Lee Hendrie: I lost £10m and tried to take my own life
Lee Hendrie's eyes tell the story. As we sit at the top of the Mailbox overlooking Birmingham, the ex-Villa star speaks with clarity and confidence.
But it has not always been the case.
At the peak of his powers the former England international earned £40,000-a-week. But he lost almost everything and suffered crippling debt problems as his career ended.
The property crash saw him lose £10m and he twice tried to end his life by overdosing after depression took hold.
Hendrie is not a unique case in sport, though; his experience and other recent cases are just the tip of the iceberg. However strong the body is, the mind can break down.
Ex-Villa team-mate Stan Collymore, former PFA chairman Clarke Carlisle and ex-Charlton and Norwich striker Leon McKenzie are just a number of former players with depression. There is a stigma to overcome and many suffer in silence, something Hendrie did as his world started to collapse.
"It's a big bang when it comes," says Hendrie, whose sole England cap came against the Czech Republic in 1998.
"It was horrible for me. I found myself in all sorts of difficulties; I was at home, depressed and the financial side of things was difficult and it all felt like it had landed on top of me. It was the most difficult time in my life because I didn't have anything.
"It was so hard. The amount of players and ex-players I've spoken to who have sat in every day and not got dressed would surprise people.
"You get into a stage where you don't want to do anything. Once you get in that rut of not doing a thing you switch off from everything and it's so difficult to give yourself a lift and get yourself back out there." It was too much to take for the 36-year-old, who tried to kill himself in 2010 and 2011.
He left Villa in 2007 after 13 years and 309 games and has since played for 17 clubs, including Stoke, Sheffield United, Bradford and Derby.
An ill-fated spell in Indonesia in 2010 saw him return after just four months and Hendrie dropped into non-league to turn out for Kidderminster, Tamworth, Chasetown and current side Basford United in the Northern Counties East League.
The nomadic lifestyle didn't help and Hendrie struggled to deal with everything, culminating in his two suicide attempts.
After recovering, Hendrie was hit with another devastating blow when he was declared bankrupt in 2012 with debts of £193,808.73. And he admits money problems were his biggest worry.
"All the pressure I had with what happened financially was the big thing," he said.
"What annoys me is if I had been a ridiculous gambler or I'd wasted a load of money – although I did waste money on certain things – fair enough, but I still felt I was well off. I was building up a portfolio of properties that was going to keep me afloat after football.
"But the property market crashed at the time I was coming out which was unfortunate for me. I put all my money into that which I thought was a good investment.
"Everything felt like it was crumbling around me as I came to the end of my career. Where do you go from there? You have to try to keep up with what you were doing. A lot of my pals are and were in the game and they are buying new cars and you can't.
"People don't realise what it's like. I've been there and it's gone now but I'd hate for anyone to feel the way I didat that stage of my life. It was horrendous."
And Hendrie admits his plight was so desperate he was not even thinking about the impact his actions would have on his children – Maizie, aged 14, Tallulah, 10, Theo, four, and Harley, two.
"There was no focus on my kids and it was a bad time where I couldn't concentrate on what was going on around me," he said. "I just wanted to give up.
"That was the disappointing thing, knowing what type of character I am. I'll fight to the end and, to get to that stage, everyone said they couldn't believe it happened.
"It shows how you can go from up there and slowly end up at rock bottom. Being in that place was not good.
"I am a strong character and like to have a craic and can be the life and soul – I have always been. To think I did get to that stage was horrible.
"When the press got hold of the stuff it made it 10 times worse – going to the petrol station and seeing your picture on the front page.
"I am human and whether or not I've been a footballer or worked at Tesco, to pull up and see your face on the front page and explaining what the situation is – there's nothing worse.
"Being a local lad I'd always get a lot of stick off Birmingham fans, the usual, and you can imagine the amount I got after that. I remember playing in an Old Stars game a few weeks down the line. We played at Stourbridge. Some of the fans were shouting: 'Have you got any money?' and Sid (Gordon) Cowans went up and said: 'Keep quiet or we're all going in.' That was a building block for me going forward."
Hendrie started repairing his life, marrying Emma in 2012, and has more clarity than ever over his troubles.
He is heavily involved in charity work including the Club Legends Cup, which is supporting Cure Leukaemia, and will be held at the LG Arena in July.
It's a cause close to Villa hearts with Stiliyan Petrov in remission from acute leukaemia.
That and raising awareness on the perils of the sport to future footballers gives Hendrie strength.
"I've been going into schools and doing assemblies, talking about my career and the things you need to do to get to the top," he says.
