Steven Caulker admits that he lost interest in football for a significant period of time. During his struggles with depression and addiction, he completely lost his love for the sport. At that time, the thought of staying involved in football was unbearable. However, he was able to reignite his passion for it in a way that he cannot exactly explain. He feels content to have rediscovered his love for the game in a new and different way, which allows him to fully enjoy the present moment. He expresses his enjoyment for being present at training this morning and eagerly looks forward to the game this afternoon. Overall, he is happy and grateful to be where he is now.
On a Tuesday morning, the former defender for Tottenham, Liverpool, and the English national team, who is now the captain of Sierra Leone, is seated on a bench that has been wheeled onto a blue track surrounding the grass at the Enrique López Cuenca, a municipal athletics ground located in the small coastal town of Nerja. On one side, a woman is throwing a medicine ball while a Dutch running club passes by on the other. “Life is unpredictable,” he remarks, motioning towards them. “My girlfriend lives nearby. My son and I stayed in a hotel just two minutes away.” This place is now his home, as Caulker has recently taken on the role of player-manager for Málaga City in the fifth division of Spanish football.
32-year-old Caulker is a captivating and eloquent individual with a genuine and sincere personality. It has only been nine months since he departed from Wigan and just a couple of weeks since he was practicing with Charlton. This was not a planned move and it is a daunting task, especially at such an early stage. He is currently studying Spanish, still needs to obtain his A and Pro licenses, and is eagerly anticipating his residency papers to officially allow him to participate in matches as a player or coach. Despite the challenges, he is content today and that is truly significant. As someone who has overcome addiction and depression, this means everything to him. The only negative aspect, according to Caulker, is when javelins and shot puts are thrown onto the pitch.
George Jermy founded the Málaga City academy in 2013. The academy has a diverse group of 175 players from 40 different countries and consists of eight teams spanning all age groups. Jermy, who plays as a left-back, leads the senior team with Steven Caulker as central defender. This team competes in Group 9 of the Tercera Federación, which is part of the Spanish football league system and sits below La Liga’s top two divisions. The Tercera Federación includes 324 teams, while there are also 40 teams in two groups of Primera Federación and 90 teams in Segunda Federación. Currently, the team is struggling in the relegation zone and Caulker’s first game as coach resulted in a 6-0 loss. Despite this, he remains optimistic and says, “I’m jumping in at the deep end,” with a smile.
Caulker expresses his admiration for George’s creation, stating that it provides players with a second chance to continue their careers, gain employment, and acquire new skills. His Behind the White Lines academy aids footballers who have been released from academies by assisting them in finding new clubs and preparing for alternative pathways. Although Caulker had been discussing potential opportunities with Málaga City, George ultimately convinced him to join by persistently convincing him and offering the chance to develop as a coach while still being able to play. It seemed like the perfect combination for Caulker.
“I did not have the intention of becoming a coach initially. However, once I joined Sierra Leone, I became actively involved and developed a strong passion to make a difference in the game. I had been searching for a player-manager position in the UK but was constantly told that I lacked the necessary experience. The market was also highly competitive. When I was presented with the chance to coach here, I eagerly accepted it.”
Is it already time? At the age of 32, it seems too soon to leave the professional world of sports. “Yes, but I started when I was 17 and honestly…” Caulker begins, his pause conveying a lot. He had reached his limit. Charlton would have been his 15th team. His time at Wigan ended with him speaking out for players and staff who had not been paid, while also feeling emotional. He was exhausted from constantly moving around, being separated from his son and family. The entire situation left him feeling disillusioned.
On his first appearance for the England team, Caulker scored a goal. He performed so well at Alanyaspor that Fenerbahce showed interest in signing him. He speaks with great enthusiasm about his home country, Sierra Leone. However, his journey in football and life has not been easy. He struggled with addiction, starting with gambling and then alcohol. This led to frequent blackouts and waking up in police custody, facing legal consequences. The shame he felt was overwhelming. He lost his money, his driver’s license, and was diagnosed with depression. He even became critically ill. His struggles with addiction, anxiety, and self-hatred, partly due to the pressures of the game, led him to contemplate suicide.
“It becomes all-encompassing. I placed high expectations on myself because it defined who I was. For approximately seven to eight years, my father has continuously reminded me, ‘If you don’t want to play football, that’s okay. I don’t believe it’s beneficial for you.’ It may be every father’s dream, but he truly just wants me to pursue what brings me joy. He doesn’t want me to sacrifice my happiness for the sake of chasing a dream. All he truly desires is for me to be content in life, and he doesn’t need extravagant experiences like going to Wembley or Fenerbahce to be happy.”
“Kolo Touré was the one who brought me to Wigan, but he was fired just ten days later. I started to question my decision. However, I found closure at Charlton and realized it was the right time for me to move on. I discovered that I no longer had a passion for football, but being in Turkey allowed me to enjoy the game again without the intense pressure. Sierra Leone was a completely new experience for me. However, my time at Fenerbahce was difficult and unsuccessful, leading me to make the decision to end my career. I had the option to join another club for a short period or start fresh, and I chose the latter by taking this opportunity.”
