Clarke Carlisle: 'I don't know why I started to drink'

Clarke Carlisle is 'Britain's Brainiest Footballer' but even he can't explain why he fell foul of alcoholism. Ahead of tomorrow's fearsome derby with Blackburn the Burnley defender tells Ian Herbert how crime thrillers, the church and fighting racism have replaced the booze

Clarke Carlisle turned 30 on Wednesday and the dates tattooed on his forearms – his wedding day and young son's birthday – reveal that he is in what the psychologists like to call a "good place" now.

Here is a footballer with a sense of perspective, who admits that he sometimes reads more than is good for him: he's nailed every one of the Jack Reacher detective novels by Lee Child and a fair few by David Baldacci. "I go through phases with a writer," he says. "It's indicative of a person with an addictive personality."

He throws out this piece of self-analysis nonchalantly but it resonates through the silence of the trophy room at Turf Moor, where Carlisle is talking ahead of the sound and the fury of tomorrow's Blackburn/Burnley clash, a local derby which makes the Buenos Aires superclasico and Manchester equivalents seem like a picnic.

Carlisle might be one of the most reflective and erudite players in the game – absorbed by the emergence of Barack Obama; contemplating a PGCE and career in teaching when his playing days are over – but addiction almost took away everything from him. The story of his alcoholism – curled up and hungover on the way to Colchester in his QPR days, manager Ian Holloway ordering him off the coach and the defender reaching his Damascene moment 24 hours later when propping up a bar awaiting his side's result on the BBC videprinter – is one to inspire any other player seeking redemption. In the end, the Sporting Chance clinic saw him through. "It's a period of deep reflection and you're digging all the dirt inside," Carlisle says of his journey out of the darkness. "When you're at that point, there's a lot of dirt."

Carlisle can see so much more clearly now that everyone wants a piece of his inner clarity. His appearance on Match of the Day 2 earlier this month was effortlessly impressive and a TV studio place looks like his for the taking. (He will embark later this year on the postgraduate course in broadcasting run for players by the former Sheffield Wednesday full-back Lawrie Madden at Staffordshire University.)

He has also taken up an ambassadorial role for Kick it Out, football's equality and inclusion campaign which begins its "One Game, One Community" weeks of action this weekend. Carlisle's struggles with racism pale in comparison with the obstacles the last decade has thrown his way, which include a shattered knee playing for QPR that left surgeons uncertain whether he would walk again. What racial abuse there has been, he has blanked out. "It's the odd shout here and there which you can hardly make out," Carlisle says. But memories of the way his own family ostracised his father, Mervin, and mother, Rose, for the mixed-race marriage they embarked on as teenagers a generation ago lives with him.

"Our parents did well to shelter us from it and whenever we did do family things they were always happy, smiley," he says. "I'm not sure if that was just to keep the kids happy. It might sound a bit mushy but my biggest influence was my father. He stuck true to his beliefs. He loved my mum and he stood against both families. He and mum were a veritable Romeo and Juliet back in that time."

The world has certainly turned since the days when Mervin Carlisle braved the bigotry to play semi professionally for Southport and Morecambe and then in the local Preston and District League. Those Carlisle wants to reach as an ambassador this weekend are young black players, not the few remaining white bigots. "Rather than taking up a battle, we need to lift the thoughts and ambition of young black players and make them believe they can achieve things. It's a different perspective but a more positive one."

The kind of philosophy which makes you wonder how on earth Carlisle could have fallen so far, once he had disregarded the quiet insistence of his headmistress at Balshaw's School in Leyland, Lancashire, that his mathematics made him Oxbridge material and embarked on a career in football. The prospects seemed auspicious for a time, when Gerry Francis whisked Carlisle from Blackpool to QPR after glowing scouting reports from Iain Dowie and the defender found himself playing for England Under-21s alongside John Terry, Alan Smith, Paul Robinson and Ashley Cole.

It was when he sustained an injury in a game against Fulham that a different fate began to grip him. The lay-off took Carlisle into several of his addictions, some of which were less damaging than others. One was Channel 4's Countdown and he still remembers his audition for a place on the show. He reported to the Travelodge at Euston station and, with all due modesty, was convinced that his mathematics – the strongest of his 10 A-grade GCSEs – would see him pass muster. "I just choked," he says, grinning at the memory now. "What really hurt me the most was that the numbers were my forte and I didn't get one numbers one right. [Then in the word puzzles] I was thinking 'there is a big word here' rather than building up logically. I looked for the big one and failed miserably."

The going wasn't quite so tough on the Britain's Brainiest Footballer show, which his agent showed him a flyer for. "I wanted to answer on maths but they couldn't come up with decent mathematical questions for the format," Carlisle says. "So they asked me 'what else would you want?' I thought human biology. I'd been in the treatment room for long enough and I did all right at GCSE."

