time to get something to eat and then go to bed.
“That way was easier for me than sitting indoors doing nothing or playing on the PlayStation. I’d get to a point where if there was something really good on TV, I couldn’t sit still. I had to be on the move walking around or asleep. Then after a while, I could feel myself getting back into a position where I could watch a couple of programmes and I felt bit more at ease sitting indoors.
Martin Gould in action at the 2016 German Masters (Pic: World Snooker)
Image credit: Eurosport
“Then I got to the position where I’m indoors a lot and didn’t want to go out. I got myself into a position where I’d get up in the morning, have some breakfast and a cup of tea before going to sit on the sofa. I’d be on the sofa until seven or eight o’clock at night then I’d go to bed and watch TV in bed. It became like a constant routine.
“The only time I’d go out would be to get the essentials such as bread and milk, but other than that I never rung anybody or invited everybody over to my house. I’ve always been somebody who doesn’t like people intruding on where I live. I’m very funny about it. I have my dad and family, but it is very rare that I let anybody in my house. It is just the way I am. I can get into a mode where I don’t do anything.
“That is how it went for a while. I’d go to the club for a practice, but after half an hour I’d want to go home and didn’t want to be around people. I just wanted to be in my own comfort zone with my own creature comforts.”
Gould thanks his dad Michael, his sister Sue and few close friends for helping to go public with his problems and feels like a heavy burden has been lifted from his shoulders.
“I’ve got a good friend in Scotland who suffers badly and is trying his hardest to do the right things. I was fortunate enough because I knew what was going on with him and he trusted me enough to tell me what was going on,” said Gould.
“I remember having a five or six-hour conversation on the phone with him and we poured out everything between us trying to help each other. We still have a lot of banter, but I respect him as a brother more than a friend. He has been a great help.
“My dad has been good, but has never experienced anything like it so it is difficult for him to understand. Which I understand because I don’t even get it myself. I try to explain as much as I can. His girlfriend understands it a bit more. He’s been really good and couple of other friends I’ve got could relate to it.”
According to Samaritans, men are three times as likely to commit suicide in the UK than women.
Gould believes men could learn a lot from women by speaking more openly and honestly about their problems rather than bottling them up.
“You understand why a lot of men do not speak about it. For us men, we find it harder to open up about any problem than women do,” comments Gould.
“Women find it easier to say what they want to say, but men are always fine and struggle to find five or six avenues to say what they feel. Then someone will tell you to man up and get on with your life or wake up and do something different. Sometimes it is not that simple.
“You can’t click your fingers and say that’s me sorted. You need to speak to the right people, have some good friends who you can involve in the conversation where you don’t feel they are going to take the mickey out of you.
“I definitely feel 100 times better which is a good thing. I want to enjoy playing snooker, not feeling like I have to do it, but that I want to do it.”
Depression as an illness is major cause of disability across the world, contributing to suicide and heart disease.
Gould is urging anybody struggling with mental heath problems to seek out help rather attempting to cope in isolation.
“Hopefully me speaking about it, can encourage others to speak about it,” said Gould. “More than anything, it is finding people you can trust.
“If you don’t feel you can get to see a doctor, speak to someone you can trust and try not to feel ashamed about wanting to speak to them. Someone you can trust, a family member or a good friend, bite the bullet and go for it.
“Explain any problem that you feel is dragging you down. I wouldn’t tell it to anybody what I was going through because they would tell someone else and messages get misinterpreted.
“I want to know that when I have a conversation and it is finished, they are not going to go and start blabbing and tell someone else. For me, not having a huge circle of friends didn’t help. Some people will find it difficult and may not understand.
“My dad must have started to pick up some vibes looking at me. He asked me and I told him. I hated myself for it because I knew I had upset him. I knew he felt that I’m his only son and he can’t talk to him when he has a problem. It’s just the way I felt at the time. I felt like I could do it on my own, but I bottled it and it spiralled and it took longer and longer for me to admit I had a problem.”
Gould will be fully focused on his match against Wilson in the second round having twice before reached this stage of the World Championship in 2010 and 2011 buoyed by a healthy frame of mind that has given him a new lease of life.
Opportunity knocks for Gould, but he is happier to have restored a sense of normality to his life. The potting prognosis is a sense of personal contentment is far more important to achieve than winning a snooker match.
“I don’t think I would have entered the world qualifiers a few months ago,” said Gould, who used his 13-12 defeat to Neil Robertson after leading 11-5 in the last 16 a decade ago as a "positive learning experience".
“I had reservations about entering because I wouldn’t have given it 100 percent.
“That bridge changed when the pandemic started. It gave me the chance to get fit, healthy and get my mind clear.
“My shoulders feel a little bit lighter, but this gives me the opportunity to play some snooker. I’ve taken the opportunity so far.
“If I do feel a blip, I can speak to my dad or speak to someone at World Snooker who can put me onto someone who can help.
“I don’t ever want to be back in that place ever again. At least I know what can trigger it and what I can do to stop it getting to the point where it gets out of control again.
“Touch wood, there have been no blips. Everything is just running nice and smooth. Long may that continue.”
In the UK and Irish Republic contact Samaritans on 116 123 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.