To the outside world, Danielle Gibson appeared to have it all: a large property in Cheshire, a footballer husband, and the ability to dress head to toe in luxury clothes. But, for Danielle, the trappings of affluence meant she couldn’t seek out help when she and her ex-Manchester United footballer husband Darron Gibson needed it the most.
Danielle, realizing that things needed to change in her life, decided to take her own measures to help by training for five years to become a psychotherapist in order to help those who are dealing with their emotional or mental health. Danielle understands what it’s like to not feel like you “have the right” to complain or speak up when you’re struggling.
Danielle spoke about her experiences at a Manchester event for empowering women on International Women’s Day. Danielle spoke candidly and honestly about the reality of life married to a professional footballer to an audience of businesswomen and friends, including a slew of fellow former Manchester United footballers’ wives and girlfriends.
Darron, who is originally from Derry, Northern Ireland, first met her when they were teenagers, and he had traveled to Manchester to pursue his footballing goals at Manchester United. They quickly fell in love, and she claims they were living their finest lives during the ‘buzz’ of their early years together.
But, in the volatile world of football, Darron’s injury put an emotional burden on their relationship, leading Danielle to believe she had to bottle up her emotions for years.
“I felt that I didn’t have a right to complain, a right to whine because I lived in a big house in Bowdon, my kids went to private school, so I didn’t say anything to anyone, I just carried on.”
“I felt like I couldn’t tell anyone how hard it was because I was wealthy, and wealthy people aren’t meant to have difficulties.”
Danielle is now hopeful that after years of her own training, she can assist make changes in the sports sector, having witnessed a dearth of mental health support for athletes and their families firsthand. She informed the audience at the Julie Perry Events event that she has seen life from two very different views.
“I’ve lived the lavish Cheshire lifestyle for 16 years, but I was born into a single-parent home in Wythenshawe, with me and my sisters living in a tenth-floor flat and witnessing my mother struggle up and down the stairs with shopping bags.” “I had a really simple life,” Danielle explained.
“However, at the age of 16, I was thrown into a new world with all of its ramifications.” It’s critical to express how appreciative I am for everything this life has provided me. I had two children in private school, I’ve gone over the world, and I had the wedding of my dreams.
“But I want to use this platform to validate those experiences; it’s still awkward sitting here in my designer outfit saying it, but I want to be honest and say that there have been years and years where I didn’t feel thankful or grateful for anything – I just wanted to be Danielle from Wythenshawe.”
It was before social media when Danielle and Darron first met, and Darron had left his home in Northern Ireland at the age of 14 to pursue his dream of playing for Manchester United.
“He was living every footballer’s dream,” Danielle explained, “but I didn’t know anything about football, so he was living this dream I didn’t know about.” Don’t get me wrong: we had the best time of our lives. We bought our first property when we were 19, and we had an all-singing, all-dancing wedding – but it’s not as simple as you might assume.
“At the age of 24, he signed for Everton on a tremendous contract with massive money, and it felt like he was paying for half of Ireland at times.” He was paying for people’s car insurances, mortgages, rent, everything, the list didn’t stop, the phone was always ringing – this was all fine because we were loaded, right? Until he got hurt.”
Darron had a terrible cruciate knee ligament tear while on international duty, which might have ended his career right then and there, according to Danielle. In the years that followed, he would be on a never-ending cycle of operations, difficult recoveries, and ailments. It would be really difficult for them both emotionally.
“Shortly after the wedding was his first injury – he was playing for his country, I was pregnant with kid number two, and I was watching from home,” Danielle explained.
“Seeing your husband’s leg basically fall in half on the pitch from a million miles away was not a good experience.” He tore his cruciate knee ligament, which caused such havoc that they had to cut his thigh muscle and build two new ligaments behind his knee – a feat that would have ended his career only 20 years ago.
“He was young, he was at a really excellent team in Everton, they offered a lot of physical care for him, he was in the best hands, but it meant missing a year of football.” Physios would come in for an hour in the morning, but he was at home with me for the other 23 hours.
“We had to create him a bed downstairs, he had to sleep in a metal cast, I had to carry him to the toilet and bathe him for a year – and that was the beginning of a really downward fall.” He ultimately got back into shape, but the manager who had signed him had left.
“They’d signed other midfielders, so there was no room for him in the team anymore; he’d get a few minutes here and there, but that wasn’t what he wanted.” He only desired to play football. He was fighting for a spot on the team, and that was the first time I saw him lose confidence.
