IT started out like any other home matchday for Richie Barker.
Rotherham United were going well, they were pushing for League One promotion and the assistant boss was partway through his usual routine with manager Paul Warne and coach Matt Hamshaw, looking forward to the 3pm kick-off.
Then his phone pinged.
“It was New Year’s Day,” he says about events at the start of 2020. “We were playing against Blackpool.
“Most people will be aware that me, Warney, Hammy always go for a run on the morning before a home game. It always finishes somewhere in town and ends up with a coffee, then we walk back to the ground.
“We were in town and I got a text off the best mate of my brother, Chris, saying: ‘Get your Chris to give me a call. I’ve not spoken to him for a few days and that’s unheard of.’ I rang him and he said: ‘Me and Chris have spoken every day for the last three and a half years.’
“It was then a matter of ringing round as many people as we could. Everyone was saying they hadn’t seen him.”
Ninety minutes later, Barker was spotted speeding away from AESSEAL New York Stadium and life would never be the same again.
Chris, aged 39, had committed suicide at his Cardiff home.
Barker, nearly five years his brother’s senior, is still undergoing counselling. He’s a controlled, erudite talker but his usual smoothness falters as he discusses the last 15 months.
“How have I been?” he says in repeat of my question and there follows a long pause. “Er ... it’s been difficult, Mate, very difficult. Er ... yeah ... the hardest thing that’s ever happened to me, that’s probably the simplest way of putting it.
“You hear the stories all the time and mental health is an issue that is becoming more prevalent in the news. You just think: ‘That’s not something that happens to my family.’
“It was the biggest shock of my life. To get over it, I don’t know how long that’s going to take.”
He and Chris had grown up in a sporting family in Aston. Dad Mel had been on Chesterfield’s books and the brothers went on to become pros, taken to different parts of the country by their careers but remaining close in adulthood after losing their father and then mum Pauline.
“We spoke virtually every day, sometimes twice a day,” Barker says. “For ten-12 years we spent all our summers together. He would come and stay with me and my family or I would go and stay with him and his family.
“Wherever possible, summers and Christmases were spent together. We were based a long way apart. He was predominantly a southern-based player while I ended up staying up here most of the time. Distance was always a problem but never a problem in terms of communication. We always made the effort.”
It’s a craggy, friendly countenance staring back at me on a Zoom screen. Barker has a hard face but it is softened from time to time with a smile that wrinkles his eyes and lightens stern features.
He’s cross with himself. Phone calls about travel arrangements for forthcoming away matches have run over and he’s late logging on.
That’s not acceptable to an extremely correct man who sets high standards and expects the people around him to do the same. He apologises even though there’s no need to.
Three years after ending a 600-plus-game playing career that included long spells with Barnsley and Cardiff City, Chris had been working as youth-team coach at Forest Green when his brother read that New Year’s Day text.
“I had absolutely no idea at all he’d been struggling,” Barker says. “I was with him four or five days earlier and had spoken to him two days before. It’s what makes the whole thing bizarre. I don’t know what the signs are when people talk about signs.
“On Christmas Day, he was talking about the future. My wife gave him a dinner and he said: ‘That’s too big for me, I’m trying to lose a few pounds, I might start playing again. He was talking about what his next coaching role was going to be. He talked about the future all the time.
“Fortunately for me, my wife had come up to spend a couple of days with me over New Year. How I would have gone through that without her I do not know, Mate. She was the one making most of the calls because I was preparing for the game. Within an hour and an half I was in the car and heading to Cardiff.”
There’s been a suicide in my own family in recent years and we speak about that while also talking about Chris. It’s a sad conversation in some ways but an uplifting one in others, shared sorrow easing the suffering.
The counselling has helped him. He stresses it more than once: “You’ve got to talk to someone, Mate. Don’t bottle it up. It’s good to talk.”
