Joleon Lescott: 'The accident made me more determined to make the most of what I have, but my brother has probably been the greater inspiration...'
At the age of five Joleon Lescott nearly died after being hit by a car. Nineteen years later Everton's new recruit is establishing himself as one of the most assured young defenders in the Premiership. In his first major interview since moving to Goodison, he talks to Andy Hunter about overcoming adversity and the part his family have played in his success
Saturday 25 November 2006
Joleon Lescott almost lost out on a second promotion to the Premiership this summer as Everton and Wolverhampton Wanderers disputed the small print on his £5m transfer but there was little danger, given all he had endured before their stand-off jeopardised the deal, that he would lose his rare sense of perspective too.
There was the time he was involved in a mid-air terrorist alert en route to a post-September 11 New York, the teenage year when he took a sabbatical from the professional game and seriously considered not coming back, the ruptured cruciate ligament that destroyed his one and only season in the Premiership with Wolves, and the event that shaped his life and that of those around him more than any other; the accident that almost claimed his life at the age of five.
When Lescott insists he remained unperturbed by the threat to the biggest move of his professional career, it is not difficult to comprehend how.
The Everton manager, David Moyes, has likened the defender's impact to that of Tim Cahill in this, his inaugural campaign in the top flight of English football, and given the chapters that preceded his eventual elevation it is unsurprising that the defender has taken the leap from the Championship to the Premier League with a measured stride.
"The biggest compliment you can pay him," said Moyes, "is that he has not looked out of place once. He has not had the opportunity before, but Joleon is a Premier League player now."
Thirteen games into his Premiership career and Lescott has already confirmed the promise that persuaded Moyes to proclaim the 24-year-old from Birmingham the finest centre-half in the Championship last season and commit to a deal that should ultimately bring £5m into the Molineux coffers, a record-equalling sum for a defender at Goodison Park.
"The most composed centre-half we have had in years," wrote one Evertonian to his local newspaper recently and with Lescott laying claim to several man-of- the-match awards this season - even when he has operated as an emergency left-back on occasions - few of his ilk are inclined to disagree.
Yet it all could have been so different. Nineteen years ago, when Everton last reigned as champions of England and their central defence was the preserve of Kevin Ratcliffe and Dave Watson, Lescott was struck by a car as he stepped into the road outside his primary school in the Midlands.
His mother, sitting in the family car opposite, could only look on as her child was dragged along the road and suffered such severe head injuries that his survival was in doubt as he was taken away for major surgery. Numerous operations followed, leaving the scar that is still visible on Lescott's forehead and which has left a permanent reminder of that dreadful afternoon. "I was lucky," he insists, and in a sport that discusses fortune, tragedy and triumph only too glibly, the Everton defender's assessment holds more currency than most.
Lescott explains: "A lot of people have come off a lot worse than I did. I saw another little boy in hospital who came in without a scratch, but had suffered brain damage after being hit by a wing mirror. I have a scar but I have nothing to worry about. I had a major operation straight away and several more over the next few months but I was young and didn't really know too much about what was going on. I know there was a time when my mum and dad didn't think it would turn out as good as it has done, put it that way, but thankfully the doctors worked their magic.
"It was a harder time for my family more than it was for me to be honest, because I was only five years old and I didn't know too much about it. I was in hospital for a few months and it was difficult for my mum, dad and the whole family but I think maybe it helped make us the tight unit we are today.
"We definitely appreciate each other more as a result of what happened and the accident has made me appreciate life a lot more and people with disabilities. I realise that I am one of the fortunate ones."
Each week the Lescott family travel from their Midlands home to watch their son's transition into the Premiership, although their time is divided equally between Liverpool 4 and Bristol where the first sibling to make the professional grade, Joleon's older brother, Aaron, plies his trade in Rovers' midfield (see panel). The accident may have united those around Lescott and offered an appreciation of the opportunities that have followed, but it was Aaron's example that resolved the former England Under-21 international to follow suit.
"The accident made me more determined to make the most of what I have but my brother has probably been the greater inspiration," he admitted. "To see him playing made me want to turn professional more than being run over ever did.
