At the age of just 31, Steven Caulker has managed to fit a lot into life. It could be said that he’s lived enough lifetimes for us all. Coming through the youth system at Tottenham he took in loans spells at Yeovil, where he was voted into their team of the decade, and Bristol City, where he won Young Player of the Year, before excelling at Swansea and returning to Spurs, taking his place at the heart of the defence.
He would then go on to represent Great Britain at the Olympics, and score on his debut for England. Then came his time at Cardiff, Queens Park Rangers and Southampton, before playing up front for Liverpool and working alongside Jurgen Klopp, surviving Dundee, experiencing Turkey, becoming captain of Sierra Leone, and then battling for survival at Wigan where the club repeatedly failed to pay its players.
What makes all of this more remarkable, is that everything Steven achieved and experienced was done whilst fighting against alcoholism, addiction and depression. It reads at times like a script from a Hollywood movie. But it was very much real life.
What I learned from my conversation with Steven Caulker is that he’s not just a captain and leader on the pitch, but he is also very much all of these off the pitch. He exemplifies character and courage in abundance and is relentless in his passion and mission to help others.
BEHIND THE WHITE LINES
It is these very qualities that Steven is using to launch the world’s first-ever Aftercare Academy run by professionals for professionals, Behind The White Lines.
Steven and his team are creating an environment for players recently released from professional academies and helping to give them a place where they can transition from football into everyday life. They do this by providing daily training programs, regular matches against professional academies, and the opportunity to learn from some of the best players in the game.
“10 years of training, 10 years of dealing with critics, 10 years of strict dieting, 10 years of putting football above your social life. 10 years of putting football before education. 10 years of your parents driving you to training 3 times a week. 10 years of sacrifice. All of this for 99.5% of players to be told they’re not good enough,” Steven says. “How does any adolescent process that? What happens next? What do the next ten years look like?
“I feel with my personal and lived experience, falling out of football at the age of 25 and 26, having no direction, no support, and not knowing what’s next, I was fortunate enough to have a CV behind me that after six months of knocking on the door, somebody gave me an opportunity to play out in Turkey.
“For these boys that don’t have a CV behind them, where do they go and where do they turn? I feel that I can help them and I want to help them. And that’s kind of what drives me to work all hours of the day right now. It’s extremely tiring and it’s been challenging, but we are making headway.”
From Monday the 7th-11th of August, Behind The White Lines will launch their first ever 5-day After Care Academy, taking place at the University of Roehampton, and is open to footballers recently released from academies. It’s free of charge, and includes, kit, food, and accommodation, which is on the grounds of the University. “The University of Roehampton has been amazing. And I must mention them because they really have been unreal.”
The camp will consist of training sessions, showcase football matches in front of global scouts, guest speakers, group discussions, employment talks, and 1-1 meetings. What this camp is doing is bringing footballers and like-minded people together, who all find themselves in a similar situation. Giving them the opportunity they need to try and get back into football or discover a new adventure and chapter in their life, whilst being there with the guidance and support they need.
Behind The White Lines is also very much focused on looking at the importance of a player’s education, taking care of players not only on the pitch but off it as well. They are providing four choices of qualification courses whilst still maintaining elite training every day. This is coupled with 1-1 therapy and emotional well-being workshops.
The Team at Behind The White Lines also has a selection of experienced and unique individuals who have experienced playing football at the highest level.
Their handpicked mentors include the likes of former Reading manager, Brian McDermott and the Republic of Ireland international, Steven Reid, who are available to support players through their journey on and off the pitch.
Steven Caulker and his team are helping to provide a pathway for young players released from academies to find their future with Behind The White Lines, Whether they re-sign with a professional academy, start work as a coach, complete one of the apprenticeship courses available to them, or enrol into university. They are looking to inspire, educate, and develop young players not just on the pitch but off the pitch. They are also instilling the core values which the academy has been built on, into each and every player who joins the Behind The Lines family: Respect, Commitment, Hard Work, and Honesty.
Talking with Steven takes me back to my own ‘career.’ I left high school at the age of 16 to sign for Dunfermline Athletic. It was there that I would share a changing room with 21 other boys who had spent their lives dreaming of making it as professional football players.
We would clean the stadium, the showers, the kits, and we would be berated and criticised every day, all whilst getting paid £85 per week. But that was all okay because we were all convinced that we’d soon be living out our dream.