Because of his job, Barker is based in Wickersley but his family home is in Brighton and for much of the time since Chris’s death Rotherham’s number two has been unable to embrace the support of wife Tracey, daughters Abby and Tia and son Charlie, a young pro with Charlton Athletic.
“Yeah, being up here without them has been really difficult,” he says. “I’ve been lucky, though. I’ve had some brilliant people around me, some brilliant friends. Because I’m from round here, I’ve been able to rely on people who knew me and who knew Chris.”
To this day, he doesn’t truly know the reason why his brother was struggling.
“Chris lived on his own,” he says. “His daughter, Demi, is 15. He and her mum split up when Demi was two or three. He moved around a lot after the split.
“His main house was always in Cardiff, but he was playing at QPR, then Plymouth, then Southend. I think he always thought that as long as he could get back to Cardiff to see his daughter then everything else was irrelevant really.
“He always put his daughter and his football first. Maybe that had an effect on his ability with relationships as everything was about his daughter and football.”
It’s difficult for Barker, difficult for Barker’s family. They can look back with fondness but it’s still too soon to smile at the memories.
“We’ve had a couple of conversations about Chris,” he says. “I’d like to speak about him more. But then I sometimes find myself thinking that if I talk to my family about him then how are they going to react to that? Is one of us going to get upset? Is one of the kids going to get upset? Nobody wants to be upset, do they? It’s not a nice feeling.
Barker breaks down at Oxford as Millers fans chant his name
“So sometimes I’ve probably avoided the opportunity to have a conversation. Do we sometimes say ‘Hey, that sounds like something Chris would do’? Yeah, we do.
“But sometimes you can feel an awkwardness and you think you’d better move on because you’re not quite sure where this is taking us, which is awful. It just has such an effect on so many people, Mate.”
Matchdays have returned to a usual routine but something is missing, someone is missing. New Year’s Day 2020 is never far away.
“For the first few days, it’s just like one, big, horrible dream,” Barker says. “I say ‘dream’, it’s more of a nightmare, obviously, and you think you’re going to wake up and Chris will still be here.
“I’m quite a practical person so I threw myself into the practicalities of trying to ensure my niece was looked after, dealing with solicitors and properties and stuff like that.
“I thought that would help me, that it would give me something to focus on, but what I’ve done is probably just prolong the grieving process really. I’m now experiencing things that I should have gone through earlier.
“I participated in counselling and I still am doing. I would always encourage people to try it no matter what. If it’s not for them, then fine, but at least give it a go. Talking to someone you don’t know can sometimes be easier than talking to someone you’re close to. I’m on my second lot now.”
Two weeks after the tragedy, he was back at work, alongside Warne and Hamshaw in the dugout at Oxford United. Rotherham won 3-1 and at the final whistle he was reduced to tears as the travelling Millers faithful chanted his name.
His brother’s death didn’t make any sense but everything else did.
“It was a perfect day,” he says. “We went top of the league, it was arguably our best performance of the season and it came against arguably the best team in the league.
“The result was important but at that particular time I just wanted to come back and play a part.
“The reception from the fans was overwhelming. Around 1,000 of them were there on a freezing January Saturday afternoon and what they did will be something I’ll remember forever.
“My wife was there and we drove down to Cardiff afterwards. The next day was Cardiff v Swansea and they were doing a thing for Chris before the game.”
Our conversation is drawing to a close and I ask him about Chris’s daughter, Demi.
“She and my daughter, Tia, were born six weeks apart,” Barker says.” They’ve been there for each other, albeit a long way apart.
“We FaceTimed Demi last night as a family. I’m included in all her school emails and conversations. We speak every few days.
“The kids are in touch as well. When Charlie gets in the Charlton first team, Demi will send him a ‘well done’. It’s important to me that they all stay in touch.”
We say our farewells and the screen goes blank. I don’t move and just sit there for a while, pensive, melancholic yet strangely comforted.
I hope he’s feeling the same way. It’s been good to talk.
