Andros Townsend "Listen to your family, close circle and yourself, you don’t need outside influences telling you what you have and haven’t done, you know if you have had a good or bad game.”
Tonya Antoniou | 12/7/2021
Most people will know Andros Townsend as the professional footballer, currently playing as a winger for Premier League team Crystal Palace, as well as having played for the England national team. However, to me Andros is not just a footballer, he’s my cousin, so this interview feels different. Some of the topics we discussed we have never spoken about before, which meant I got to see Andros from a different perspective. We talked about some of the hard times that he’s experienced during his career; issues that are not really brought up at family functions, places where mental health doesn’t always get the chance to be part of the conversation. Andros gets candid with me about mental health, gambling, injuries, his podcast, imparting his wisdom on other players and raising awareness of issues that need to be brought to light in the industry that are often not spoken about.
Andros began his career at Tottenham in the youth system; going on numerous loans to various clubs from a young age. Having travelled to a handful of games to watch him I remember the car being stacked with snacks ready for the journey ahead, with music and constant banter making it feel more like a road trip, and a family day out. I wanted to know if that support from family every week at matches was important and if he felt it impacted his success?
“It was very important to me having you all at each event, even before I went out on loan. From the age of eight, we needed to get to training after school. My mum has five children, so to drive me two/three nights a week to training was a lot. I played with many players who didn’t have that support, having to get themselves to training at the age of eleven and struggled because of it, for those reasons they didn’t quite make it. So, family and support has always been big for me. I guess we take it for granted.”
Knowing Andros’ competitive nature, I wondered if he has been able to turn it off outside of competition. As a family we are all competitive, I know this from our family sports days- one year we had a gladiator game and a whole obstacle course in the garden, and Christmas when our mother’s turned into referee’s whilst we played board games. Looking back it makes me laugh how competitive it all became and Andros always had that extra competitive spirit. “It’s so challenging, it’s tough, and whether it’s a game on Christmas morning or messing around with the kids it’s impossible. However, that’s one of the reasons why I was driven; I have been motivated by my competitive nature since the age of eight. I wouldn’t be here today if I didn’t have that competitive spirit. It’s a dog eats dog world and if it’s not you it’s the other person. So I’ve grown up with it, it’s normal and ingrained in me. As I have that constant competitive spirit when things aren’t going well, or at a level that I know I’m capable of, I’m a lot harsher on myself. Yes, it has its benefits, but you’re never content, you’re never happy. Even if you’ve had the best game of your life, you always want more. So it has its ups and downs.”
Andros has spoken about his struggles with gambling, once losing £46,000 the night before a play-off match, arguably the most important game of his career at the time. I wondered if it was the adrenalin of winning that appealed to him or whether it was a distraction from the pressure to perform? “It was more the adrenaline. I’ve always had an addictive personality. I don’t drink, do drugs and never gambled up until that point; I knew that once I started, it would be impossible to stop. I was on loan at Leeds, I was young and the changing room was a gambling orientated environment. I remember there was a tennis final on in the changing room and the lads would be betting on it, calling up their broker, “can I put this or that on?” Being young, I got sucked in. From that moment I knew I was in trouble because of the adrenaline rush I got from that first bet. It starts with a ten-pound bet, and then before you know it, you’re losing forty-six grand. It’s that easy, it’s the chase; it’s the adrenalin rather than the winning itself.
The biggest thing was letting go because as long as you’re gambling, you’ve got hope that you can recoup the money. For me, it was stopping and realising the money’s gone. Most people aren’t footballers earning that amount of money we do; it’s much harder for them as they can’t recover from it, in the same way. I was very fortunate that I got a new contract after my gambling incident. My earnings increased so I was able to recoup the money that I lost, other people aren’t as fortunate. I think if I had that addiction now with my Mrs, two kids and a house to pay for I would be in serious trouble. I’m so lucky I got out of it.” Hearing that, I was sad that he didn’t reach out to our family for help. I asked how he copes with things now and whether these issues are spoken about amongst the players?
“I’ve noticed it more in the last few years since speaking about it. Before, when people spoke about gambling they wouldn’t mention the negatives or how deep you’ve been sucked in and especially how much money you’ve lost. You’d only mention the good stuff, you’d only tell your mates about the wins and not the losses. I’ve had a lot of players reach out to me via social media, teammates, players I have played with in the past and even players I haven’t met, telling me they are in a similar situation and asking how I got out of it. I would say in terms of speaking about and breaking down the stigma of gambling and mental health we are improving.”