Then reality comes crashing down on you. You’re not playing well, you lose confidence, the manager doesn’t trust you, you pick up injuries, and you start doubting if you’ll make it. Who can you speak to? There’s nobody to turn to. You can’t show that you’re weak, you don’t want to lose your place in the team, so you keep your head down and you work as hard as you possibly can, but you feel everything building up inside, you become so sick with worry and consumed by where your life is going, that you no longer know what to do.
Not one of those boys in that changing room made it as a professional football player. We all went our separate ways and looked to pick up the pieces in whatever way we could. That for me is exactly why the work being done by Behind The White Lines is so important. They are providing alternatives and options for those who need it, and giving players the support that hasn’t been there for them before.
“We need to improve the statistics within football,” Steven says. Let’s improve them in a sense of not just how many we get back into football, but how do we get them into education. How do we get them to learn? How do we help them find jobs?
“In a year, I want to be able to sit down and discuss this with the Premier League and say ‘This is what we were able to achieve, and join forces. That’s part of a long-term plan. But for the time being, we’re just working like crazy, taking calls from players at all times of the night. When they’re struggling, they’re struggling and they need some support, so we gIve them as much as we can. But it’s a work in progress.”
“So much of what we want to do is about prevention and not waiting until it’s too late. We’ve been able to go into the academies of Hibs, Liverpool, Wigan, and QPR, talk to their youth teams and have conversations with the boys who are 16, 17, and 18. It’s about having these kinds of discussions earlier, rather than later.
“This is something that definitely wasn’t available when I was at the age of 20. When I left Spurs I was struggling quite severely by that stage. But there was no real support in place. It hasn’t really been until the last three or four years that things have started to change.
Steven is quick to praise the work that is currently going into Player Care at every level and is full of admiration for what they do. But realises that they don’t have the resources to fix everything, especially at the lower end of the spectrum.
“I want to look at the positives and say, it’s great that there’s some improvement being made, and people are now aware of the issues and working towards helping people, but there is SO MUCH MORE that could be done. And I believe there’s so much work to be done around prevention, rather than just, “Oh he has an issue or she’s got an issue. ‘Let’s fix it.’ Let’s look at the core issues here. And let’s look at how we can actually prevent them.”
As Steven prepares to launch Behind The White Lines, he remains open-minded about his own football career, where he is currently a free agent. There is still that burning desire to play at the highest level and to win something, but for the time being though he is entirely focused on building Behind The White Lines.
There’s a quote from the film The Count of Monte Cristo, based on the Alexandre Dumas novel, that comes to mind when speaking with Steven. It says: “Life is a storm, my young friend. You will bask in the sunlight one moment, be shattered on the rocks the next. What makes you a man is what you do when that storm comes.”
Steven has spent his life battling against the elements, and continues to do so each and every single day, and not just for himself, but for others too. It was a pleasure to sit down with him, as he spoke openly, and honestly about his dreams for Behind The White Lines, his own career, his battles with depression and much more.
we offer a transition for these boys to come somewhere safe in an environment with people who have lived their experience
It’s a huge, huge project to be honest with you. The main aim is to help players transition from football into everyday life. You look at the players that have committed themselves to an Academy from the age of eight to the age of 18. They are then told your services are no longer required. That’s maybe okay, if you’re falling out of Tottenham, Chelsea, or Man United, then there is the likelihood you’ll get a chance lower down. But if you’re falling out of Stockport or Gillingham, the chances of you falling somewhere else are very slim.
So what do you do with yourself? You put in the same time and same effort as all the other boys, but what’s next? I don’t think there is enough support for those boys during that transition. Player Care is doing its best and you’re seeing a positive change with the new Player Care roles. But you’ve got one person to cover 10 age groups. So what we offer is a transition for these boys to come somewhere safe and into an environment with people who have lived their experiences.
A place where they can all relate to one another. And what we do is that we have full-time training. So football is what they want to do and I understand that. So, we have full-time training, we have showcase matches on a regular basis, games against other academies. And what we also offer is a new pathway. So there will be scholarships to America and scholarships to Universities in England. Also, the University of Roehampton has been amazing. And I must mention them because they’ve opened new pathways for players already. We’re also working with companies to offer apprenticeship routes.
So, we are launching our first five-day camp on the 7th of August, and it will host 25 players, who will all have the opportunity to play football and play showcase games where there will be global scouts, and they will also have the chance to potentially be offered those scholarship pathways into universities here and abroad.
I’m a big believer in, not allowing one single coach to tell you that you’re not good enough
So for me, I believe that there are late developers. I believe in terms of football right now, those who are getting the opportunity to perform at the ages of 18 to 21 have developed. Then there are those players who might not have developed by that age, but may all of a sudden develop physically etc. So I’ve always been a believer in late developers.
