Former professional footballer, Billy Kee has hung up his boots for the life of a bricklayer – and it’s a move that’s helped saved his life. Lee Jones talks to the Accrington Stanley star about his battles with mental health, and the solace he has found in the trades.
The adoring fans are singing your name and you reward their support by firing home the winning goal – on a frosty day in January that childhood dream of playing professional football is one that many in the trades might fleetingly resurrect, but for bricklayer, Billy Kee it was actually a reality. The former Accrington Stanley centre forward was at the height of his powers when the pressures of performing provoked a crisis in his mental health. Today, Billy has swapped the admiration of the terraces for a hawk and trowel – and he’s never been happier.
“It came to a crunch point just a few years ago when I had to admit to my family that if I didn’t get out of football I felt like I was going to kill myself,” recalls the 29 year old. “I got incredible support from those closest to me and finding a trade has helped me build a new life.” In a sector which has had its own issues with the mental wellbeing of its workforce, and where it is estimated that two people in the industry commit suicide every day, the life of a brickie has proved to be Billy Kee’s saviour, but his path to redemption follows the same familiar tale of failing to come to terms with his condition at an earlier stage.
Billy embarked upon his professional career at the age of 16 when he signed for his boyhood club, Leicester City. He would go on to experience successful spells at Burton Albion and Torquay, but it was at Accrington Stanley where he would flourish. In his four-year stay at the Lancashire team, the Loughborough-born forward would score 68 goals in 174 appearances, finishing the 2017/18 as League Two’s top scorer with 25 goals. Indeed, Billy was held in such high regard at the ‘Accy’ that the club has accorded him the rare honour of retiring his shirt.
That was the public face of success but behind it was a tortured soul who had concealed the symptoms of mental health issues over the course of many years. “I actually suffered with bulimia from my mid-teens,” he admits. “It was something that I hid away for a long time, but when my parents caught me making myself sick I had to confess – but that wasn’t the end of it by any means.
“The more successful I got the more the stress increased. What fans, and others around the game, thought and said about me became all-consuming, which was exacerbated by being away from home and my family on a regular basis. There isn’t anywhere you can really escape to when you’re playing at a professional level. You’re watching what you eat and drink all the time to keep your weight down, for instance, and, looking back on it, I don’t think I was ever really suited to that style of living. In the end it was something that I just couldn’t cope with. I would say that in the last four or five years of my career I rarely liked playing.”
When Billy first turned his back on football in 2017 it was a natural step to embrace a career in the building industry. “My dad was a landscape gardener and bricklayer and as a kid in the summer and the holidays I’d go out on site with him,” he recalls. “I remembered them as some of my happiest days, so I went back to working with him on site, but after about a month I felt compelled to play football again.” Despite continued support from both Accrington Stanley and the PFA Billy’s anxiety and depression was threatening to break him, and a confession to his dad of suicidal thoughts would see his family rally round and led him to permanently step away from the game.
Since then Billy has started as a labourer and apprentice with Stuart Knight Brickwork, and a year on is now spending more and more time on the trowel. “On site I’m busy all day, and tired at the end of it, when I go home it’s to my family. That’s a lifestyle that’s so far removed from football that it’s helped me immensely. I work with a great group of lads and I do get stick about swapping football for a building site but when I explain it they understand. I’ve also started playing again, with local club Coalville Town. We’re top of the league, there’s no pressure or stress, and I’m finally enjoying my football. There’s no doubt that the therapy sessions I underwent as a player, and sharing the way I felt with my family made the decision a lot easier,” concludes Billy, “and that’s certainly a lesson that others can learn – hiding it away is not a solution.”
Building Mental Health
A male dominated workforce that is reluctant to confront the issue, and the social stigma that persists around conditions like anxiety and depression has driven the problem of mental health in the construction industry into the dark. Every working day, two workers in the sector take their own lives, and it is that statistic alone which should shine a light on the subject. The Lighthouse Club is already beacon for builders in crisis and has devoted considerable resources to building mental health. If you, or you know anyone, who has been affected by any of the issues in the article then visit the link below for support.