MARK CARRUTHERS explains what football means to him – a solace during a time of personal darkness.

Football is really just a game.

For all of the passion, romance and sense of belonging that it evokes, it is essentially just of group men, women or children kicking a ball around a patch of grass.

However, the game has a wonderful quality of giving hope, meaning and belief to those that are fortunate enough to hold it close to their hearts.

The game has always been in my life, my first word was “kick”. My Dad inflicted the long-suffering tradition of following Newcastle United upon me from a very early age. Just as his Dad did, he took me to St. James’ Park at the relatively young age of five.

That was 30 years ago last month, as I was one of the many that stood on a freezing cold Gallowgate terrace as Newcastle progressed into the Fifth Round of the FA Cup with a 5-0 hammering of Swindon Town.

Since that first experience of live football, the game has given me so many lifelong memories. I’ve visited places like Barcelona, Milan and Turin because of my love for the game.

I’ve seen a barman, a scaffolder and a newsagent make a mockery of higher-level opponents despite playing part-time football with legendary FA Cup giantkillers Blyth Spartans.

I’ve taken my own son, now three, to his first games at St. James’ Park and Croft Park. The torch has been passed on and long may it continue.

The game now provides me with an income. I write for three North-East based newspapers and the weekly Non-League Paper. Once a passion, now a job. That is something that my 8-year-old self could only dream about.

But at one point in my life, football became a haven. When I was at my lowest, it became a sanctuary, an escape from grim reality.

In 2006, at the age of 22, I got married and three years later things began to unravel. That included my own mental state. As the marriage deteriorated, my depression rose. I grew deeper and darker, not knowing what my outlook on life would be each day when I opened my eyes.

I couldn’t focus on the job I was doing at the time, the smallest action would trigger a negative response as I became a shell of a person, almost sleepwalking through every day. I was at my lowest point in my life, I was genuinely frightened and didn’t know where to turn.

There was one major positive.

I had begun coaching in youth football with a team of under-7s, taking the relevant badges and qualifications in order to satisfy the charter standard regulations that are in place. I threw myself into the courses and into planning each training session and matchday to the smallest detail.

Saturday mornings were spent watching the players enjoy themselves, become friends and develop as footballers. I stood on the touchline, completely focused on the play, my mind focused on something other than my own negativity. The games would finish and I would head home to analyse and prepare the next training session.

But then the mood would darken once again, the reality of an unhappy life would kick in. That was when I realised that football had become an escape for me.

I am fascinated when I hear my first ever football hero Paul Gascoigne talk about the pitch being his sanctuary from a life of mental-health issues. Now, the Russell Foster Youth League isn’t exactly Italia 90, nor is it playing in an Old Firm derby, but I could relate to the sentiment.

The touchline became a happy place, a place to escape and to put something positive into my life. I began to place more and more focus on coaching and took over another team within the club. All of Saturday morning was now spent coaching, with a trip to St. James’ Park or a non-league game in the afternoon.

I was putting on training sessions on three different nights and spending all day out of the house on a Saturday. The kids in the team grew older and we had some great experiences together. There were trips away to tournaments, a 4-3 win when we were 3-1 down with ten minutes left and a promotion to celebrate. We moved into the 11-a-side game, I saw them develop into young men, rather than the enthusiastic rabble that they were when I first met them.

Eventually, something had to give. The marriage ended in early 2010. Had it not, I am not sure what state I would be in today.

I continued to coach the same team and eventually I had to relinquish that role in 2012 to pursue a long-held dream of working in the media. By the time I had stood on the touchlines for one last time, I was in a very happy relationship with the amazing woman that became my wife in October last year.

Everything had changed for the better and football had helped me through the darkest passage of my life.

Now, being at a match isn’t an escape, it’s another means to happiness. It’s another positive, another step away from those dark times. Football is really just a game, but for three years it became everything it shouldn’t be.

But I am pleased that it did.