Wigan's Steven Caulker hopes lessons from addiction will make him a better manager

Wigan's Caulker sucked into gambling as a teen (2:24)

Wigan striker Steven Caulker started gambling at 15, and his addiction would become 'an issue for life'. He hopes his experience will help him be a better manager one day. (2:24)

On the surface, Wigan defender Steven Caulker has had what most would consider a successful football career, including playing for Great Britain at the Olympics, but gambling and alcohol addictions have dogged his every move.

Caulker's career has seen him making 123 Premier League appearances and playing for the likes of Tottenham, Liverpool, and England, and now captaining Sierra Leone, a side he qualifies for through his paternal grandfather.

On paper, that would qualify as success, but he told ESPN that spells in rehab, starting in his teens, and his struggle to beat his addictions left him with many regrets, and he hopes to take those lessons into his future managerial career.

Caulker [31], who is at the beginning stages of attaining his coaching badges while still playing for Wigan, told ESPN: "I would love to be a manager and I think that the experiences that I've had hold me in good stead for that.

"Being able to take care of young players - or just players in general who may be struggling with confidence and all that - being able to spot that, put my arm around them, have a conversation with them; I think it's going to be a big asset going into coaching.

"I look back on football - my playing career - with a lot of regrets, and I don't want to have the same as a manager."

Caulker feels he is better-equipped than most to deal with the lows of being a footballer, and already uses his experiences to spot and assist teammates struggling with their mental health.

"It doesn't mean that they must be an addict or they must be depressed, but absolutely, I look around and I see people who are feeling low; I look around and I see people who are anxious, worried and scared for the future," Caulker said.

"I feel, having lived so much of these experiences, I'm able to spot it really easily. People often question: 'How do you know that?... How do you know when I'm not well?' We actually had the conversation today and the guys were like: 'Yeah, you're like our agony aunt. We can come to you and share and moan - whatever it is, get it off our chest.'

"I'm happy to help in any way I can, really. If it helps the team and helps individuals, then great. I feel better for it."

For Caulker, the cycle of squandered chances started at Tottenham, a club which gave him an opportunity many others had denied him. Between the ages of nine and 15, Caulker had unsuccessful trials at Chelsea, Southampton, Reading, QPR and Brentford. At the age of 15, he joined Spurs' academy after one training session and one training game.

Caulker signed his first professional contract for Spurs two years later in 2009, and although he had loan spells at Yeovil Town, Bristol City and Swansea, his game was visibly improving year on year, as was his status within the Spurs setup.

However, while Caulker appeared to be on the up as far as football went, his life off the pitch was beginning to spiral out of control. His biggest asset on the field - a relentless desire to win - quickly became his biggest liability off it.

Caulker explained: "[My gambling] started at the age of 15, but it wasn't until the age of 19 that it really had a grip on me. You go through stages and at 15, it was probably the early stages when it was just beginning.

"[At] 16, 17, 18, I really stepped into it - especially 18, when I was able to go into casinos. That's when it really sort of started to speed up. By the age of 19, it had a firm grip on me, which is why I decided to enter rehab."

Even after making that decision, he still did not understand that he was dealing with a problem that he would have to fight for the rest of his life. He admitted that he did not accept that true recovery meant he would never be able to gamble again.

Caulker said: "I remember walking into rehab and them telling me: 'Look; this is going to be an issue for life. You are going to have to attend meetings at least once, twice, three times a week.' I was like, 'what?' I wasn't ready for that. At 19 years of age, I was not ready to hear that.

"I felt that I had a problem and I wished that they could help me manage my gambling. That would have been my perfect scenario, because I loved it - I absolutely loved it.

"I just wished that they could teach me how to do it and stop when the fun stops, as all the adverts say, but that wasn't the case for me. I was never able to stop, ever.

"I'm a compulsive gambler and when I gamble, I continue and continue and continue, so even when I'm winning, I never actually win, because I don't take my winnings; I just put more and more and more [on the line].

"It's a very vicious cycle, and I guess at 19, I felt that was my rock bottom, but deep down, I guess I knew that it wasn't, because it wasn't until many, many years later that I hit my rock bottom."

In fairness to Caulker, there was ample cause for him to cling onto the illusion that he had his life under control. After playing for Team Great Britain at the London Olympics, he made his England debut aged 20 in a 4-2 away friendly defeat to Sweden on November 14, 2012.

The match is most famous for its final goal - Zlatan Ibrahimović's incredible 32-yard bicycle kick which sailed over Joe Hart - but earlier, Caulker had put England 2-1 up.

In the 38th minute, the then-Tottenham defender met Steven Gerrard's inswinging free-kick, timing his run between the opposition defenders perfectly and sticking out a leg to stab home at the far post.

