“We ran out of bricks and compo today, so the rest is getting delivered tomorrow,” Billy Kee says, instinctively slipping into industry jargon. He has not long got through the door at home in Leicestershire after an unusually early finish on the building site where for the past six months he has been working as a labourer and apprentice bricklayer.
Since retiring from professional football aged 29 because of struggles with bulimia, anxiety and depression, Kee has traded clocking off at midday for marathon days and mortar mixes. It has been a rocky road since his last appearance for Accrington Stanley in the penultimate game of last season, a 5-1 home win against Plymouth that guaranteed the club’s League One status in which he opened the scoring from the penalty spot. The final day brought a trip to Portsmouth but he did not play, despite travelling.
“I faked an injury because I didn’t want to play any more. I had a little niggle in my knee but it wasn’t as bad as I made it out to be. I didn’t want to be there and I’d just had enough because it broke me down so much and I couldn’t cope any more.
“I went away for the whole summer, changed my number, switched my phone off and switched everything off because I didn’t really want to be in this world any more. It took a good six months to get back to where I wanted to be.”
He enjoyed some downtime in America with his wife, Leigh, and their boys, Brady and Colby. He sought further support from the Professional Footballers’ Association, engaged with an eating‑disorder clinic and deactivated his social media accounts. Gone are the days when he would fall down a hole of Facebook feeds or fans’ forums and four months ago he signed for seventh‑tier Coalville Town, allowing him to play part-time.
“Yesterday I walked about 15 miles on the building site,” he says, breaking into laughter. “Finishing training at 12.30pm gave me too much thinking time but coming home from work now, you’re absolutely knackered and you’re ready to have a couple of beers, sit with the missus and the kids, have a bit of dinner and go to bed, and it’s lovely. When I was in football, I don’t think I ever went to bed before midnight. I was on edge and always overthinking. Now I go to bed every night at 10 o’clock.”
Kee speaks with sincerity and his bravery has encouraged hundreds of others to seek help. He previously compared the gnawing thoughts to a “rat that runs around your head” and, as I mention that description, he interjects. “That rat is still there – you just have to put it in a box sometimes. I don’t think it is ever going to go away but I have to learn to live with it in the right ways. It’s almost a case of training the rat now.”
Accrington have retired the No 29 shirt in honour of the striker who scored 83 goals in 243 appearances across two spells. In February, before victory against AFC Wimbledon, they presented him with a framed compilation of images – many from the 2017-18 season that culminated in Kee winning the League Two golden boot and Accrington celebrating promotion – that has pride of place on his living-room wall.
He is grateful for the ceaseless support of Accrington’s owner, Andy Holt, and the manager, John Coleman, and appreciative of gestures made by rival fans, notably when Ipswich supporters held a banner that read: “Billy Kee: You Are Not Alone” in October. “If we can talk about our issues, we can help each other. A lot of people don’t know how to come out and be honest because a lot of us end up living a lie.”
Kee’s mental health spiralled four years ago following a defeat at Cambridge, prompting his club to permit him some time off. Accrington trailed 2-1 but won two penalties in second-half stoppage time. Kee, the penalty-taker, declined to take either. Both penalties were saved, Accrington lost and for the next two days Kee struggled to get out of bed. He was not sleeping, began drinking and threatened to quit playing.
“But within a year I won the league and I was on top of the world. And then the next year I was struggling again. I think that’s mental health: you don’t know where you stand with it; you are up and down, up and down. Seeking help, going to therapists, doctors and taking my different tablets to work out what is best for me has helped.”
Kee is enjoying life again. “It’s weird because my family say I’m a different person – that I’m always happy, always chatting and I’ve always got conversation. They just say I’m a different person and back to the ‘old Billy’. If I said to my mum and dad or my wife that I wanted to go back to football tomorrow, they’d put a stop to that because they know how I was.”
Does part of him miss it? “I don’t miss training every day and trying to have a body like a temple. I like to be who I am, have a beer with my mates and try to enjoy life. I do miss football but I don’t miss the professional side of it. I just try to put my energy into my kids and my family and become myself instead of trying to become somebody I’m probably not.
“I like being at home with my family instead of travelling round the country, and I’ve got my wife and kids all in one place and they haven’t got to worry about changing schools again or when the next contract is coming. I’m working hard just trying to get on with living a normal life now rather than living the dream of a footballer.”
Stepping away in January has given the former Burton and Torquay striker the freedom he craved. “When it came to retiring, it was a huge relief because I could start living life how I wanted to, without the pressure from the fans, the managers, the relegations, the stress of scoring two goals one week and then not the next, and then having a drought. It’s a lot of pressure and I couldn’t hack that. If I didn’t opt out of the football world this year, I don’t know if I would have been alive now but I made that decision with my family to come out of it.”
We talk about other players to bravely speak out on depression, including Kevin Ellison, the Morecambe winger who for years suffered in silence. Kee hid his struggles for around six years before opening up three years ago.
“Kev was the biggest, hardest person on the pitch, and he loves winding people up, but you would never understand what he was going through behind closed doors, and I think that is for everybody in football. It’s so scary to speak out it’s unreal, and you don’t dare to because you never know what’s going to happen next. I never mentioned my bulimia until I retired because if I had, would I get another club? Maybe not, so it was always a big worry.”
A study by the PFA last month found 22% of its members felt depressed or had considered self-harm during the coronavirus pandemic and the union’s director of player welfare, Michael Bennett, said there has been an increase in players reaching out.
“I’ve seen more than 10 of my mates released in the last couple of weeks,” Kee says. “These players are scared because they have families and mortgages to pay but it’s good people are reaching out for help because it shows we’re moving in the right direction. If there’s any footballer going through all this, I’d say don’t be scared to opt out and go and do something else, because the PFA will help you.”
Every now and then on the building site, Kee bumps into Burton fans baffled as to why he has swapped scoring goals in front of thousands to shovel sand and mud. “People don’t understand but I did it for myself and my family because otherwise if I kept playing I’d lose my wife and my kids or I’d probably lose myself, and I didn’t want to do that,” he says.
“When your dream comes to an end, you need to go and live another dream and my next dream is to build a house and to live in it as a big, happy family.”
• In the UK and Ireland, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or email firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org.