6 Mar, 2024 @ 15:07
6 mins read

EXCLUSIVE: Footballer Steven Caulker speaks on addiction, regret and his new life on Spain’s Costa del Sol after becoming player-manager of FC Malaga City

WIPING the sweat off his brow after a gruelling two-hour training session as player-manager, Steven Caulker reflects on his new life on the Costa del Sol.

“I love it, I honestly love it. You can’t complain about the weather or the location”, he says with a wide, genuine smile.

It’s a sunny Friday morning in beautiful Nerja, home of fifth tier side FC Malaga City and location for the latest installment of Caulker’s unique footballing career.

Steven Caulker directing training in Nerja with FC Malaga City. Credit: Olive Press

Sat on a bench shielded away from the warm winter sun, the 32-year old is engaging and articulate about his remarkable journey.

He started off with Tottenham Hotspur at just 18, moving between different loan spells before time at Cardiff City, QPR, and a stint as an emergency striker under Jurgen Klopp at Liverpool.

“Straight away I could see what he was building”, says Caulker of the bespectacled German, set to leave Merseyside this summer after nine years at the helm.

“When I left I turned around to my friend, a scouser, and said you are going to win everything. In training I was often on the opposite XI so I could see how good they were getting with their press”, he adds, ranking Klopp as the best manager he played under.

Caulker competing for the ball with current England captain and Bayern Munich forward Harry Kane. Credit: Cordon Press

Elsewhere, Caulker proudly remembers his lone appearance for England, scoring in a friendly defeat to Sweden otherwise remembered for a spectacular Zlatan Ibrahimovic overhead kick.

But while his career was reaching its nadir, off the pitch the Englishman’s personal life and mental health began to spiral.

“I’m an addict – I’m addicted to escapism. When I put one thing down, I pick up another. Football was my first addiction, but when I am not playing it can be alcohol, gambling, women, food”.

Suffering from addiction drove Caulker to depression and contemplations of suicide. Hangovers struck and hundreds of thousands of pounds were wasted away as off-pitch struggles began to impact his football.

“I was at rock bottom. I fell out of love with football and the game”, he admits. 

“When I fell, it was really hard to get back. You feel like you have a lot of friends and support when you’re on top, but when I fell it felt very different. It was quite a lonely place”.

Does he have regrets? 

Caulker with former Cardiff City and Manchester United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. Credit: Cordon Press

“Yeah I have some regrets for sure. I was immature and that hurts me, I wish I was more patient and didn’t jump at things. I should have stayed at Tottenham for longer, but I suppose I have a lot of life skills from that experience, from making my decision so quickly and impulsively, it’s a balancing act”.

Life has taken Caulker on a curious path since.

He notices similarities between Spain and Turkey, a nation where he plied his trade for three years, whilst a new challenge has emerged as captain of the Sierra Leone national team.

Caulker says: “I built a school there about 10 years ago. My grandad is from there so I have been involved with the country, doing various charity bits and spending time there, but I had never considered football”.

“Carlton Cole [the former West Ham striker] called me a couple of years ago and said we have just qualified for AFCON [African Cup of Nations], we’re desperate to get a few more players so would you be open to having a conversation. I went on the first trip to Morocco and I was sold from that moment on”. 

Steven Caulker currently captains Sierra Leone, the nation of his grandfather’s birth. Credit: Cordon Press

The importance of the role can sometimes appear daunting: “It’s a huge responsibility, I think people underestimate the size of football in Africa. I definitely feel that responsibility, we need to be at that next AFCON”.

“When I went there ten years ago I went under the radar but now it’s completely different. To be honest it gets quite intense, I can find it difficult to relax, but at the same time it is nice to go and spend some time with my people, where my grandad grew up. I’ve even been to the small villages that he grew up in, living with the locals”. 

Caulker briefly returned to the UK, playing for Wigan Athletic before a dispute over unpaid wages saw him leave, while a foray into punditry was derailed after sponsors Bet365 felt nervous about his appearance given his own negative experiences with gambling.

Football’s relationship with betting is a subject on which the Londoner is eminently vocal.

“We wouldn’t normalise crack cocaine but we normalise gambling. I am very vocal about it – the relationship needs to change, but football as a whole is putting money before people at the moment. Society as a whole should be made more aware of the dangers of gambling. It’s a deep dark hole”.

Caulker playing for Alanyaspor during a three-year spell in Turkey. Credit: Cordon Press

Nowadays, Caulker finds himself on the Costa del Sol, embarking on a fresh start and a new chapter in his life.

Yet he concedes he remains a work in progress: “I take it day-by-day, doing a lot of recovery. I live in Marbella so I drive in, I do an hour of Alcoholics or Gambling Anonymous, I make a gratitude list, I pray, I speak to people, I balance my family life. I will never be cured of depression but I can manage it better now”. 

Caulker’s new life on the Andalucian coast also brings a new role as a player-manager, his first step into coaching.

“I was on holiday in Nerja in the summer with my girlfriend and son, staying in a hotel just down the road. I knew these guys through my academy Behind the White Lines [based in the UK], which helps footballers released by clubs, and we began a conversation”.

George Jermy, owner and founder of FC Malaga City. Credit: FC Malaga City

After many Whatsapps and calls, Caulker finally succumbed to pressure from the club’s owner, fellow Englishman George Jermy.

He is very happy with his decision: “It took a good six months for me to go, you know what, this might be the right next step. Honestly I am glad I did it, it’s so refreshing, the vibe is amazing”.

Unfortunately, his tenure started with a whimper with Caulker’s role constrained by the tribulations of post-Brexit visas.

“In my first game we lost 6-0 and I felt completely powerless. That was hard to take, a real baptism of fire. I didn’t have a license, I couldn’t even be on the bench”.

Caulker in the sunshine. Credit: Olive Press

He hopes he can lean on some of his own personal experiences to guide the side: “Reaction to things is important. Throughout my career I reacted badly and it has cost me. It’s all about the reaction. We lose 6-0 but how are we going to react to that? The team showed a great reaction, the next game we lost 1-0 to top of the league and should have got a point, following that two draws. We’re on an upward curve”.

What style of football does he want to play? “When I first came I had the idea in my head of a high press, like Klopp’s, but I soon learnt that you need to adapt to what you have”.

“I’ve been really pleased with this last week, it has been the biggest progression, a massive step” – since our interview, Malaga City have risen to 13th in the table, aided by two impressive victories.

Results have improved since Caulker took the reigns. Credit: Olive Press

He says he is constantly aware of dangers for his players: “As a player you have so much time on your hands. You go home, might be living away from your family, you have some money, the beach is close by, there are women walking around, there are so many distractions and temptations. But I also want them to enjoy their life. At this level that is very important”.

Caulker feels that support structures for players have improved since his youth, yet doubts whether he would have benefited from the new era of player welfare.

“I feel like I was very stubborn. It’s not like people didn’t try to help me, although if I was helping someone today I would probably do it differently. I hope that man-management and understanding of individuals will be one of my strengths as a manager”.

Does he feel pressure to achieve results and success?

“The biggest pressure I’ve ever experienced in life has been what I have put myself under. Today I am wiser and more mature. I know it’s about the bigger picture, not just one game or one day”.

Credit: Olive Press

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