I also believe that players perform better under different coaches in different environments. So, I mean, I had a nightmare during my time at Southampton, you know, I just wasn’t able to perform. But if you took me out of that environment and put me in Swansea, I was really able to perform.
So what was it? I mean, partly down to my lifestyle, how I was living, but also part of it is down to the environment. So I’m a big believer in not allowing one single coach to tell you that you’re not good enough. As I mentioned, I had six months out of football, I knocked on the door of 70 different clubs and the first 70 said no, and it was the 71st that said yes. I’m not naive enough to think we’re going to get everyone 100% back into football. But I believe we can certainly improve on the 0.5% that currently makes it.
Players are kind of stuck in the middle where people are encouraging them to talk about their issues, but there’s still a lack of trust
You’ve been through the system yourself, you’re aware of how it is? I mean, would you have asked as a 16 or 17-year-old for help and said to the manager, “I’m struggling.” Because you know as well as I know, that if you did then you’re at the back of the queue.
So you know if you were to speak out about an issue that you’re suffering with, then that’s you out of the starting 11, so it’s very difficult. For coaches as well. I’m not just going to say it’s all down to just coaches, absolutely not.
Coaches are under pressure, they need to get results even at that level, they need to get results, they are also being asked to produce the next Harry Kane, the next Trent Alexander Arnold, so they’re under pressure.
Players are kind of stuck in the middle where people are encouraging them to talk about their issues, but there’s still a lack of trust, unfortunately, past experience has taught us that we can’t trust everyone inside the club. And people seek independent help. So a lot of players at all levels and at all ages have reached out to me to talk about gambling, now I’m no gambling expert, but what I am for them is relatable because I’ve been through it.
There are a lot of good people trying incredibly hard to really make a difference
I’m still a current player, I’ve dealt with the madness of it all, and people can relate to that. So what I’m trying to do is put players like myself into one company, i,e, Behind The White Lines, and then we can have these relatable conversations and players can feel like they can trust us. I feel that more can be done. I would also say that I don’t want to dismiss the work that’s already been done because I know there are a lot of good people trying incredibly hard to really make a difference.
So I’d say changes are being made. But I just feel that they’re understaffed. I mean, that’s just a fact. I think I may have mentioned Play Care Officers don’t have enough support. They’re working with 10 different age groups. How’s it possible to cover 10 age groups plus the first team? So if you are a Dele Alli, okay, you’ve worked at the top and there is obviously a bigger budget there and more staff around you, but again, it boils down to trust.
Unfortunately, clubs are seen as falling short in that area. I will also say that in terms of management, communication is so important. I read about Dele Alli when he went back to Everton and the conversation that he had with Sean Dyche. That is so important, and many managers seem to be missing that, certainly in my experience anyway. Just having that communication with the players, and having an understanding of who they are and how they are is vital.
over time we’re looking to open up our doors
We have plans to expand Behind The White Lines to 16 to 35-year-olds. For me, players at the age of 24 and 25, are at almost even more risk, because you sign that first pro contract, second pro contract, and you start to feel that you’ve made it. Then before you know it, whether it’s due to injuries, whether it’s due to lack of form, a change of management, or all the multiple factors that can affect your performance and affect your career, you find yourself without a club, and during that period, what do you do?
I’m currently a free agent, how do I keep fit? Who calls to check up on me? If I’m injured, who does my rehab for me? There are all sorts of things that I guess we don’t think about. Again, I’d like to emphasise that I’m one of the fortunate ones to be doing it. I’m closer to the top end of the football spectrum, but there are those who are doing it towards the bottom end of the spectrum, there’s less money. So if you’re a free agent, what do you do?
So we’re definitely looking to open our doors over time, because even this is a big enough project itself, but over time, we’re looking to open up doors. So for those who are injured and need somewhere to do rehab, for those who are out of contract or want to keep fit and want to be around like-minded individuals, then this will be a safe space for them.
I want to win a trophy. I’ve yet to win a trophy. 15 years of playing. I’ve got zero trophies to show for it. So it’s definitely something that I want to achieve.
Regarding my football career, the best way to describe it is that I’m open-minded. I’ve had a couple of offers on the table, but nothing that’s turned my head right now.
I am focused on building Behind The Lines just now. It’s something that I feel was my purpose. It’s something where I take on board the responsibility and want to help others, so this is certainly keeping me busy for the time being.