"Everyone looks up to their big brother and with him doing something I loved, I wanted to follow him. I took a year out from football when I was 13 because I was finding the training and the professionalism difficult - I wanted to relax and go out with my friends a bit more - but that helped. It made me realise what I could easily miss out on.
"I was a midfielder at first and when I joined Wolves I started playing centre-half and I didn't really enjoy it. At that age I felt it was more important to enjoy football than anything else so I played in the local Saturday and Sunday leagues, sometimes two games in one day, with my friends. The standard isn't as good but it was more fun.
"Only when I reached the end of my schooldays did I realise what I really wanted to do with my life and that was play football.
"Fortunately my mum and dad had stayed in contact with the coaches at Wolves and they said I was more than welcome to come back if I ever wanted, so I had a way back in. Now they are proud of both me and my brother. He was at Villa and now he's playing for Bristol Rovers and, quite rightly, they are equally proud of us both. They take it in turns to watch us every week, there is never a week when they are not at one of our games, and we are close."
Having made his senior debut for Wolves at 17, Lescott's strength and composed defending prospered over the next three seasons but with promotion finally secured to the Premiership in 2003 and several leading clubs monitoring his progress at every game - Arsenal, Aston Villa and Everton among them - he suffered a serious knee injury that deprived him of even one appearance in the club's brief return among the elite.
This blot on his medical history was to prolong this summer's move to Merseyside by a fortnight, the transfer in jeopardy after a fee had been agreed on 1 June once Everton insisted upon restructuring the payments to Wolves in order to protect themselves against any recurrence. Finally, on 14 June, the contract received his signature.
"It was frustrating but I never thought the injury would prove a problem because I had played so often in the previous two seasons," he recalls. "I had two full seasons after coming back from the knee injury and I think I played more games in that time than most of the players at Everton, so I was always confident the deal would go through. I wasn't worried.
"It was harder when I had the injury, although a few good friends were out at the same time - Nathan Blake, George Ndah, Matt Murray and Dean Sturridge - and we helped each other, plus I had a little boy in that period and it was good to have something so important outside football. I knew that if I applied myself properly, I could get back to the level I was before."
Moyes, a former centre-half himself, was among the first Premiership managers to be convinced that he had, and the opportunity to realise his potential in the top flight was taken with a little help from a most unlikely source, the former Liverpool captain and Lescott's mentor at Molineux, Paul Ince.
"It's not a hard decision when the chance to join Everton comes along but I am quite close to Paul and if I ever need advice about football or a situation in life I am not shy to phone him," he reveals. "He told me Everton would be a good choice and to make sure it happened if I could."
A significant price tag and the expensive failure of £5m Per Kroldrup at Goodison the previous summer placed Lescott under intense scrutiny from the moment he donned royal blue for the first time. While Moyes could ill afford another defensive error, the man he has envisaged as ultimately breaking the monopoly of Alan Stubbs and David Weir at the heart of his rearguard alongside Joseph Yobo was similarly concerned with making mistakes whenever he took to the field.
A nervous pre-season ensued for all parties before Lescott was made to feel at home not on the back of an encouraging display in the Premiership, but a dubious rendition of Oasis' Wonderwall in a Dallas restaurant.
Long before John Terry initiated newcomers at Chelsea by insisting they sing in front of their team-mates, an order he has maintained with England, Everton installed an identical rite of passage for their recruits. With no exceptions permitted, the naturally reserved Lescott was therefore subjected to a gruelling pre-season of the United States, a country to which he had vowed never to return following his previous, dramatic visit.
He explained: "Me and Lee Naylor [now of Celtic] had flown to New York with our families and the pilot accidentally hit the hijack button, or whatever it is they have in the cockpit, so the airport refused him permission to land and they scrambled a few fighter jets to meet us in mid-air.
"We had to land in Nova Scotia instead and the moment we landed four or five SWAT teams burst on to the plane. I haven't been back to New York since, although I was more nervous when I had to sing in front of the lads in Dallas. I don't think I've ever been as nervous in my career.