We have just unfortunately seen four-time grand slam winner Naomi Osaka pull out of the French Open due to “feeling vulnerable and anxious” she stated that she thought it was better to exercise self-care. This is one of the highest-earning female athletes willing to open up and be honest, surely more must be done to help the mental welfare of athletes? I wondered if Andros felt he had helped in any way to reduce the stigma around mental health for top-level athletes, especially those of colour.
“I don’t think the stigma can be broken down by one person. It’s collective but I take any opportunity I can to speak about it. I know Stephen Caulker, Naomi Osaka and Tyrone Mings have spoken up too. Collectively, if we start speaking more about mental health, the everyday man on the street will hopefully listen to their heroes/people they admire, normalising it, so conversations around the subject will even be discussed in the pub. As long as I have the platform and people want to interview me, I’m more than happy to spread awareness, trying to normalise and break down those barriers and the stigma that is attached to mental health.”
I know that Andros was an advocate for the social media blackout from the 30th of April till the 3rd of May. Through his experience, I wanted to hear what advice he would give to young and upcoming athletes who are suffering a similar fate “Firstly stay off social media. I’ve learnt to manage it. I’m at an age where I’m aware of when I’m going through a bad stage, if I’ve had a bad game or if fans are on my back to avoid social media. But when you’re young, you want to read everything that’s written about you. Most of it is good, but of course, there’s some bad. My advice is, don’t read any of it. People like to believe that it doesn’t affect them, that it’s just comments or words, even if it’s not consciously, subconsciously those comments are in your mind. To any upcoming athlete, listen to your family, close circle and yourself, you don’t need outside influences telling you what you have and haven’t done, you know if you have had a good or bad game.”
It’s interesting Andros mentioning the truth about performing perfectly all the time and the link between people who make comments on social media they wouldn’t even think about saying face to face to another person with the reality that people have become desensitized to trolling and abusing others online. Andros can relate to this. “I remember, early on in the season, when we lost one nil away at Burnley I’d actually played half-decent but for some reason, I came off and looked at my social media thinking it would be normal. There was a bunch of kids, who I had blocked at the start of the season who were saying, ‘Andros Townsend was terrible, the worst performance in a Palace shirt ever, and don’t want to see him in a Palace shirt again’. They all had burner accounts and were trying to get under my skin. Even though I knew I’d had a good game, it affected me. I went into the next game with zero confidence, zero belief that I was good enough and it showed. I was 29, I’d played for England, played plenty of Premier League games, yet a couple of comments on social media effectively knocked me down, showing that subconsciously it does impact, even when you think it doesn’t.”
I asked Andros about his heartbreaks. He tragically picked up an injury just before the world cup in Brazil in 2014, when he was arguably one of the most in-form players in the country at the time. He said looking back and reflecting it was a mistake to go to Brazil as a pundit for ITV. I wondered how that situation compared to being cut from the 26-man squad in the 2016 Euros. Being so close to achieving one of his dreams couldn’t have been easy to deal with, especially as it must have taken a lot of mental fortitude to work his way back to being in contention.
“2014 was so hard to take. In the lead up to the tournament, I wasn’t really playing well. I honestly didn’t think I was going to be selected for the squad even though now I know I was. To get injured so close to a tournament was heartbreaking. Then, for some reason, I had this crazy idea to go to Brazil as a Pundit, that’s when it hit home what I was missing what I was tipped to star in, it was probably the toughest moment of my career watching that tournament take place in front of my eyes when I should’ve, could’ve been playing in it, that one was tough. It felt like that was my only chance. So for me, it was the end of the world. With the 2016 tournament one, I’ve mixed emotions about, because six months before that I was worlds away from playing for England again. But similar to Jesse Lingard at the moment, I went to Newcastle and played well, for four months, got myself back in the frame. It felt like it was different because I could’ve had an impact in that tournament; I felt I was in the form of my career and could offer something to the squad. But on the other hand, remembering I came from nothing, I was grateful that I was even in consideration.”
