Clarke Carlisle: From drink and depression, rehab and religion to brain of Burnley

Competent on Question Time and the king of Countdown, Carlisle is buffing up the game's image
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The Independent Football

In appearances on Question Time and Countdown, plus his work as chairman of the Professional Footballers' Association, Burnley's captain Clarke Carlisle has done as much if not more than any other current player for the image of an industry that could do with some buffing up. Yet for all his success on and off the pitch, he fully understands the headmistress who wanted him to try for Oxbridge instead of entering such a precarious profession. For as well as enormous highs like winning at Wembley and representing his country, the sport has led him into dark depths of depression and alcoholism, all caused by a single freakish moment in one of more than 400 games.

It was Queens Park Rangers' 2-0 home defeat by Fulham in the old First Division exactly 10 years ago. It was a fierce local derby, with Fulham top of the table and Rangers almost bottom, yet the tackle that changed his life was devoid of malice. "It was an innocuous challenge by Rufus Brevett, no bitterness at all, it was just one of those things," he recalled, sitting in a lounge at Turf Moor. "But the surgeon wasn't sure whether I'd walk properly again.

"When the initial prognosis is a nine-month injury and then all of a sudden that's 12, then 18 and 20, you really start to doubt whether you'll get back to the game at all. To be out for so long raises questions for everyone around you as well as also yourself. The prospect of losing all that was a very heavy moment for me."

From making his way as an England Under-21 international, playing alongside John Terry and Ashley Cole, the young Carlisle was forced to consider the possibility of the worst thing that can befall a professional sportsman – "the worst is having it all taken away from you through no fault of your own". Drink and depression kicked in. "It progressed to a point where my priorities were all wrong. I had a complete inability to say no to a party or not drinking when I went out and a complete inability to say no while I was drinking. It affected me greatly, affected my ability to perform, to fulfil my duties as a father and a partner, and took me to some deep, dark places."

He was fortunate to find in QPR's Ian Holloway a sympathetic manager. "Ian Holloway was magnificent and so magnanimous. I went to him and he said he didn't know what to do to help me but he'd find someone who could. He put me in touch with Sporting Chance and it all went from there. The reason I'm so appreciative of Ian Holloway is that there are so many managers who just see players as assets and liabilities. It would have been easy and he'd have been well within his rights to have cut me off there and then. He could have sacked me for my behaviour, paid me up and sent me on my way and washed his hands of me. But he looked after Clarke the person before Clarke the footballer and I'll be forever grateful for that."

Later he would draw positives from the whole experience, as well as renewed religious faith. "It helped me through that time. Going through the clinic in that 28-day rehab, and afterwards when you spend the time reflecting on places and situations, I'm amazed at some of the places and situations that I've managed to come out of unscathed and with my life, never mind my sanity. That's where I believe I was being looked after."

Breaking off from serving coffee, the most friendly and attentive of hosts, he suddenly pulls off his shirt to reveal a huge tattoo all over his back, depicting himself and his wife praying to their guardian angel.

Even after recovering from the knee injury, there were more tests to come, for which he was nevertheless better prepared. After a season at Leeds, he returned south with an unexpectedly successful Watford, only to miss not only the winning play-off final but almost all the Premier League season that followed because of a thigh injury. Then it was back to his native Lancashire with Burnley and in the second season another play-off success, this time at Wembley and playing a full part – he was named man of the match. "Winning at Wembley was a phenomenal day. That's the stuff you dream about as a lad, so fulfilling those dreams is the best thing about football. And for me it felt like a second opportunity to play in the Premier League, and gives you that hunger to be there again. I absolutely adored it. I played in a team that took three points off Manchester United. It was outstanding, one of life's achievements."

There were not quite enough of such performances to prevent relegation and now Burnley struggle for the consistency that will put them back in contention in the Championship, while looking forward to an FA Cup fifth-round tie against West Ham. As can be imagined, Carlisle has taken considerable stick from his team-mates for his TV appearances, which began with a win on a programme to find Britain's Brainiest Footballer. On Countdown last year he was fulfilling another dream, one that began while watching the programme as a small boy. Then, most remarkably of all, there was a summons two weeks ago to join David Dimbleby when Question Time rolled into Burnley.

Carlisle took his place with a heavyweight political panel including George Galloway, Simon Hughes MP, the minister Caroline Spelman and Burnley-supporting spin doctor Alistair Campbell. Questions covered the appointment of Ed Balls as shadow chancellor, NHS reforms, the Oldham by-election and the Chilcot Inquiry.

"It was only when the line-up was released and everyone was saying 'really nervous for you, hope you don't mess up' that I started to get nervous myself. But they took a lot of the focus away from me, they had plenty to say and I was almost just a little sideshow really. I've never been any sort of political freak, but at the last election with a young family coming to school age, and with the economic crisis we're going through, I just wanted to know what was going on outside my own little bubble, and make my vote count so that's when I started to take an interest in it." And voted Lib-Dem, he revealed.

He has been a football pundit – in the studio and at matches – and is taking a degree in sportswriting and broadcasting with a view to a future career. "I like to step out of my comfort zone and test myself, push to see what I can achieve. You have to dip your toe in the water. So I'm just trying out little facets of the industry to see if it's something I can cross into."

Bigger than that, he believes, are the lessons learnt from the dark days. "Going through alcoholism and depression and abdication of responsibilities, I've learnt to prioritise and learnt that there are far greater, more important things in life than football. "First and foremost I'm a father and husband. I think that's what gives me a greater appreciation of it now." His headmistress should be proud of him.