He beat such cerebral talents as Alan Brazil and Malcolm MacDonald to the title but has never taken that achievement terribly seriously. "The best bit was when I went to sit with the QPR fans at Northampton and they started singing 'Carlisle is a genius' to the tune of 'Go West'. That was such a brilliant moment."

The same can't be said of the way that drink began to grip him at that time. Even now, Carlisle can't share all of the reasons why he, from a solid, aspirational, God-fearing background, the son of a Christian youth worker who counselled on drug and drink addictions, got into drink but he soon found his relationship with his daughter, Francesca, suffering along with his football.

"There was a multitude of reasons, which all accumulated – a lot of them personal, a lot of them incidental," he says. "A sequence of bad positions got me into it and I can't even remember all of them. I don't know if I've just got a bad memory but my long-term recall is unbelievably bad. My wife and I talk about this all the time."

Holloway was an important part of his redemption, guiding Carlisle into the hands of the Sporting Chance clinic, founded by Tony Adams, where he stayed for four weeks. "A number of managers could have said 'right, that's it' and you'd have been on your bike, out of the door. It was Olly I put my trust in," he says. So too, his wife, Gemma, whom he first met shortly before going into the clinic. "I wrote to her a couple of times when I was in there. When I came out I was supposed to stay single for a year but that didn't happen! We've come through the other side."

Eventually, Carlisle returned to Holloway's side but the north always called. He moved to Leeds United to be nearer Francesca, who was living with her mother in Preston, and after two seasons with Watford there was a £250,000 move to Burnley. He and his wife became practising Christians during his Watford spell and are currently searching for a church near their new family home in Ripponden. Their son, Marley, is nearly two.

Carlisle understands more about himself now. "Being intelligent or literate makes no difference if you are unfulfilled deep down," he says. "I'm able to identify my traits for what they are and to be open about them. Sometimes I tell my wife things she really doesn't need to know but she understands that I trust her most."

Salvation has also brought opportunities he dared not even wish for. It seemed his only Premier League experience would be the few games he played for Watford when they were already relegated in 2007, yet his performance in Burnley's 1-0 defeat of Manchester United at Turf Moor was a defining one. The memory of the occasion excites him, but no more so than that of watching Obama's presidential election victory eight months earlier. "My grandfather came over on the boats from the Dominican Republic," he reflects on this. "He would never have thought to see a black or mixed-race leader of the free world."

The player's talk of writers is just as animated, too. Those Jack Reacher novels were something special – "I do love that rogue figure who has the talents which are not apparent to the naked eye" – but the title of one of his favourite Baldaccis seems far more significant. It is Total Control, a quality Carlisle is finally regaining in his life.

Lancashire hot pots: Derbies that have boiled over

Few football rivalries inspire as much animosity, ill will and tension as that between Blackburn Rovers and Burnley. The clubs first met in 1888 and the east Lancashire derby has, in recent times, been marred by violence and vandalism.

*April 1983: Second Division

Blackburn 2 Burnley 1

At the height of hooliganism in English football, this league match at Ewood Park boiled over. Visiting Burnley supporters caused the game to be halted for 15 minutes as they tore down the terracing and set fire to a roof at the Darwen end. There were 33 arrests and 18 injuries. The Clarets went on to be relegated at the end of the season.

*December 2000: First Division

Burnley 0 Blackburn 2

A home defeat led Burnley supporters to embark on a destructive rampage. Blackburn fans were held inside the ground for more than an hour after the end of the match for their own safety as Burnley fans tore through their own town centre, looting and damaging shops, resulting in 20 people being arrested.

*April 2001: First Division

Blackburn 5 Burnley 0

Following the troubles in the reverse fixture earlier in the season, Lancashire police described the security operation around this tie as the biggest Lancashire had seen in recent football history. It turned out to be a necessary precaution, as 39 fans were arrested following disturbances. Rovers' win helped them finish second and gain promotion into the Premiership, while Burnley finished two points off the play-offs.

*February 2005: FA Cup fifth round

Burnley 0 Blackburn 0

A fractious clash ended without score but not without incident. More than 400 police officers had been drafted in to help deal with the tensions. Blackburn's ever-popular Welshman Robbie Savage and defender Lucas Neill were confronted by a Burnley supporter who invaded the pitch. In addition, 40 people were arrested for public order offences after the game.

Blackburn went on to win the replay.

*It is also rumoured that in 1994 Burnley considered twinning the town with Trelleborgs in Sweden. The town's team of part-timers had surprisingly knocked Kenny Dalglish's Blackburn out of the Uefa Cup, in a season when they went on to win the Premier League.

Katie Nixon

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