“For the next five years, he was continuously injured, constantly struggling to get fit.” But this isn’t just about him; it’s also about me. In a chaotic world, I battled and felt helpless. There seemed to be nothing I could do. Rather than discussing it, he withdrew.”
Danielle sought help from her mother while feeling the weight of duty for Darron’s recovery. “I couldn’t control how many times he got hurt, I couldn’t control if the managers were going to pick him at the weekend, I couldn’t control how many surgeries he was going to have, the poor kid is kept together by nuts and bolts,” she explained.
“I had the impression that we were always on the train heading down to London to visit specialists.” My point is that there was a lot of physical care, which seems strange to say in this billion-dollar industry, but I didn’t feel like we had any emotional support at all, even though we were being flown to Germany and Spain to have all these surgeries by specialist surgeons – keep in mind that a therapy appointment is £70 an hour.
“He believed he wasn’t good enough to make the team, so he was always striving to get in shape.” I was a mother of two, one of whom had a sick infant, and I felt as if my husband was leaving me.
“All the while, social media was exploding.” Internally, he felt like he wasn’t good enough anymore, but externally, that was validated by comments all over social media and news sites, like none of them were nice what they were saying, like ‘he’s stealing a living getting a wage not playing for a year,’ or ‘this guy is made of glass, what are you doing signing him.’
“It’s fine for us to sit here and say “don’t read the comments,” but when you’re in bed 23 hours a day, you’re going to read them.
“All I kept thinking was that my friends’ spouses don’t have these difficulties; my friend’s husband who is a builder goes to work, comes home and has his tea, the job’s a good ‘un; my friend’s boyfriend who works in a contact center doesn’t get verbally abused like this.”
The football contracts would get shorter, and Danielle says they’d always be concerned about the future. Darron moved away from the family when he signed for Sunderland in 2017, leaving Danielle increasingly isolated – and her worried about how he would feel on his own.
“Once again, I basically internalized everything and retained everything.” I never felt like I had the right to say anything other than thank you for this existence.
“I wasn’t just a mother of two children, one of whom was ill; I was a wife, a chef, a cleaner, a taxi driver, a therapist even before I was qualified, a mental health nurse… no one EVER inquired how I was – no football manager, no football agent, no one ever asked how I was.”
Darron smashed his car on the way to training and was found to be over the drink-drive limit, prompting Danielle to finally confront the difficulties she had been frantically trying to avoid. He was sentenced to community service in 2018.
“Fast forward 14 months, Gibbo is injured again,” she stated. But he’s four and a half hours away in the North East this time. He couldn’t drive home since he had a cast on his leg; it was difficult enough for him to be injured at home, let alone four hours away, but I still had a sick kid; I felt torn and powerless, and he felt alone and worthless.
“The phone rings at 9 a.m. on Saturday morning; Darron had smashed his automobile on his way to training, still above the limit from the night before.” I didn’t go to the police station or drive four and a half hours to the North East; instead, I stayed at home with my two kids in that enormous magnificent kitchen in that big mansion in Bowdon.
“I looked around and wondered, ‘What is this?'” And that’s when I realized I needed to adjust the story; where are those football managers and agents now that the kitchen was strangely quiet?
“We needed more than just a therapist; I needed to train to be a therapist.” All of the football professionals could assist us with knee injuries, contracts, groin strains, and investments, but who could assist me with this?
“Who could assist me in saving my husband and, ultimately, my family?” I knew I couldn’t control what was written in the media or the rumors at the school gates. But I needed to reclaim control of my life since I was living in a world that felt out of my hands.
“I wasn’t given the authority to make any major decisions.” Our bills, finances, and vacations were always booked by someone else, and I was just the wife and mother at home – well, not any longer.
“My spouse is more than just the number on the back of his football jersey.” “And now, four years later, I’m a certified therapist.”
Danielle has spent the last year working in a women’s jail with ‘lifers,’ as well as assisting people with substance misuse difficulties.
The next step is for her to start her own therapy practice.
“My ambitions and dreams are to work for people in this sector who feel they can never pick up the phone because they have everything,” she explained. So I’m in the process of launching my own company, The Heard Hub, in September, and I’d like to assist anybody and everyone.”
Darron has recently retired from professional football, which Danielle described as a “huge relief,” but she adds, “I’m just a very proud wife for everything he has accomplished in his career.”