For Gary Fraser, being with his grandad felt like the most important thing in the world.
He was a grandfather, role model and best mate rolled into one. Fraser feels he owes his football career to him.
When John Muir died in February 2016, it left a gaping hole in Fraser’s world, one which will never be filled. The grief, invisible to the outside world, is still with him.
“When my grandad passed away I went down a slippery slope,” says Fraser. “He brought me up and was the biggest thing in my life. He still is, even though he’s not here.
“He was a taxi driver and took me everywhere. I could do nothing wrong. If it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t have had the chance to play football.
“My mum worked two jobs and my grandad took me all over the country and abroad. He was my grandad, my dad and my best mate. I lost all that at 21 and it’s a young age to lose that.
“Obviously I’m going to make mistakes in life, everyone does, but it was a massive blow to me. It still it is to this day. I’ve never recovered from it but I’ve learned to deal with it.
“My grandad died and then not long after, I did my knee the first time at Firhill. It was horrific. I felt the world had crashed in on me all at once.
“We’d go down to the snack van on a Sunday morning, talk about the game the day before, then go to Glasgow Green and watch a wee game.
“There wasn’t a day where I didn’t see him. I had lost three things in one.”
It was something he perhaps had not found the right way of processing since coming across mental health charity Back Onside earlier this year.
Following a charity walk organised by Peterhead players and staff up Ben Lomond to raise money for his knee operation, he met Libby Emmerson, its founder and CEO, and she helped change his life.
It was the same day Fraser was filmed live on Sky Sports taking a dip in Loch Lomond – “people thought it was the Loch Ness monster” – and became a viral hit in the process.
“Since that day, I’ve done loads with them. They’ve been absolutely brilliant with me,” says Fraser. “They’re always at the other end of the phone and it needs publicising, because they’re doing a fantastic job.
“If any player needs help, there’s nothing wrong with picking up the phone. It’s anonymous. Mental health has always been a big thing but it just wasn’t really publicised.
“It’s making a massive difference to people’s lives – that’s what Libby is doing. The biggest thing it’s helped me with is my mindset.
“Instead of being negative everyday, (I’m trying) to be positive. When I’ve got spare time on my hands, don’t do the wrong things. I’m back in the gym and feeling a million times better.
“Don’t get me wrong, I still have days where I feel like ‘if I’ve not got football, this is rubbish’. But that’s when you pick up the phone.
“I don’t see why people should struggle within themselves. Pick up the phone to me, I’m willing to help anybody because I know what it’s like if you go down the wrong route with drinking or gambling.
“I’d never had a drink in my life but then I started having a few beers. I didn’t like it. I’ve stopped that now and if anybody is going through the same thing as me, I’m here to pick the phone up.”
From Gaffer to Firewalker….there is nothing this man won't do to support us @pfcofficial @toon_blue Please show Gary your support & donate what you can to help him across the burning hot coals 🙂 #backonside #firewalk #mentalhealthmatters https://t.co/XOMG8aebxb
— Back Onside (@BackOnside) November 18, 2021
Fraser has been into Barlinnie Prison and local schools to give talks about his career and his story, in the hope it could provide support and encouragement to those struggling with their own issues.
He also managed a Back Onside team in a charity game earlier this month, against an Annan Athletic legends XI to raise money for the charity. His team included former Peterhead forward David Cox, a Back Onside patron, his Blue Toon assistant boss Davie Nicholls and ex-Inverness, Hearts and Dundee United striker James Keatings.
“It was a fantastic day – I fancy myself as the next Pep Guardiola,” he jokes. “I know it’s only a charity game but you don’t realise how hard it is for managers. I was making a sub and didn’t know who was coming on and off.
“You’re put on the spot trying to make a team-talk. I take my hat off to managers as you’re not just managing – you’re counselling players as well.
“That’s why I feel the likes of Jim McInally have been fantastic for me. I couldn’t thank him enough for what he’s done for me and I want to get back fit now and repay him.”
The crowdfunding appeal for Fraser’s knee operation raised more than £20,000, with figures from across football donating to the cause. His op is scheduled for December 16, nearly a year after the injury at Montrose.
“People don’t realise how lucky they are when they moan about football. It’s the best thing in the world and we’re lucky to do it as a job.
“When you’ve not got it, it’s hard. I’m grateful I’m 27-years-old and Peterhead have given me the chance to come back and play.
“If I can get in about the boys, give them a laugh and pick them up when they’re down, that’s what I’ll do. Hopefully I’ve done that but the clock is ticking down now (until the operation).
“I can’t wait for this early Christmas present now.”
For more information about Back Onside visit backonside.co.uk or call 07528 243100.