Discussing his teammate Eberechi Eze who sadly suffered the same fate, rupturing his Achilles not long after finding out that he was in the provisional Euros squad. I am sure there’s no one better than Andros to help his teammate and close friend come back fitter and stronger, to which Andros wore Eze’s shirt with his name and number on the final day of the season. “Since joining the club he’s become one of my closest mates, I see similarities in him with me when I was 22, that fearless nature, the ability to take players on at will, and the willingness to work hard to achieve his goal. So I took it personally when he was injured, it felt like I was injured, as I’d been in the same situation at 22, missing the World Cup. I took it to heart; I know what he’s going through, the struggles he will have mentally and physically to recover from his injury. It was important, even just the little gesture of putting on his shirt with his name. I know he would’ve watched it smiling. If he’s smiling for 30 seconds, not thinking about his fate or surgery next week then it’s worth it. It was important to support him publicly and helping him along the road to recovery because I’ve been there, I don’t want him to make the same mistakes I did when I came back from my injury, being hard on myself and not taking into consideration the injury. I thought I would return and be the guy that scored for England on his debut, which wasn’t the case. If I can pass on any wisdom as an experienced player, that’s what I’m here for.”
Reflecting on his 13 England caps, I asked if Andros looks back with immense pride, one of unfinished business or is there an element of what if? I wondered if he listened to the recent Euro squad announcement with excitement or whether it brought back memories of when he was in contention himself? “I think at this stage in my career no, I’ve not played for England for four years, so that’s long in the past. The first year or so I did have that, not regret but the disappointment that I was still in the fold and being considered for the England squad. But I definitely have no regrets. Because you know, where I grew up, as an East London boy, I was that one in a million, very fortunate to play for my hometown club and to play thirteen times for England; it was an amazing opportunity, and I have no regrets. You always think I could have done more; I could have played more or been featured more. However, I could also have never played for England or in the Premier League in my career. So I’m thankful for the moments I did play for England, and I’ll cherish those.
I was never one of those kids tipped for it at seven or spoon-fed up. I had my ups and downs and was told I wasn’t good enough. I’ve been sent back from one or two loans, it’s not like it was always projected for me, and I always had to work hard for it. So I appreciate it more, I look back with a huge amount of pride as opposed to regret.”
I was curious to know if he found the Podcast he co-hosts with Mark Pougatch a helpful outlet for him to talk about important and current topics for him and his guests. If Andros saw this as something he would do after retirement or is coaching/mentoring something he is more interested in?
“I am working on my coaching and have obviously delved into the media this season. I don’t want to get to a stage where I retire and have limited options. That’s the worst thing to do as a player; you think what am I going to do for the next 60 years of my life? That’s when reality sets in and ex-players are mostly affected by mental health. I had the opportunity over the first COVID lockdown to delve more into the media and I realised I enjoy it, I now have a regular slot on Talksport doing the podcast with ITV; the podcast itself helps with my mental health. So the question for myself is then do I want to be a coach? Do I want to stay in the media? Do I want to leave football altogether? It’s good for me to cover all my bases and give myself options when I retire.
Like Andros, I struggle to let bad performances go, focusing on what went wrong as opposed to what went right. This negative cycle can be all-consuming and isolating. I remember going to watch him when he was younger, if he didn’t play well he would shut down, we wouldn’t be able to talk to him, it was difficult seeing a loved one struggle internally and not knowing how to help them. Most weeks we looked forward to having a meal after the game, but when the match didn’t go well we knew we would have to give it a miss. A particular incident comes to mind where he had booked for us to go and to see comedian Jack Whitehall for my brother’s birthday and that same day it was the London derby (Arsenal vs Tottenham). Tottenham lost and due to the fear of backlash he’d receive he didn’t attend.
“Five years ago, if I had a bad game, I’d come home, I’d be silent and it’s all I’d think about. I wouldn’t speak to my family for days. It’s only since I’ve had children that I can’t do that anymore. My children don’t know or care; they just want to play with me. So, having children has allowed me to get over that negative mentality, coupled with doing things outside of football has been beneficial for my mental health.”
As Andros’ contract at Crystal Palace is coming to an end, does he have any plans of playing abroad? “I think eventually I’d like to work abroad. Whether or not I am too young to leave the Premier League at the moment, I don’t know. I’ve had a couple of offers but I want to wait till my contract ends, I want to accumulate all the offers and decide what’s the best move for my family and myself at this point in my career, and make a decision based on that. But I’m open to anything.”
Having always admired Andros’s determination and dedication in achieving his goals, I couldn’t be more proud of him for all the work he is now doing to spread awareness surrounding mental health. His willingness to be open is a far cry from the boy he used to be in what can be said a difficult industry when it comes to vulnerability. I really do hope people read his journey and feel more comfortable reaching out for help. As the actress, Glenn Close once stated “What mental health needs is more sunlight, more candour, and more unashamed conversation.” I am hopeful that we are going in that direction; with individuals like Andros not being afraid to now talk about it.