Now, 10-and-a-half years later, Ibra is still playing for Sweden. Raheem Sterling, who also made his England debut that day, has 82 international caps. For Caulker, that would be his last appearance for his country of birth.

His off-field misdemeanours caught up to him at Tottenham and chairman Daniel Levy eventually ran out of patience. Spells at Cardiff City and QPR followed. While at QPR, he went on loan to Southampton and later Liverpool, where he was an emergency signing at the beginning of Jürgen Klopp's reign.

Wherever he went, his demons followed him: "I wasted so many opportunities and that's something that hurts.

"I often say that I don't have any regrets, because it shaped me into who I am today, but it does hurt to look back and go: 'Wow. I was a 20-year-old playing for Tottenham Hotspur; I was playing for Liverpool at 24.' It does hurt to feel like I wasted those opportunities."

His stint at Anfield started well, with brief cameos against Arsenal, Manchester United and Norwich City in the Premier League and a full 90-minute run in the FA Cup fourth round against West Ham

But after January 2016, he never played for the Reds again. Not only had he fallen out of favour on the field, but he realised that he would have to return to rehab.

Caulker said: "It was harder to go there for the second time, because I felt: 'It didn't work the first time, so why is it going to work the second time?' But I was desperate. I knew I needed help."

The healing journey has not been linear for Caulker. There have been clean spells of up to three years and brief relapses which have reminded him of the lesson he did not want to learn in his first rehab spell - that his struggle is for life.

This knowledge about one's mental health journey, he says, will add to his managerial style one day: "What I don't think is fair, and what I'm quite vocal about, is that when players are speaking about these issues, it is then used against them further down the line.

"[Clubs say]: 'Oh, we can't give you a new contract because of so and so,' or: 'We can't sign him because he is trouble - he has a problem'.

"When you are back [from rehab], you are fit and training well, I still believe that more often than not, managers are looking at players and saying: 'Well, I can't trust him because he's had these issues, but I can trust [another player], so I will play him.'

"As a manager, what I would do differently is: for one, treat everybody fairly. I would actually look at players who have had their struggles, whether that be mental, emotional or physical - because physical injuries are tough - I would look at those people and go: 'They've overcome adversity and I want those characters in the dressing room; I want those characters on the field, because when the going gets tough, they're the ones that everyone looks to.'"

Caulker says he found it difficult to find clubs who were willing to take chances on him. After leaving QPR midway through 2017/18, he had a seven-month stint at Dundee before moving on to Turkey with Alanyaspor.

When the British game appeared to have given up on him, Turkey breathed new life into Caulker's career. He spent five season in the Super Lig, for various clubs, and in 2021 his efforts there drew the attention of Sierra Leone.

Caulker, who is of Sierra Leonean descent through his paternal grandfather, revived his international career after switching allegiance to the Leone Stars. This time, he was prepared for the experience and knew not to take it for granted.

After receiving clearance to play for Sierra Leone in December 2021, Caulker was appointed national team captain four months later. By then, he had proven his worth by slotting in seamlessly at the 2022 Africa Cup of Nations [AFCON].

"It's a completely different experience and it's a completely different feeling [to representing England]. When I played for England, it's quite sad to say that I had very little feeling," Caulker confessed.

"Looking back, it was, of course, a great honour and was huge, you know. It's something that I guess not everyone gets to do, so it was a huge achievement, but at the time, I guess I probably took it for granted, which is a shame in the sense that football was moving so fast; life was moving so fast.

"Playing for Sierra Leone, I'm a different person today, so I'm able to sort of embrace what's in front of me and really enjoy the moment. I thought AFCON was incredible - just such an incredible experience for me to be a part of. Now, as captain, I'm working really hard to get us back to the next AFCON.

"We've got two tough games to go, but I do really believe in us and I believe that we're building for the future. We've got a great squad and a really great country behind us. People don't realise just how beautiful Sierra Leone is."

Sierra Leone are currently third in Group A and will need to overturn a two-point deficit to second-placed Guinea-Bissau in their next two fixtures order to qualify for next year's tournament in Ivory Coast.

In his club career, Caulker returned to England in January 2023 to play for Wigan. At the time, his former Liverpool teammate, Kolo Touré, was in charge, but the former Ivorian international was sacked within three weeks of Caulker's arrival and replaced by Shaun Maloney.

Wigan were deducted three points last month after repeatedly failing to pay player salaries, so Caulker's homecoming has not been without its challenges.

At least, in Caulker, they have a senior player who knows all there is to know about what not to do under pressure. It may be too late for him to have the playing career he dreamed of at the highest level, but not for his experience to count for club and country when it matters most.