Billy Kee’s working day starts at 7am when he arrives at a building site near Leicester for another long shift as a bricklayer.
Having retired from professional football in January at the age of 29 because of struggles with depression, anxiety and bulimia, the former Accrington Stanley striker is building a new career for himself – and enjoying the company of his colleagues.
“The first couple of weeks they were like ‘so you used to drive a BMW X5, earn such and such amount of money, and you’ve retired early? You’re definitely not right in the head’,” laughs Kee.
“All the lads on the building site, their dream growing up was to be professional footballers. I gave up that dream for bricklaying.”
Now playing part-time football at seventh-tier Coalville Town, who are in the first qualifying round of the FA Cup on Tuesday, Kee opens up about therapy and how he is moving on in his life after suicidal thoughts.
“I still have my days when I am down and full of anxiety,” he says. “There are a lot of people who don’t want to admit they need help. If I can encourage one person to reach out and get help, brilliant.”
‘I faked injury’
It was February 2018 when Kee, who was in the middle of an impressive run of scoring form that would propel Accrington to promotion to League One, spoke openly in a BBC Sport interview about his mental health struggles.
“Why would someone who has got the best job in the world want to go and kill themselves?” the former Scunthorpe, Burton and Torquay forward said at the time.
On 27 April 2019, Kee scored the first goal as Accrington thrashed Plymouth 5-1 to guarantee League One survival with one game to go.
It was the 127th and final league goal of his professional career. A week later John Coleman’s team finished the season at Portsmouth. Kee was not involved.
“I faked an injury because I didn’t want to play any more,” he adds. “I was struggling with my head. Once I knew Accrington were safe in the table, I wasn’t doing it any more.”
In July 2019, Accrington said the former Leicester City youth player had not reported for pre-season because of “personal reasons”.
Two months later the Lancashire club announced he was having specialist treatment for depression, anxiety and bulimia. When Ipswich visited the Wham Stadium on 20 October 2019, opposition fans displayed a banner in support of Kee.
His retirement was announced on 29 January 2020, Accrington paying tribute by retiring his number 29 shirt.
“If I had carried on playing I wouldn’t be here now,” he says with brutal honesty. “I tried to live the dream. I just wasn’t right for it.”
‘A different world’
For some 20-somethings, the thought of moving back home to live with parents might seem challenging.
Kee says having his support network under one roof has helped him move on.
Along with his wife, Leigh, and their boys Brady, six, and Kolby, two, Kee lives with his mum and dad, Terry and Helen, in Queniborough, a village near Leicester.
“Some days can be difficult but my parents want to see us right as a family before we go and get our own place,” he adds.
“My mum had a breakdown at 28 – around the same age as me. She understands and I can talk to her. My dad helped my mum through it and he’s helping me through it.
“My wife’s a huge help too.
“I had to break away from the football to make myself happy. At Accrington I was living away from my family in a rented house.
“I was on the road a lot, staying in hotels overnight for away games. I wasn’t around for my kids and family, it just escalated. Years and years of it got too much for me.
“I used to go to training at 9.30am and be home by 1pm. I would gamble at night, eat loads and make myself be sick – a lot of it was through boredom. Now I’m up at 6am and working all day. I’m shattered by the time I get home but I enjoy what I do.”
Kee has thrown himself into his new career, although he went several weeks without work and a regular income during lockdown.
“On the building site, if you do something wrong, the scaffolders have a go and all the chippies [carpenters] start moaning, but it’s brilliant and there’s no hard feelings,” he adds.
“It’s a different world to professional football. As a player, I used to pretend I was something I wasn’t. Now I’m learning how to build a house. Every day is a learning process.”
‘A different person’
It is six months since Kee last experienced a “real low” but he feels better equipped to deal with the next one when it happens.
In the past, he has described the anxiety that gnaws away at him as “a rat”.
“It still comes out to play now and again,” says the former Northern Ireland Under-21 player. “My mum will say ‘he’s out today, isn’t he?’
“It’s about understanding the rat, putting it back in its box and saying ‘stay there for a few more weeks’.”
This year he has had 25 one-on-one therapy sessions, while he takes medication each day to control his anxiety and depression. “It mellows me out. If I miss a few days I go a bit strange,” he says.
He is playing football again – albeit at semi-professional level.
Coalville Town play in the Southern League Premier Division Central and are about a 30-minute drive from Kee’s home.
Having played for them towards the end of last season, he has signed a contract for the 2020-21 campaign and helped the Leicestershire side to a 1-1 draw at Bromsgrove Sporting on Saturday.
“They said ‘come and play, no pressure, just enjoy it’. I hadn’t done any training and they started me the first game.”
Kee scored in Coalville’s FA Cup preliminary round win at Boston Town to set up a meeting with Sheffield.
“It’s a good family club and my wife and kids come to games. It’s given me a life again with football. It fits in with my work schedule and I enjoy it.
“Next month there’s about 20 Accrington fans coming down to watch. From experience I know they’ll be really loud – Coalville’s fans won’t know what’s hit them.”
Kee continues to live with depression, anxiety and bulimia, but he can at least plan for a happier future.
A holiday snowboarding in France is on the agenda for 2021.
“I’m happier than I’ve been for as long as I can remember. My mum, dad and wife all say I am a different person,” he says.
Asked where he sees himself in 10 years’ time, Kee adds: “Building my own house for my family and being happy in it.”
If you, or someone you know, have been affected by any issues raised in this article, support and information is available at BBC Action Line.