“Additionally,” he states, “my goal is to continue playing for the national team. This goes beyond just coaching for me. I feel a sense of responsibility. We were unable to qualify for the Afcon, and I am disappointed. I am determined to lead our team to the next Afcon. As captain, it is my duty. Over the past two years, we have established a strong culture and the players see me as a role model, constantly seeking my support. I am not ready to retire yet. I hope to play for a few more years and perhaps even manage the team in the future. Therefore, it is important for me to have regular playing time here.”
Can this level be considered suitable for international play? “That’s a valid inquiry. Only time will reveal.”
What occurs if he needs to remove himself? Caulker chuckles. “I’m not sure, I hope that situation never arises. It could happen. We had to substitute George at halftime the other day! I’ll need to take a sincere look at myself, but at this point in my life, I am capable of being honest and holding myself accountable.”
Caulker describes it as a purpose, acknowledging that there is also pressure involved. However, he has undergone therapy and matured, which has helped him control his impulsiveness. Football is no longer his sole identity, but rather one aspect of his life. He is now a father, participates in recovery and the 12-step program, and has a school in Africa. He sees himself as someone who enjoys assisting others.
I have collaborated with different types of managers – some who were very casual and would say “Hey guys, let’s play a game of five-a-side” and others who were brilliant minds. For example, Francesco Farioli was focused on possession and building up from the back, while Brendan Rodgers made me feel at ease and welcomed when I was just 19 years old. Kolo Toure, on the other hand, would greet me every morning with bear hugs and a positive attitude. Jürgen Klopp’s pressing tactics were truly unique and outstanding. I remember watching the other team during training and seeing how much they improved every day. Whenever I received the ball, it was like bang, bang, bang – so quick and precise. I left there thinking, “They’re definitely going to win the Premier League.”
“I am eager to learn from all my experiences and my preferred style of play would involve a high press with a focus on possession and intensity. However, my greatest skill lies in managing individuals, with clear communication and honesty being key. It may seem simple, but after 15 years as a professional, I have rarely encountered it. I make it a point to inform the team on Thursdays or Fridays. In the past, I have disliked finding out at 1:30pm when my family is already in the stands and has traveled to watch the game. It can be quite embarrassing.”
“I will offer support and chances to players, but there is also a reality to consider. I have had previous managers who have told me, ‘You are better than those players, I would choose you over any of them.’ In those moments, it felt like they wanted to replace the entire team. When I was with Liverpool, I was not prepared for the opportunities presented to me and so I was rightfully moved aside. Players like Jordan Henderson, Adam Lallana, and James Milner were pushing for higher standards. However, mentally, I was not in a good place. At the time, it felt unfair, but with hindsight and therapy, I now understand and respect the decision.”
Is it possible that things could have turned out differently? “Most likely not. I immediately went from Liverpool to rehabilitation – for the second time. It was necessary for me to reach my lowest point in order to be where I am now.
“I have experienced multiple low points in my life. I continuously stumbled and felt like I couldn’t get up. Even in my journey towards recovery and sobriety, I hit rock bottom. There have been times when I hit rock bottom financially, emotionally, and physically. In addition, there have been moments when I felt like no one wanted to work with me, no one responded to my calls, and no one gave me a chance. People often only seek out one moment or opportunity.”
Caulker snaps his fingers. “But it’s not just one, there are several. Ultimately, it’s the intense desire and desperation for change. ‘I’ll do whatever it takes. Help me transform.’ The crucial aspect for me is staying committed to it. Honestly, my biggest advice to others is to make it a daily habit.”
Every morning, I make a one-hour drive from Málaga to arrive here where I have language tapes and therapy groups to keep me company. To start my day, I make a gratitude list of 10 things I am thankful for and five things I don’t miss. I also say serenity prayers. Some days, I feel the effects of these practices, while other days I may not. When traveling, it can be easy to lose my support system for my recovery, but there are English-speaking groups available here and online meetings since the pandemic. I leave at 6:30am and attend a meeting in my car before arriving here, which helps me feel prepared for the day ahead.
I may have some naivety, but I am here in a pressure-free environment where I am not expected to produce immediate results or risk being fired after just a couple of games. My contract has no set end date, allowing me the opportunity to make mistakes, be creative, and discover what works best for me. To be honest, I do not have a specific plan in mind. My ultimate goal may be to become a manager in the Premier League again, but I am unsure of how to achieve that. Currently, I am managing a team in the fifth division of Spanish football. This is both thrilling and intimidating, as the possibilities for my future are limitless.
The smile appears once more. Caulker expresses, “I am currently feeling good. Really good. My girlfriend is with me. My family understands the unpredictability of my life and can hear in my voice that I am content. Everything is looking up… Without direction in life, I do face challenges. This provides me with assistance, guides me, and gives me a sense of purpose, something to motivate me to get out of bed.”
“Occasionally, one must search for things to be grateful for, but it helps me gain perspective. This is crucial because when I was a Premier League player, I couldn’t see it. It didn’t matter what I accomplished or how much money I made. Even if I had luxury items like Rolexes and Ferraris, I was never truly content. I would have gladly given it all up for this moment. I prefer to be sitting here in tranquility as the sun rises. It’s a pleasant experience.”