Belfast Telegraph

Fallen Northern Ireland star Whitley says football must do more to help players tackle demons

By Brett Campbell

A former Northern Ireland international and Manchester City star whose life was ruined by cocaine and alcohol has said football chiefs should do more to help young players cope with addiction.

Jeff Whitley (39) was just 17 years old when he broke into City's first-team as a midfielder and earned the first of 20 international caps in 1996.

But instead of feeling on top of the world he was totally alone, wishing he was dead. "I had fallen out of love with myself and I was praying to die," he revealed in a candid interview.

The recovering addict said "unresolved issues" from a childhood tragedy caught up with him in later life and almost destroyed him.

"Losing my parents at a young age meant I had never seen two people connect and have a healthy, balanced relationship," he said.

"I wanted drink and drugs to get away from myself, to get away from this empty hole I used to feel."

The Zambia-born ace, whose talent saw him quickly ascend the ranks of Man City's youth scheme, said efforts to fill the void with "alcohol, a cocktail of drugs, and women" left him exhausted and coughing up blood.

"You don't need to be Einstein to know you haven't prepared for a big game - but I couldn't stop," he said.

He described how Saturday nights out rapidly spilled into Sunday and eventually the rest of the week, which led to binges that lasted for weeks on end - even on the eve of big games.

"I was physically dying and throwing up blood," he said. "Towards the end I would only go to sleep when my body shut down - I could go for days or weeks without sleeping."

The promising star - who once faced opponents such as Thierry Henry and Patrick Vieira and played in the Manchester derby when Roy Keane shattered Alf-Inge Haaland's knee - was famously sent home by NI manager Lawrie Sanchez in 2005.

He and team-mate Philip Mulryne were caught boozing the night before a World Cup qualifier against Azerbaijan at Windsor Park.

The incident spurred Mulryne's journey into the priesthood. He gave up drink and left the game to find "something deeper" in life.

However Whitley, who left Man City on loan to Wrexham and later Notts County after falling out of favour with club manager Kevin Keegan in 2003, kept going despite concerned friends telling him to "calm down".

He had another shot in the Premier League when he signed for Sunderland in 2005, but was unable to rid himself of his demons for another decade.

"I'm three years clean and sober," he said.

Now, the qualified counsellor who works for the Sporting Chance Clinic is reaching out to other players in a bid to ensure they have access to the crucial help he feels he was deprived of.

"One of the hardest things I have ever done is ask for help," he told Blue Moon Podcast.

"Now I'm helping young people understand addiction.

"Players (battling addiction) might be able to tell you they are feeling great, but their behaviour tells a different story."

Whitley, who said he doesn't blame anyone for his problems, hopes to branch out into more football clubs to stop other young men from going down the same path of destruction.

Rather than clubs preaching about "bad decisions" and "pointing out blind spots", the recovering addict called on them to ensure players feel safe to open up about underlying issues.

"Young lads trying to break into a first team are scared of getting judged or flung out," he said.

"I had to go back to understand who I was, they strip you down to your skeleton. I didn't know who I was, that's the scary thing."

Belfast Telegraph

Daily News Headlines Newsletter

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox.


From Belfast Telegraph