RICHIE ON NOT SUFFERING ALONE
“YOU’VE got to speak out. If you don’t speak out it goes only one way. Speak out to someone you don’t know if that’s easier. There are a lot of helplines like the Samaritans out there.
“It helps. It helps to not be suffering on your own. If this interview makes one person pick up the phone then it’s been worth doing it.
“Some of the time, whatever you think is that bad might not be that bad. Speaking to one other person and saying ‘This is how I feel and these are the reasons why’ might end up with the other person saying ‘That’s not that bad’ and helping you find a way through it.
“They might tell you ‘How about doing this? How about trying that? How about talking to this group or joining this group?’ and it can make a massive difference.
“If I’m going to get anything out of what happened to Chris it’s spreading the word a little bit. I’ve had difficult times in the last year or so. I’ve had to practise what I’m preaching here by picking up a phone to ask for help and speaking to someone I don’t know.
“Coronavirus and the lockdowns have made the situation worse. These have been unprecedented times. You don’t get the same access to your mates, to pubs, to restaurants, to the outside world. It intensifies people’s problems massively.
“You don’t get access to a football stadium at the weekend. I know a lot of people get pent up anger during the week and then want to come and shout at a football game. They haven’t had that opportunity for more than 12 months.
“Pubs, bars, restaurants, gyms, all the things that people use just haven’t been there. What could have been a five per cent problem for someone can easily escalate to a 50 per cent problem if they have no release or don’t talk.
“If you don’t rectify it pretty quickly it can become a 75 per cent problem and the next thing you know you can’t see the wood for the trees.”
RICHIE ON GROWING UP WITH CHRIS
“EVERYTHING was based around a ball or going running. My dad ran marathons right up to the last few years before he died of Motor Neurone Disease at 53.
“We were taught to work as hard as we could, to play every sport we could and to always keep fit. Chris was an excellent cricketer. We both played rugby union for the school (Aston Comprehensive). Volleyball, swimming, we did those. Chris was a trained lifeguard.
“We were close growing up, although the age gap was quite big. When he was five and I was ten, that’s a big jump.
“I spent most of my time playing football on the street with my mates, which led to Chris joining in. I genuinely believe that had an effect on his career. He was relatively small for his age and he was playing with kids five years older.
“Wherever I went Chris usually came with me. My mum always encouraged me to take him along. We’d end up in 14-a-side football matches in the park in the summer holidays.
“He was a talented all-round sportsman and I think some of that talent was brought out by him competing with kids much older than him.
“Was he a better player than me? Yeah, definitely. If you’d moulded us both together you’d have had a top player. He was left-footed, technically excellent and really understood the game.
“He wasn’t as physically developed as me and probably didn’t have quite the same work ethic I had, but I used to see him do things with a ball and think: ‘Wow.’”
RICHIE ON SHARING GRIEF WITH MATT CROOKS
“ABOUT a month after Chris died, Matt Crooks lost his best friend, Jordan Sinnott.
“We helped each other. It brought us closer together.
“Not many people know this, but we signed Crooksy to a large degree on the recommendation of my brother.
“Crooksy was playing for Northampton at Forest Green where Chris was youth-team coach. Crooksy had already been on our radar and Chris phoned me as he drove home from the match.
“He said: ‘Listen, I’ve just seen a Rotherham player. You should try to get him. He’s the best player in League Two by a mile.’ We stepped up our interest from there.
“I rang Warney and told him what Chris had said and Warney said: ‘He knows the game, he knows what Rotherham players look like, let’s explore it a bit more.’
“After what happened to Jordan and Chris, me and Crooksy got a little bit closer in terms of sharing feelings. We talked about our counselling. A couple of times I encouraged him to go when he didn’t want to. He’d come back a couple of days later and say: ‘You were right, Mate, you were right.’
“All the staff and players were excellent with me. You don’t want to go through it all on your own but also you want to be able to feel that if you need a moment to yourself then you can have one. Sometimes you need people to say the right things. Sometimes you need them to just not say anything.”