"I was told what to expect when I first joined the club and thought it was a wind-up but when I was told I had to perform in America I was a nervous wreck for two days. I almost pulled a sickie to get out of doing it but I knew I had no choice, so I went on the internet to find the words of a song everyone would know and stood up on a fountain in a restaurant and just sang away.
"Thankfully, the boys all joined in and it wasn't just me, all the new lads had to do it - A J [Andy Johnson], Tim Howard and our new kit man. It was a good way to break the ice and it showed me that there are no egos here. It is a very tight unit and a good atmosphere and I think you can see that in how we play."
The spirit and promise of Everton's impressive start to the season has been tested of late, with last weekend's win over Bolton Wanderers only their second in nine Premiership outings and Cahill, their leading goalscorer who had compensated for Johnson's current goal drought, now out until the newyear with a medial knee ligament tear.
"Bolton are never easy and it was always going to take something special, or something lucky, to win that game and thankfully Mikel [Arteta] provided it with a fantastic goal," Lescott admits. "It was nice to turn things around quickly after losing the three games before Bolton, but we were always confident we could because the belief here is so strong."
A first game at The Valley for Les Reed will ensure that assessment is subject to further scrutiny this afternoon, despite Charlton's basement position, when Everton must again rely on the resilience inherent in a team which includes so many - from the manager, to Johnson and now Lescott - who have stepped out of the Championship and fought for recognition. Or, in the case of their defender, far more besides.
"The manager came from the Championship with Preston, he knows what it takes to adapt to the Premiership and he hasn't been afraid to take players from there," says Lescott.
"Tim Cahill was the first and has proved to be a great player, A J, although he was already an international so it wasn't exactly taking a chance with him, and now me. I suppose I was a bit of a chance but the manager has obviously seen something in me and hopefully I can prove him right. It has been a good start, but I will never get carried away."
He ain't heavy... Aaron on Joleon
Aaron Lescott, Joleon's brother, is also a professional footballer, playing in the Bristol Rovers midfield in League Two. He will be 26 next month, and is nearly two years older than Joleon
Does Joleon still look up to you? Yes, though he's never said it to me! But last year he did an article for FourFourTwo magazine and in it he put 'Heroes- my brother'. It was a great honour and, of course, I'm really proud of him.
Were you confident that Joleon would adapt to the Premiership? I always thought he could, and that's not me being biased towards him because he's my brother. No one could really tell how he'd do but I think it was the first few games that were important. The game against Spurs he came through well, and then there was the derby against Liverpool. By having a good game in that it really helped him settle down.
Any chance of one day playing against your brother in the Premiership? Slim! Very slim! I don't think that's going to happen!
Interview by James Daly
Brothers in arms Filial footballers
* THE FERDINANDS
Anton (Age 21, position centre-back, club West Ham) and Rio (28, centre-back, Man Utd)
* THE NEVILLES
Gary (31, right-back, Man Utd) and Phil (29, left-back/midfield, Everton)
* THE TERRYS
John (26, centre-back, Chelsea) and Paul (27, midfilder, Yeovil)
* THE DAWSONS
Michael (23, centre-back, Tottenham), Andy (28, Hull City)
* THE BRAMBLES
Tesfaye (26, striker, Stockport County) and Titus (25, centre-back, Newcastle Utd)
* THE SODJES
Akpo (26, striker, Port Vale), Efe (34, centre-back, Southend), Sam (27, centre-back, Reading)
* THE WRIGHT-PHILLIPS
Shaun (25, right-midfield, Chelsea), Bradley (21, striker, Southampton)
* THE HOYTES
Justin (22, right/centre-back, Arsenal), Gavin (16, right/centre-back, Arsenal)
* THE MOORES
Luke (20, striker, Aston Villa) and Stefan (23, striker, QPR)
* THE WARDS
Elliott (21, centre-back, Coventry City) and Darren (28, centre-back, Crystal Palace)
* THE CHAMBERS
James (26, right-back, Watford) and Adam (26, right-back, Leyton Orient)
* THE CORTS
Carl (29, striker, Wolverhampton Wanderers) and Leon (27, centre-back, Crystal Palace)
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