Steven Caulker is on the road to redemption. He is now at peace with himself after a turbulent period in his life and starting to display the sort of form which saw him tipped for Premier League stardom once upon a time.
The central defender, now plying his trade in Turkey, made his England debut back in 2012 aged just 20 and was a first-team regular for Tottenham.
Caulker, pictured scoring on his first and only England appearance, was tipped to reach the very top of English football But, behind the scenes, his life had been spiralling out of control for several years and things were only going to get worse.
His drinking and gambling habits were just numbing the pain. Caulker readily admits he had no ‘self-worth’ with big problems arising off the field which various newspapers picked up on.
“It was definitely a vicious cycle,” the 28-year-old told talkSPORT. “There would be one problem I’d try to break away from and address and then something else came up.
“All my problems were just building up and I couldn’t cope. It wasn’t until I was able to break away from football that I was able to get clean.
“My self-worth was completely and utterly shattered. I don’t recognise the person I was then.
“The media coverage was just relentless too. I get these guys have jobs to do and they have bosses to report to, but when you’re going through something like that it’s so serious.
”Many people I know with this problem haven’t made it out the other side.
“It’s not just a story to run, it’s somebody’s life at the end of the day and then your family has to witness it all first hand.”
The tipping point came at QPR. There were serious concerns around the club regarding Caulker’s welfare for some time before his contract was mutually terminated in December 2017.
It is a period in Caulker’s life which he acknowledges that he showed a complete lack of professionalism and where he let down many individuals in the process.
The powerful defender joined QPR for £8million in 2014, but left the club just three years later He has shown genuine remorse for his actions and attempted to make amends by apologising to several club personnel, but that list stretches far wider than simply QPR. A topsy-turvy 11-year professional career to date has also seen Caulker spend time on loan at Southampton and Liverpool.
“By picking up the phone and apologising to people it was very liberating for everyone involved,” he explained. “They knew deep down that I never meant any harm and that I was a good guy.
“I’d say 99 per cent of the people I contacted accepted my apology and understood that I was a different person back then, which in no way reflects who I am now.
“During your addiction years you are always sorry but being able to show it is a lot harder, as actions speak louder than words.
“It’s hard to accept someone’s apology when their behaviour hasn’t changed. Some people weren’t happy with me and I completely understand that.
“As much as I meant well, unfortunately the biggest thing with addiction is you do it again.”
In response to Caulker’s interview, a QPR source told talkSPORT: “We are pleased to hear Steven is in a good place in his life now and enjoying his football.
“Like many others have done, we supported Steven throughout his time at the club. But ultimately, Steven Caulker had to help Steven Caulker.
“He is now in the peak years of his career, so you can only hope the experiences that he has gone through will stand him in good stead to go on and fulfil his potential now.
“We wish him the very best of luck for the future.”
Spurs chairman Daniel Levy warned Caulker his career would end up in a downward trajectory if he didn’t buck up his ideas at Spurs After leaving Rangers, Caulker had a brief stint away from football as he attempted to get his life back on track before signing for Dundee. In April 2018 – just two months after joining the Scottish Premiership side – they rejected a club-record bid from Rosenborg.
Having played a key role in the Dark Blues avoiding relegation that season, Caulker then activated a clause in his contract to end his short stint at Dens Park on the final day of the summer transfer window.
Caulker thought there would be plenty of options for him to weigh up having made that decision – but he was wrong.
He explained: “When I stepped away from Dundee I thought there would be many opportunities in the Championship. I went on trial at Wigan and things went really well.
“I was told by the manager at the time (Paul Cook) I would be getting a contract but as the weeks went by nothing materialised.
“That was the story with several clubs back home, whether it be the coach wanted me or the owner didn’t, or vice versa.
“There was that element about a lack of trust. They didn’t trust what I was about, and that was fair enough.
“It became apparent to me I had to go abroad, and Turkey was by far the most attractive option for me.”
Caulker is now in a place of sobriety, a long way from that person back then that he now barely recognises.
He is enjoying life at Alanyaspor, who sit top of the Super Lig, and lives on a seafront where he has the luxury of a warm weather climate all year round.
The tragic death of teammate and close friend Josef Sural in a bus crash last year hit Caulker hard, but he is honouring his memory in the best way possible.
Caulker has been given a new lease of life in Turkey and completely turned his life around
“I feel great right now to be honest with you,” he said. “What I loved about coming here was that I had a fresh start and a completely clean slate.
”People knew about me from my CV, but they didn’t know about me as a person.
“That was nice as we were able to meet each other at face value. I’ve got some friends here now who are arguably my closest friends in football.
“I feel like everything happens for a reason. On the field I’ve finally been able to realise my potential.
