As part of the ‘Under The Surface Podcast’, which will see three players talking about the mental health battles that they have had bubbling under the surface, Andros Townsend spoke bravely and honestly on a number of topics, ranging from playing football the day after his brother’s tragic passing for Spurs U11s against Arsenal U11s to how his gambling addiction crippled him to the point he was still betting whilst waiting to have his gambling charges read out by The FA. He also revealed that he lost £46,000 in one bet when on £3,000 a week, with just enough petrol to get from Leeds to his next loan Birmingham, but couldn’t afford to pay for the carpark.
Andros also revealed that he is trying to tackle the problem of how released players get proper support, and fears that there may be more cases like Jeremy Wisten, the player released by Manchester City, if Premier League clubs don’t make a change to how they support released players with psychologists and support.
Townsend revealed that he has had offers to play in the Premier League and also has offers on the table from European clubs, where he would have the chance to play in the Champions League and compete for a title.
Was it always football that you wanted to be involved in?
Like you said, my dad was always involved in football, he played for a Sunday League side when I was young, he played, he managed, he coached, he was a big Spurs fan, so football was my life and I was very fortunate that I grew up literally opposite the Arsenal academy. So I used to literally climb over the fence to go in train when I could, say my life just revolved around a football.
Would you say that you spent most of your time in your childhood playing football by yourself?
Yes, and because I was at Spurs at a very young age, I wasn’t doing normal stuff that normal kids were doing. If there was a party, I couldn’t go because I had training. if they were going to the cinema or wherever, I couldn’t go because I had training. So like you said a lot of my childhood was by myself, either playing football or going to training without my friends. I think that is a common theme for players that have obviously made it.
Was there a moment or an age where you realised that you had a gift and you could pursue football as a career?
I remember my first game as a child, I think it was for Ridgeway Rovers, my Sunday League side, and I think I was 6 or 7 and I was playing on the left wing. As the ball kicked off, everyone just ran to the ball, and it was like they just forgot about their positions and thought ‘I’m going to get this ball’, and I was the only one that stayed in my position on the left-hand side and I remember thinking at that time, ‘ right, maybe you are different, maybe you’re already starting to think differently, maybe you do have a chance’, as opposed to these rats who all just chased the ball!
Obviously your dad was a huge influence, but how important was family in your early career?
So important. Those times as I said when you were a kid, you want to go out, you want to go to the cinema but my mum was always (my dad obviously as well) taking me to training, and said ‘listen, if you want to be a player, you can’t be hanging out with your kids, you can’t be going walking the streets or going to the cinema, you have to dedicate yourself to the craft’. I would say early age to 16 when I left school, I was pretty much guided by my parents, whereas when I went full-time I really realised, ‘right, I need to dedicate, it’s not just God-given talent that’s going to get me to the top, I really need to put in the hours’, and I think that’s when the lightbulb switched and I started doing extra training, be it at Spurs or back at home or at the Arsenal training field, I was always doing as much as I could away from the club to stand out and get those extra hours in to stand out from the field.
How key is that support network for a young player to make it?
Without that, I can’t see how you would make it. It’s that important. even in terms of my mum driving me to and from training wherever it be, Spurs, I went on trial at Palace, Chelsea, Arsenal, all the London clubs, without someone to take me, wait for me, bring you back; it’s not possible. I can’t get a cab, I can’t get a bus at the age of 9 or 10 so without that support, it’s impossible. I’ve seen many teammates who came through with me who have not made it because I didn’t have that support, they had to get buses to training, and it’s not really ideal.
You’ve seen players with the same level of ability who didn’t have the support, who haven’t made it?
Many players, many players that have just not had that support. So I think that support system, that guidance and parents that just know right and wrong is massive for me, 100%.
Was the situation with your half-brother passing something that ever knocked you off your trajectory, and did you have the support to ever keep you on that path?
I think I was so young, I was 10. I couldn’t go off the rails. It hurt me massively, I probably struggled on the pitch for a while but it’s not something that I remember too much, how it did affect me. I remember the next day I had a game against Arsenal, luckily it was just across the road from myself, so I was able to climb over the fence and go there on my own. I just remember I was in a daze, I was in this game and I was playing, but I just wasn’t there, I wasn’t with it. I remember the coach at halftime, obviously he didn’t know, he just said ‘Andros, go and have a jog and get yourself right for this game’. I was there, but I just wasn’t there if that makes sense. I think I was like that for a good few months after that as well.
How do you get yourself right for a game? Because as much as you want to be a footballer and that is your dream, there are things that are bigger in life than football, and that is certainly one of them. How do you process that?
I couldn’t. I went for a jog up and down while he did his team talk, but the second half was the same. Obviously it was at a time 10 years ago when you didn’t speak about your problems, I didn’t tell him ‘gaffer this happened yesterday’, you just get on with it and you try and navigate yourself through the world with this huge hole in your heart, which losing someone so close to you at such a young age, it does leave a hole in your heart, it leaves a void in your life and you never fully get over it, it’s just something that you learn to deal with in time and you learn to work around that bereavement.
