August 2007 and Stoke City striker Vincent Péricard is due in court for lying about who was behind the wheel after being caught speeding. He texts his friend to say he will be in touch shortly. The next time he makes contact with his mate is after serving five weeks in prison.
Péricard was sentenced to two months at Exeter for perverting the course of justice. The French-Cameroonian served four weeks before spending 10 days in an open security prison. When he was released early, his electronic tag broke during a training session and he was forced to serve the final two weeks in a facility in Manchester.
"I was young and naïve," he says now. "I won't make the mistakes again. I wouldn't wish it on anyone. You hear the sentence, suddenly you're in a police van, then a cell. It's unreal."
The experience haunts Péricard but goes some way to explaining his baffling career. He joined Juventus from St Etienne in 2000, played in a Champions League tie against Arsenal in March 2002 and shared high fives in training with Zinedine Zidane, yet Péricard is now playing in Conference South.
It is clear he believes he could have avoided incarceration with better advice. He feels betrayed by a lack of support throughout his career. His ignorance in a foreign country landed him the ultimate punishment, but also led to stress and depression. And he's not alone.
"If a player is worried and can't sleep at night, how do you expect them to train well?" Péricard asks. "Forget the pay cheque, if he's not happy he's no use to his employers."
Péricard talks from experience. Even at 18, with huge potential after being plucked from France U16s by Carlo Ancelotti, he stumbled across many unexpected challenges. "I had no friends and couldn't speak Italian," he explains. "I didn't know how to get to training. When Juventus came knocking I did not think twice. Things just moved so quickly."
Péricard looked every inch a star performer and was welcomed as a first-team player. "I considered Zinedine Zidane a friend, popped round Edgar Davids' for tea and roomed with Lilian Thuram."
Off the field Péricard struggled. When presented with the opportunity to move to Harry Redknapp's Portsmouth in 2002 he was eager to join. He scored nine goals in 42 games and gave Gary Neville such a torrid afternoon one day that it is still talked about at Fratton Park. "In my first two weeks my first touch was terrible," he says. "I remember Harry telling me he wasn't sure [if I could play]. Thankfully, things changed. Promotion was such an achievement, the highlight of my career."
Péricard then injured a quadriceps, then a cruciate ligament. Things spiralled. "The injury came at a terrible time and I lost 10 months of Premiership football," he says. "That was a huge blow, but it was worse off the field. You lose your routine. You go to the gym on your own and return home alone. You miss Saturdays and when you return you're so eager you do silly things and get injured again. It's a vicious circle. I was very depressed." Worse still, no one wanted to know. "You sign and the PFA ensure you have accommodation but once you go home that's it, there's no one to talk to."
Péricard went on loan to Sheffield United, then Plymouth Argyle before signing at Stoke, who continued to pay the striker during his incarceration, but Péricard struggled following his release. Injury struck again – with Péricard on the verge of joining Millwall – and he felt terrible. "That was the first time I was without a contract and not getting paid," he says.
Better times followed at Carlisle, where Péricard scored six goals in 11 games. His form alerted Swindon Town's Danny Wilson, but injury struck again. "I arrived in Swindon with a hamstring pull. I was desperate to impress and played earlier than I should have done. The fans didn't know what was going on in my life and my body. The manager might see what you're capable of in training but supporters don't. Constant criticism eventually knocks you down."
Péricard is now 29, trains with Bournemouth and plays for Havant & Waterlooville hoping someone will give him a chance. "I never give up," he says. He is launching Elite Professional Management, to advise young players and prevent them making similar mistakes. "I see young foreign players struggling with loneliness or settling in a new country. Whether it's buying a house, learning the language or integrating into the local area, they just need someone loyal.
"I want to leave a legacy," he says. "I'm a people person and I love caring for others. I would feel extremely touched if in five years' time even just one player came up to me and thanked me for helping them."
After he has faced far tougher obstacles in his life, you wouldn't bet against Péricard finally succeeding.Reuse content