It is five years since Dean Windass reached the lowest point of all, yet even now his complicated mind can catch him out, be flooded with negative thoughts when he least expects it and leave him in a very dark place — thinking, as he puts it, ‘where did that come from?’
The man whose picture is on his mantelpiece is the source of such regret that when we venture into a discussion of him, Windass is suddenly in tears.
It is his father John, the man who put him back on his feet after an early rejection by football and who was his greatest supporter. The two of them argued — it was about something and nothing, as family fall-outs often are — and, to Windass’s regret, they had not repaired things before his father, a singer around the clubs of Hull, died seven years ago.
Dean Windass recounted his battle with depression with Sportsmail’s Ian Herbert
‘We’d not spoken for five months,’ says Windass. ‘I was stubborn. He was stubborn. He died at home, a heart attack, a blocked artery.
‘He’d been due to perform at the Springhead Club in Hull that night and maybe if I’d popped in that afternoon things would have been different. Maybe he’d be with us now. I didn’t get the chance to say what I wanted to say.’
He has a tattoo of his father on his forearm.
In his footballing pomp Windass was a folk hero for Hull City, getting them promoted to the Premier League with a legendary goal at Wembley in 2008 – but it is when the floodlights fade that the sorrows magnify and the demons emerge.
Sport is full of the stories of those, from cricket’s David Bairstow to football’s Dave Clement, who have struggled to come to terms with the vast emptiness which suddenly confronts them.
It was certainly that way with Windass. He twice tried to take his own life when his career was over and his decision to let the world know about his depression was the source of one of the earliest public discussions of mental health in sport.
The 49-year-old regrets not fixing his relationship with his father John (left) before his death
There were more jolts to come. He was one of a number of former players to be stung by a film investment scheme which fell foul of the authorities, landing him with such a colossal tax bill that he was forced to declare himself bankrupt.
The investment seemed legitimate because he was put on to it by someone connected to a manager then at the top of the game, whose identity he does not want disclosed.
‘The instructions were to invest the money in three funds which went into the film industry,’ he says. ‘In three years you would receive £150,000. Then I started receiving these brown envelopes through the door from the Inland Revenue; £600 here, £400 there.’
When a team-mate put him on to an accountant he was using, he found he owed £164,000, a figure he is now paying back at a rate of £700 a month.
There have been consequences. Windass, who belonged to the Premier League era and scored more than 200 goals at nine clubs, is living in a small rented house near a main road on the outskirts of Hull. It is clear that being told his full financial liability was frightening.
Windass scores the winning goal with a fine volley in 2008 Championship play-off final
The Englishman celebrates after helping Hull City gain promotion to the Premier League
He says there’s still a knot in his stomach when an HMRC envelope drops on the mat. But the psychological effect of a football career being over was something quite different.
‘Nothing comes anywhere near that,’ the 49-year-old relates. ‘I can’t begin to tell you what that feels like. One day you’re the life and soul, the joker in the dressing room. The next minute the phone doesn’t ring.
‘It’s a Thursday afternoon, middle of winter, and there are hours stretching ahead of you. You’re wondering how the hell you’re going to fill them.’
Before football took over his life, it felt like he could deal with anything, even the sting of rejection when released from Hull City by manager Brian Horton because he lacked physicality, at the age of 18.
He remembers returning devastated to the family house on Hull’s Hessle Road but life rolled on because the days were full.
Windass wipes away a tear as he talks about his struggles after his retirement from the game
A copy of the £60,000 cheque Hull City paid to North Ferriby United for Windass’ services
Within a week he was beginning a year’s work at the Carbutt Co rice factory on the city’s Wiltshire Road, ‘putting rice in big machines and then the girls were packing them downstairs’. His father had helped get him that job.
‘His friend, John Lawler, who he’d played football with, had some influence there. Dad told John, “He needs a job”. So off I went.’
Then a friend of his from the pub needed a builders’ labourer and he accepted that.
‘I was on building sites for 18 months as a hod carrier. You go to work, pay your mam and dad, go to the pub with your mates, go back to work on Monday. Happy days in so many ways.’
His father — a Sunday league goalkeeper who carried barrels for Tetley’s for 25 years before his arms gave out and he made a life out of singing — told him to prove Horton wrong.
So, while working, Windass played in the non-League for North Ferriby United on the banks of the Humber. He built up some physique, pounding the roads of Hull with a couple of rugby league players who lived across the road.
He was re-signed for Hull by Terry Dolan, scored 57 goals in 176 games and set off for Aberdeen, the next stop in a nomadic career which would see him play, and score heavily, for eight clubs.
He started late and finished late, playing on and on and scoring his last Premier League goal at the age of 39, for Hull.
The Hull City legend admits he was left with a vast feeling of emptiness without football
Then came the vast emptiness. He was divorced, washed up and drinking heavily within a year of retiring.
The chasm led him to the attempts on his own life and to the moment which changed everything: Hull captain Ian Ashbee arriving at his front door one day, finding Windass in tears and setting in train the process which took him to the Sporting Chance clinic.
He discovered on emerging from the charity’s care, 26 days later, that his job as an analyst for Sky Sports had gone.
‘It surprised me and it hurt me,’ he says. ‘I thought I was going back to work but Sky didn’t want to know.’
Hull City provided salvation. Ehab Allam, son of the club’s owner Assem Allam, asked Windass to become a club ambassador, working on match days and going into schools.
‘That’s meant more than the world to me,’ Windass says. ‘Hull City’s first ambassador — and me just a scrawny kid from the Hessle Road.’
He knows enough about the contours of his mind to realise that he still has to keep his days full. A need for order is self-evident in his immaculate house. ‘You can see from my house I’ve got OCD,’ he says, and he is not joking.
He trains in the gym every day, with a schedule designed to mirror the routines of his footballing life which he left behind nine years ago.
‘The players train at 10.30 so I go to the gym at 10.30,’ he says. ‘The more you exercise, the clearer your mind is. When you’re feeling lethargic and a bit down some days, go to the gym and it makes you feel better.’
He still speaks to groups of people about mental health. ‘I arrived one night at the Kellogg’s factory in Manchester,’ he says. ‘I didn’t realise at first exactly why I was there. But then I started hearing about one of their colleagues, whose nickname was “Right Laugh”. He was the life and soul. He always seemed to have a joke or a wisecrack. But inside his head he was struggling badly and yet he never told anybody. He hanged himself. The whole factory seemed affected. That’s why I was there.
‘The number of people I’ve had tell me these past five years that they were scared of telling someone how low they felt because they thought they’d be laughed at. Don’t keep it inside. If you’re struggling and you’re scared to tell your mate, tell your mate’s wife. Is it OK to say something like that these days? Well, I’m saying it.’
The former striker has put a lot of work into his mental health and has ambitions to manage
Windass, whose eldest son Josh is at Wigan Athletic, has ambitions to manage. His experience in that field was brief — the seven months between Colin Todd taking him on as assistant manager at Darlington in 2009 and getting sacked as the club lurched towards financial ruin.
But it is what he always planned for his days beyond playing. He secured his UEFA B licence as a player at Middlesbrough 15 years ago. A UEFA A licence followed after a course at Aberystwyth University. He wonders aloud whether his reputation as a firebrand might have affected his chance to get a job.
‘I’ve applied for a few League Two jobs,’ he says. ‘I know I have to start at the bottom. I have a lot to give. I have the skills.’
And with that he is off, dropping his kit into a bag and heading out to the gym — collected, organised, still taking things one day at a time.