You said that you were 10, and that you couldn’t go off the rails – do you think that might have happened if you were older?
One million percent. One million percent. all sense of life just goes out the window, I was 10 and I didn’t know to live the rest of my life. I remember I was in school 2 or 3 months later, and some of the kids was singing Puff Daddy’s I’ll Be Missing You – and we’re talking 3 months later – I just broke down in tears, literally two hours crying and in the end they had to call my mum and I had to go home. Even at the time I remember thinking I told them that my brother passed away a week ago because it didn’t feel right, 3 months ago and I’m still crying uncontrollably, so it’s mad that even as a kid how much you try to not let people know that you’re hurting, you want people to know that everything is alright.
And 18 months ago was the first you spoke about it, even though it happened when you were 10?
Like everything else, you brush it under the carpet, everything is alright, I’m fine, I’m over it. Obviously we know that you’re dealing with this stuff under the surface on your own for many years. That was the first time, but like I said we like to pretend that everything is alright.
How common are these conversations in dressing rooms?
These conversations never happen. Never, never happen. I remember myself and Steven Caulker were going through a gambling addiction at the same time. we both knew that we were going through the addiction, we both knew that it was more than just losing a bit of money, but we never spoke about it.
Why did you not speak about it?
Because you don’t want someone knowing that you’re vulnerable, you don’t want someone knowing that you’re weak, that this is affecting you and that you’ve got an illness, so you just brush it under the carpet. I’d tell him if I won a big bet, he’d tell me if he won a big bet, if we lost a big bet we’d tell each other and laugh about it, but it was crippling both of us, and it was something that plagued both of us for a good few years, unfortunately it plagued Steven for a lot longer, but we just never had that conversation.
Do you think your gambling issue stemmed from anything?
I’ve always had an addictive personality, so I don’t drink now, and I always tried to stay away from gambling. It stemmed from being bored in a hotel. I was on loan at Leeds bored in the hotel, and there was a gambling culture in the changing room and they made it sound glamorous, and I got sucked in. But I think I’ve always had that sort of character inside of me, and even now since my gambling addiction, I have to be addicted to something – whether it be FIFA a few years ago, I would honestly be playing FIFA 24/7, but I knew that I needed some sort of addiction or I’d be back on the gambling – whether it be FIFA, ridiculous stuff like Pokémon Go, Table Tennis, Basketball, just anything that I can get addicted to, I was getting addicted to, because that’s my personality. Even though it’s a crippling addiction playing FIFA when you’ve got two kids in the other room, it’s better than losing all my wages to gambling, that’s the way I look at it.
How bad did things get with your gambling? What was the biggest bet that you ever lost in one go?
The biggest amount I lost in one go was £46,000. On one bet. And I think this was a time when I was earning about £3,000 a week so that was a lot of my earnings gone in one bet. It was the night before the playoff semi-final with Birmingham where I was on loan, the night before. Luckily, I didn’t play the next day because I would have been a mess, but that was the worst. When I left Leeds on loan to go to Birmingham, I was in my car with no money in my account, barely enough petrol to get to Birmingham, I managed to get to Birmingham and then the hotel that I was staying in you had to pay to stay in the carpark. So I had money to get to Birmingham, but I had no money to pay for the carpark. Luckily the next day, the player liaison that picked me up, I made some sort of excuse; ‘lost my card blah blah blah, can you sort this?’, and he sorted it but that is how bad it got for me. I’d say today that I’m very fortunate that it did happen whilst I was single, whilst I was on £3,000 a week, as opposed to I sit here today with 2 kids and a Premier League player, so it would be a lot more catastrophic if I had this addiction now.
What is addiction and what does it feel like to you?
Addiction for me is waking up in the morning, and the first thing you think about is placing a bet, it’s chasing the high of winning a bet. Addiction is missing training, missing Appearances because you’re either waiting on a bet, lost a bet, won a bet, and addiction for me is your life being controlled by gambling. For me, when I say I was in an addiction, it was literally taking over my life, and it was number one over football, over family, over everything. Because I’d already been warned by The FA, I’d already been banned, and after I got warned and banned, I continued placing bets. Not illegal bets, but I continued gambling. I remember, I was waiting for my charge from The FA, I was at Wembley outside placing bets as I was waiting to be charged. So I was telling them ‘I’m over it now, the gambling is over’, and while I’m waiting and my career was basically in their hands, I was placing bets, because the addiction was just too much. I knew that my career was over if these guys said that I was banned for a year, you can’t play for 6 months, because I was the first case so I was fully expecting to go in and for my career to be over, but I was still sat outside placing bets. It’s just crazy. Just crazy.