”For many, many years I was playing at 50 to 60 per cent of my capability.
“Without the mental chains of addiction I’ve been able to enjoy my life on and off the pitch.”
Key to that long road to recovery has been his acceptance that he had a mental health issue. The 12-step programme of abstinence has kept him on the straight and narrow.
“The 12-step fellowship has been everything for me. It’s a programme for addicts, who struggle with things such as alcohol use, gambling, sex and food,” Caulker explained.
“I was part of that for many years but I never fully surrendered to an illness. I’m 6ft 3in so my mentality was always just to keep working harder and harder and everything would be ok in the end.
“Once I fully immersed myself into the fellowship that was asked of me I was able to find a sponsor who took me through the right steps.
“Part of my daily routine is praying and writing a gratitude list, as well as speaking to newcomers.
”I’ve got two guys at the moment who I speak with regularly about any concerns they may have.
The defender says he is now able to be a better father to his son “That’s what the programme is all about; having a support network of like-minded individuals where you don’t feel judged.”
As a result of Caulker functioning more strongly as a person, he says he is now a better father.
“I’ve been able to grow emotionally, grow as a human being and certainly grow as a father,” he revealed.
“I understand my son differently now. When he’s got an issue at school I’m able to ask him what’s going on and how he’s feeling.
“There are several guys who I still speak to back home that are struggling in their own lives, whether it’s about getting into the team or struggling with gambling or depression like I have.
“You’re expected to be ok in football. You earn big money and you’re living every kid’s dream, but there’s also a different side to that.
“Previously I kept things in and had contentment with myself. Even when I was playing at the very highest level in England I never found that peace.
“To have that today is great and I feel like that’s been reflected on the pitch as well.”
Caulker has indeed earned rave reviews for his performances overseas. No centre-back was involved in more goals (9) than Caulker in the Turkish Super Lig last season.
He turns 29 next month and speaks with an air of confidence that bigger and better things lie ahead for him.
He would relish the opportunity to play international football. Caulker qualifies to play for Scotland through his grandmother and reached out to manager Steve Clarke and his assistant Steven Reid last year to express a desire to represent the Tartan Army.
Caulker has not given up forcing his way into Clarke’s European Championship squad Under Clarke’s leadership, Scotland recently qualified for a first major tournament in 22 years, so Caulker knows he will have to produce something special to secure a spot in his squad for next summer’s European Championship.
He explained: “I was asked to play for Scotland at the age of 19, but I had pressure to go down another route.
“Things have obviously changed and I would love to play for Scotland. I’ve made my feelings clear, so it’s about continuing what I’m doing at the moment and keeping my fingers crossed for the best.”
Caulker is also drawing inspiration from veteran AC Milan talisman Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who has scored 12 goals in as many games this season.
“You look at the likes of Zlatan at the moment, who looks like he can play on until he’s 50,” he remarked.
“I hope I can continue going for another 10 years and see where that takes me.
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“I’ve got to look after my body and my mind. My body is feeling very good, I guess after a few years of not playing (regularly) has actually helped me.”
In the immediate future, Caulker’s current club are desperate to tie him down to a new long-term contract with his current deal set to expire at the end of the season.
He is keeping his options open – with a potential showdown with Ibrahimovic on the cards.
“I’ve got my eye on a lot of top European leagues, and in particular Serie A,” he revealed. “Several of my former English teammates are over there doing well, it’s a really exciting league.
“Having stepped away from the Premier League bubble, you realise there is so more football around the world to explore.
“I would never rule out a return to England either. I feel like I’m a different man today, so if that challenge was thrown at me again I believe I’d have the tools to deal with it.”
Caulker turns 29 next month and is the most content he’s ever been in his life He added: “The most positive thing for me right now is that I’m at a club who are currently top of the league and finished fifth and reached a cup final last year.
“I’m at a club who gave me an opportunity, when other clubs wouldn’t go near me, so I’m very grateful to them. QPR certainly weren’t offering to renew my contract back in the day.
“In five years time I want to be playing international football, I want to be playing in the Champions League and Europa League.
“For me it’s about playing at the highest level possible, whether that’s in England, Italy, Germany or here in Turkey.”
After everything Caulker has gone through in football, he is keen to help nurture the next generation when he eventually hangs up his boots.
He concluded: “I’m excited about the future and one day I would like to be a coach. The experiences I’ve had over many, many years with different clubs and different countries will put me in a good stead to develop these guys.
“I remember all too well the pressures of being a young player and being tipped for greatness. I didn’t know what was going on then to tell you the truth, it is all just a blur now.
“But today I’m present and just enjoying life and that’s the most important thing.”