"That's what I'm trying to push out because kids need to know they have to look after themselves.
"I want them to be aware of everything they are doing. Having a 'Plan B' if something doesn't work for you is vital. They have to be aware of what happens when you come out of the game.
If you are getting towards the end of your career, start building something up rather than sitting at home thinking you're getting up at 9am and in training for 10am because you get stuck in that routine for so long.
"From 14 to 35-years-old you've been doing the same thing and then it just stops.
"There are former players who are going through tough times, like gambling, and I've been through similar myself. If I can put that awareness across to the younger kids and families, then great.
"You have financial advisers who you give all your time and effort to and think they are going to look after you and they don't.
"There are only a handful out there who are serious. A lot of these guys are in it for themselves and that's where a lot of footballers get taken advantage of.
"You do need to check what you're doing and look after the finances. When it comes to the end of the career, where do you go from there?
"I did a college talk for a good hour recently, speaking to them about awareness.
"The thing I worry about most with kids coming through academies is they think they have made it.
"Unfortunately it's not always the way. They find themselves putting all their time and effort into being a footballer and then find themselves in trouble with drugs and crime because they see no other way of earning what they earned as a young kid.
"No disrespect to anyone, but they are not going to work in a supermarket because they feel they are better."
The major part of Hendrie's future is his coaching business FootieBugs, which focuses on activity and child development through football.
He comes alive when talking about the business and is clearly passionate about the project.
It is designed to offer kids from three to nine-years-old the chance to play football but also incorporates education and health lessons while they play, using stories to capture the imagination.
Former Birmingham midfielder Ashley Sammons is part of the coaching team, having seen his professional career cut short by a serious knee injury.
And Hendrie believes more is needed to support young players and develop their technique at an early age.
"That's one reason why I've done this," he says. "I said this when I was 25 or 26 that I wanted to do it after football.
"I had my dad giving me advice, which was good advice, but I never really had any basic skills as a young kid.
"We've got Ashley with us and he had a bad cruciate ligament injury and he's playing non-league. He got to the stage where he thought he was there and tore his cruciate.
"He didn't know what to do with himself because he had made the grade. Now he's working with us.
"He knows how excited I am and how passionate I am and it's good to have the same people putting the message across.
"From day one we put a lot of hard work into it. We didn't want to work on something which just got thrown back. We put a good 12 months into it trying to get the base right before we start saying what it is. It's gradually getting out there. We're trying to cover the education and health side.
"These days that is absolutely massive. If kids are living right at an early age it gives them a chance to get right for junior school, senior school and the football side if they are going through academies.
"We are starting at a young age – three to nine-years-old – and it's good to get young kids' co-ordination right. I'm not saying they're all going to be footballers but, who knows, it will give them a better chance than jumping into football at six or seven.
"A lot of it is story-based. All of them have a football but they all think they are going on a space adventure where they have to dodge the aliens – which are the cones.
"With young kids it's about imagination. It's difficult to keep their attention for 45 minutes or an hour. Bringing those things in is important. It's been a big hit.
"I'm not knocking anyone, but what others do can be pretty basic. I've watched so many competitors and coaching schools and it's nothing on a par with it.
"We're not throwing 40 kids in a sports hall and letting them run round for an hour. We're trying to cut it down to 20 where they have got it full-on. If we spot something they can learn from, then we'll sort it early on. It's all about the kids having fun. If we can teach them the right things, where they can learn and progress, then great."
There's something cathartic for Hendrie in his work. His journey from Villa star to life support has changed him and he wants others to learn from his example.
He said: "I'm giving back things I have learned through different managers. It's good to give that back. They get a buzz when I'm about.
"I'm not as high-profile as I was, but the kids still know who I am and I'm thoroughly enjoying it.
"I'm not saying I'm going to change the world but I'd love to stop kids playing computer games, stop them eating McDonald's and get them exercising.
"I'd be over the moon to see some kids go through with us and make the grade. We know how tough it is for kids at the moment, there are a lot of foreigners who are coming into the game.
"They are jeopardising the younger kids getting chances, but at the moment it's in the back of my mind.
"It's just giving them a better chance and achieving goals – not focusing on 'I want to be a footballer' but more on the education side.
"You have to have a back-up. Stuff like that makes me reflect on things. You should always have a plan on what you should do if football fails.
"Will the kids listen? More so if I'm telling them this is the sort of thing you need to be doing at an early age.
"I have two young 'uns myself. I am still like a kid so I can get on their wavelength and I do – it's part and parcel of it. To still be part of football and give something back after everything I've been through is wonderful."
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