However, if the right offer came along, with the right location and manager, I would certainly consider it. I still want to play football. I’m 31 years of age and still believe I’ve got three, four, or five years left to play. And I want to win a trophy. I’ve yet to win a trophy. 15 years of playing. I’ve got zero trophies to show for it. So it’s definitely something that I want to achieve.
In terms of the modern game now, the gap between the top and bottom has never been bigger. So in terms of the money, certainly the top 5%, maybe even the 3%, the money is absolutely insane. It’s bigger than it’s ever been. If you go from the Premier League to the championship now, the money’s not there. The money in the championship used to be there, but that’s died down.
Post-Covid the salaries have changed a lot all around the world. That would be my honest reflection on it. At the top it’s crazy. But it’s actually a bigger gap now between those at the top and those at the bottom. I would like to see that gap close. It’d be good. I think it’d be good just for the sport overall, to have more competitive games every single weekend that people are able to watch and attend.
I‘VE BEEN TAKEN ABACK BY THE LEVEL OF SUPPORT
As I mentioned, The University of Roehampton has been extremely generous in helping us. Not only with accommodation but with the facilities and all of the rest that comes with education pathways.
We’ve got coaches at the top of the game, we’ve got the best universities in England offering their support in terms of education. We’ve also got the emotional side because, to me, that’s important. So we have trained therapists, and trained psychologists who have experience of dealing with various mental health issues. And they’re the ones delivering the message and delivering training to boys. So we want to keep everything very relatable. We want to keep the same message throughout. We don’t want to sort of pull away and start going, ‘Right we’re now corporate.’ We want to really remain very relatable.
I’ve been taken aback by the level of support from companies. That’s been really quite wonderful. There has been so much support from various companies wanting to be involved and wanting to offer pathways into their business.
We’re exploring potential sponsorship right now as well, which is great. So that’s been super surprising to me in a positive way. The University of Roehampton, who I will continue to mention because honestly, they’ve been great. They’ve just been incredible and have set the tone. What they are doing is actually giving back and giving opportunities and pathways to those to need it right now
I want to support others, and in turn, it helps me, it really does
I have delivered around 15 to 20 talks now to various businesses raising awareness of mental health and well-being. When I first did it, I thought, ‘What do I want to talk about?’ and I put together a presentation and I was looking at it and I was thinking ‘How am I going to say this?’ Then I just got on stage and it just flows and from that moment on it was enjoyable.
I got such a high level of engagement from the audience, and for each talk I do I put together a different presentation and I never repeat the same one. And once I’ve put it together, I don’t look at it again until I’m on stage and I think, ‘What page is next?’
I’ve talked alot about the football side of things. But if you ask me, it’s not just a football problem, it’s a societal problem. Ideally, I’d love to change the world. Sometimes I lie awake at night and my girlfriend is like, ‘Please relax and sleep for a bit,’ but it’s in me because I still suffer from depression and addiction. It doesn’t just go away. You might be clean for a year or 10 years, but that is almost irrelevant as it still lives with me in my head and talks to me on a daily basis. And I want to support others, and in turn, it helps me, it really does, and I really get a good feeling from helping people.
Recovery meetings for me are vital. I go to AAA and GA, and they help me so much. I need to attend them weekly. When I miss them for a week or two weeks, I feel it, I really feel it. Antidepressants help me and just give me that little edge sometimes when I’m struggling, just that little 1% to help me get out of bed and do the training, or go for a walk or pick up the phone or whatever it may be just because that little 1% always helps.
That’s a big part of why I’m on my recovery programme and just sharing and honestly, you know, that’s kind of for me the most freeing part of it. So many people choose not to do it and of course each to their own. That’s what works for me when I just talk with a like-minded individual and share my truth. I just feel better for it, and they don’t have to say anything back, sometimes they just listen and that’s what recovery is all about it and it really helps me.
I want to help as many people across as many different sports as possible
My ultimate aim would be to step into the women’s game in some capacity. it would be in a slightly different way just because of the setup. But I definitely want to step in and help, and positively impact women in sport.
My niece is 11 years old, she plays football. And I would love by the time she was 16 to have some support networks in place. I also want to branch out to other countries and other sports. There’s already a bit of a crossover in rugby. And I can’t see any reason why I can’t develop it.
That’s definitely the long-term plan to help as many people across as many different sports as possible. And also to make as many connections as possible. At the moment, I’m doing it myself, but I think at one stage, I’ll be able to take a step back and just connect with people, the right people at the right time, and good people who are doing good work and make things happen.
With all our thanks at The Atlantic Dispatch to the gentleman that is Steven Caulker.
Please visit Behind The White Lines for more information and to support an absolutely fantastic initiative