Do the highs mean so much more after everything you have gone through in your career?
As a player you’re always taught to not focus too much on the highs, just focus on the next game, and you buy into that crap. I remember I made my England debut, I scored, I had a little moment to myself, I had a little cry – went home and cried a little bit – but the next day it was about the next game, it was about Tuesday. Unfortunately, that’s the way you’re brought up to believe and if I had the moment again, I would milk it for all its worth!
On the massive amount of players that hate football
There are hundreds or thousands of players like Marv (Sordell) that get to the age of 26/27, that are just sick of football, sick of all the ups and downs, but maybe plugged through it because they’re thinking how am I going to earn a living otherwise, what else can I do, I need to provide for my kids. But 100% I take my hat off to him for doing it, but definitely so many football players.
There have been times in my career where I’ve been low and I’ve not seen a way out and I’d just think ‘I don’t want to do this anymore, it’s too much stress for me’, but I’ve obviously kept going and got through it.
On changing the support system for released players to prevent worst case scenarios
I think support is the main thing for me, especially in the social media era, the prize for becoming a footballer is so big, I fear for this next generation over the next 10 years; players that don’t make it – we’ve already seen the boy Jeremy Wisten at Man City taking his own life – if we don’t get the proper support, if we don’t get the proper system in place for players that have been release or haven’t made it to the level that they were expecting, I fear in the next 10 years that we could see more cases like that. I’m trying to think what I can do, what we can put in place at Premier League clubs to try and have that support, maybe have a psychologist for released players to speak to, whether it be once a month or once a week, for me there needs to be something in place to help released players through something that they weren’t expecting.
How do players react to the abuse on social media, and what can we do about it?
I think in the last year you’ve seen players start to speak out, whether you’ve had a DM from a 12-year-old or had massive abuse from thousands of people, and I think that’s the thing that’s going to force change. I remember the incident last season, we were away to Aston Villa and Wilf (Zaha) woke up to racist abuse – I think a few of our players woke up to the same sort of messages – and he tried to leave it and just focus on the game, but it was just festering on his mind and I think it got to our walk around the hotel before pre-match, and he said ‘I need to get this off my chest, I need to put this out there on social media and then I can forget about it and focus on the game’, but it just shows that a player of his stature, going into a massive Premier League game at the time is affected by the abuse.
You’re out of contract this summer, so what is next?
It’s a tough one, I’m at a point in my career where I’m 29 and I need to make the right decision for my career. I love the Premier League and I want to get as many games as I can in the Premier League whilst I am able but there’s a couple of options overseas where there’s possible Champions League football which unfortunately I’m never going to get in the Premier League, so I’m at a stage now where do I want to continue what I’m doing at a similar Premier League level or do I want to do something different and maybe fight for a title in another country or fight to play in the Champions League at another level.
So playing Champions League football at another club next year as a real possibility for you?
I hope so! There’s a few options at the moment which I need to figure out, what is the right move for me, but there are a few options that offer Champions League football which is another big dream of mine, to walk out and hear that iconic music! That’s a huge dream of mine and it’s weighing up whether that’s now or never, or if I continue in the Premier League for another few years and see if it’s still there, so it’s a big summer for myself and I have a lot of thinking to do. I know I’m at a point in my career now where if I leave the country now, it’s more difficult to get back, whereas if I continue playing in this country, I don’t know if those options will be there in 2 years. So I have to weigh up all of this, take my family and my kinds into account, so I’ve got a huge decision.
On his lowest moments
I’ve got 2. I was on holiday with my ex-partner in Cyprus at the time, and I got a phone call from the club secretary at Spurs telling me that I’d been charged by The FA on 76 counts of gambling charges. I had to withdraw from The U21 European Championships that summer and I thought my career was over. I’d played 10 or 11 games for QPR in the Premier League but my career hadn’t really taken off, and I genuinely thought my career was over. That was the lowest point, trying to get my head around possibly being banned for 6 months to a year, which was what was expected. The second lowest was towards the end of my Spurs career and I obviously had the falling out with the fitness coach, and again I thought my career was over, my reputation was in tatters. I was relegated to the U21s and I didn’t know how my reputation and my career would recover from that moment.
Is that moment at Spurs something that you regret looking back on?
I always say I don’t have regrets, because I pushed the fitness coach because I was emotional realising that my time at Spurs was coming to an end, I was an unused sub in that game and they bought a 21 year old Josh Onomah on ahead of me, so I can’t say I’m sorry for caring, I can’t say I’m sorry for wanting to play for Spurs and not wanting to see my time there come to an end. In hindsight it is easy to say I shouldn’t have done this, shouldn’t have done that, but ultimately my time at Spurs was coming to an end and I didn’t deal with it correctly.
Andros Townsend, speaking on the Original Penguin X Campaign Against Living Miserably Under The Surface podcast