We showcase our podcast with football legend Steven Caulker, touching upon his history with addiction and how he’s found his feet
Alice Gee and Jade Poulters | 21/12/2020
We’re so glad you could join us Steven, all the way from Turkey. We can’t wait to talk about your experiences with mental health and of course we’ll be talking about football at some point. So let’s dive in and why not start with your professional career, you started at Tottenham Hotspur which is an incredible team, to begin with.
Let’s call it fortunate to end up there. I had many trials as a youngster and I got rejected by some clubs. Actually, I’d been on trial at Chelsea, QPR, and a trial at Southampton. I was so nervous when I turned up, I was nervous I wasn’t going to be unable to perform. I remember going to the trial, I went straight from school, it was a long drive to get round there. I turned up in the wrong boots and I had to borrow the academy manager’s boots. I remember thinking just turn up and play and it worked. I got signed after. In the first week, I did one training session, one match, I got signed. And I just felt right at home there. I really enjoyed it. The Academy manager sort of found the funny side of it and we still have a great relationship today.
Do you think that it went so well because you weren’t prepared and you weren’t necessarily thinking I overthinking it?
Exactly, when I overthink anything, it tends to go wrong. And that was no different as a child, you know, I was scared going on trial because I always wanted to be a footballer. So it meant so much to be invited to these trials, that I’d go there and I just get so nervous. And it’s also difficult, you’ve got all the boys there in their kits, Southampton kit, wherever it may be, and you’re there just in shorts and a T-shirt. It’s hard. I think what’s great is Chris Ramsey, also who was part of signing me at that time he said when he comes to a trial he looks at them for a while because he knows the pressure that’s on them when they first walk in, and you’re not going to get a true reflection of actually what they’re about. So yeah, it’s important that coaches and the academy spend a bit of time looking at these players before they just make a quick decision.
There must have been huge amounts of pressure. Being a teenager, as we all know, is not necessarily the funnest part of your life and growing up, having to figure out overnight for some exams, what you want to do with your life. So the pressure must have been pretty unreal when it came to wanting to do the football?
With football, I was obsessive. I mean, I say openly, it was probably my first ever addiction. I played football day until night, and it was always what I wanted to do, so much so that it was frightening. I worked hard
and within five years I’d played for England. I mean, it really rocketed after that. That was quite surreal. Also, to me, I kind of never had time to breathe. I’ve had more time these last few years to actually sit back and go, “Well, I did this and I did that”. At a time, you just always think about the next game. So it goes by so quick. I’m sure you hear many ex retired players talk about it, you really have to enjoy the moment. But that goes for life, in general, the way I try to live my life today, I try to be present and enjoy every moment.
You were really young when this first happened and I can imagine being catapulted into the limelight must have been bizarre.
It was, but I did it step by step. I really loved the way they taught me and worked with me. They loaned me out to Yeovil who were in league one at time. So I got a season long experience there which is amazing. I got to learn how to manage the pressure and learn to play with crowds. By the time I got to that level where people recognised me and I was getting England call ups, I sort of had a good flow.
Do you think the media exposure played a part in your mental health struggles the idea of being predisposed had a role to play in where the addiction started coming in?
It definitely played a part in fueling the addictions. When the money was coming in, I was able to gamble freely. I obviously gambled more than my income was. That’s the life of a gambler, it constantly fuelled me to continue with my addictions. It took many, many years for me to tackle it. As a youngster, it’s very difficult for your mum and dad to pull you aside and tell you what you should and shouldn’t be doing. It’s also very difficult for Coach to do that. You forget how many people get rejected from the academy. It’s a very, very slim chance. It’s a rat race, everyone’s competing against each other. So I’ll say that that competitiveness was great when I channelled it, but when I was unable to channel it brought many, many problems. So with the coaches, they’re in that sort of situation, how can they talk about gambling if they don’t know themselves? I think education is key. It took me nearly 10 years. I guess it was my identity for so many years, as a youngster everyone knew me as a footballer, you know, that was who I was. It’s easy to lose yourself within that. That definitely happened to me as it happens to many other people. When you’re being told by many coaches to do this and do that, you sort of lose your instinct, on and off the pitch. Eventually, I dropped to my knees and surrendered around the age of 24. I didn’t have a clue who I was.
It's a tricky one either way, when you’re in your 20’s watching everyone you know, either settle down or be in a certain position in their job you hit this point where you’re not only questioning your own choices in your own future, but you have an identity crisis.
My consequences were huge. They stopped me in my tracks early. I mean being 26 to get sober is actually quite young, thank god I didn’t get to my mid-40s. They were dark times and challenging times.
What do you think the clubs should be doing, or doing more to help their players, especially at the Youth and Academy level ?
I think the coaching staff, have a big role. It’s a big responsibility and there are lots of individuals, but you have to bring them together. It’s a difficult job. I mean, managers are getting sacked after five, six games, which is no time to come in and have an impact on a 17-year-old so I’ll definitely start with that. And education as part of their badges, there are many things that could be spoken about, I don’t think there’s any obvious one answer. I think it’s people coming together, brainstorming and using ideas, trial and error, what’s working, what’s not, but the positive to take from is they are starting to look for solutions. But I’d say, you know, we are quite a long way off. There’s still a stigma about it, but I still think the true depth of it is still some way away from being understood.
How have recovery groups and those around you helped your sobriety?
It’s definitely challenging but you are not the only person going through it. I said there are millions of young players going
through it, in other sports as well. What I found works for me is I developed a relationship with a God of my understanding. That’s a big part of my recovery without a doubt because there are times where I’m questioning everything. But when I just calm myself down and remind myself to control what I can control, it eases the pressure, because a lot of the things I stress about are outside of my control, I can’t actually do anything about them. But because of it, I’m able to be a better father, a better son, and probably a better friend and human being.It’s so important for me to be able to be present while spending time with my son and not being hungover with him or with gambling debt in the back of my mind. I’m really honest and open with him, he’s only nine, but I talk to him. I, unfortunately, wasn’t able to get a grip of it younger, things have consequences. Actions have consequences. I‘m super grateful to be here with this fresh opportunity. It’s difficult being away from my son, of course, if I never had these issues, and I maintained my career in England at Tottenham, when I first started or whatever, you know, my son would be right next to me. So that’s a consequence that I have to live with, but we make the best of the situation. He’s the most important thing to me. It’s important I can look my son, and my parents in the eye. I’m trying to be the best person I can be.
You can listen to our full chat and the rest of Season 1 of The Head Above The Clouds Podcast on all major streaming services.