Gavin Peacock: Calling fires journey from Wembley to pulpit

The former Chelsea man has swapped punditry for preaching. He talks to Mark Fleming about his new mission in Canada

Thursday 02 December 2010 01:00

Gavin Peacock doesn't play much football these days, which is not surprising given that temperatures in the remote town where he lives, cradled in the Canadian Rockies, can dive to minus 30 in the winter months. The odd five-a-side game for Canmore United in an indoor league is the extent of it now for a player who once performed with distinction for Chelsea and Newcastle United in the Premier League.

Nor does he watch much of it on television. He pays the subscription to what North Americans call the EPL (the English Premier League) but it does not dominate conversation like it did not so long ago when he was one of the faces, with his shaven head and goatee beard, of the BBC's football coverage, including a regular slot on Match of the Day 2.

Other than that, there is little about today's Gavin Peacock that reflects his former public life as an ex-footballer-turned-pundit. But that is just the way he wants it.

In 2008 he decided to move his wife, Amanda, and their two children, Jake and Ava, to Canada so he could study theology with the intention of becoming a church leader.

"I left England after Euro 2008, when I had been working as part of the TV team for the BBC," Peacock says. "And not long after I was living in a small town in a strange country, getting up at seven in the morning to study Hebrew at eight, followed by ancient Greek at 10. And I wondered, 'What have I got myself into?'"

That same question has been asked by many of his former colleagues and friends back in the UK. Not many people, let alone former professional footballers, walk out on a well-paid job on TV to become a theology student, swapping sofa for seminary. Peacock, now 43 years old, says he felt "compelled" to join the ministry after a "road to Damascus" moment reading his Bible at home in Wilmington, Kent. From then on, his career on TV lost its allure.

"It never felt like it was going to be for ever," he says. "When I got the call to enter the ministry I just felt like that what I was meant to do. I feel compelled to do it. I was in my study reading my Bible when it seemed someone had highlighted the words on the pages. I suddenly felt the calling to preach."

Peacock has been a Christian since he was a teenager, so in some respects his decision to become a preacher has been a long time in the making. Yet when it came, it happened suddenly, a calling from the pages of the Bible. The family had a holiday home in the Rockies and they took the difficult decision to move abroad.

"I could have studied in England but we had been out here on holiday a few times and we just thought, 'Let's make a real break away from everything.' Coming to Canada was like stripping things back, I couldn't trade off my name. No one was going to give me a hearing because I was Gavin Peacock, ex-Chelsea captain," he says.

It was like he had never been a famous footballer. "At first it was quite hard, being away from everything I had known – family, friends, football. And it was not like we were in Florida, sitting by the swimming pool. It was really cold and that was hard to get used to.

"For the first time, also, football was not a part of my life at all. It's not like going to Spain or Italy, or even the US. In Canada they have very little interest in soccer."

Anonymity was hard for Peacock, who as the son of former Charlton Athletic player Keith Peacock has spent his entire life under one spotlight or another. At his peak, around the time he hit the bar for Chelsea in the 4-0 defeat in the 1994 FA Cup final against Double winners Manchester United, he came close to selection for Terry Venables' England. He then also carved out an impressive second career as a pundit, having moved up from local radio to working as a regular expert for BBC TV.

Giving up being famous has its benefits, however. Peacock now knows that he has had to work for everything he has achieved after making the move across the Atlantic.

It has certainly been hard work. He started out by learning two languages, Hebrew and ancient Greek, so that he can read the Bible in its original form, a testing academic challenge that commands long hours of study and generally weeds out the less committed of students.

"The studying has been hard. It's been the hardest two years of my life but the most rewarding. I joked with my classmates once that I had played in front of 100,000 people in a Cup final at Wembley but I was more nervous about my Hebrew vocabulary test," he says.

Recently Peacock has moved on to studying more practical skills, such as preaching and how to serve the community, working with a small evangelical church in Banff. "You have to be a shepherd to your flock," he says.

The pulpit is where Peacock now feels most at home. "I feel my primary calling is to be a preacher. I have been working at Banff Park Church and I preach there about once a month," he says.

"I don't wear a dog collar, it's quite casual, but I do wear a suit when I preach. There is normally about 120 to 140 in the congregation, which is quite big."

Preaching is a time-consuming task, as Peacock generally spends 15 hours in preparation and study before each sermon. "I suppose I spend about three hours a day on Monday to Friday before I preach," he said. "I feel a certain amount of nerves, or fear, when I preach. I appreciate that it is God's word that I am preaching. I think you could call it a glorious weight."

Peacock is due to finish his masters degree in theology in April, when he is hoping his relationship with Banff Park Church will evolve into a full-time job. He has sold his house in England and is committed to life in Canada. After two years living among the elks and the grizzlies, he has decided to stay.

"Originally we thought we would do three years and then go back to England. But we had a period of time back to England last fall and after that I realised I had to stay here," he says. "I've sold my house in England and am committed to life in Canada long term. I'm not saying I would never return to England but for as long as we can I would like to try to pursue things here."

Home now is Canmore, a bustling former mining town nestling in the Rockies with a population of 12,000, famous recently for providing the spectacular scenery for the movie Brokeback Mountain. Peacock's church is at the heart of Rockies' tourist trail, where sometimes the occasional British visitor recognises the former footballer.

It is very cold, however. "It's minus 30 today," he says, "About as cold as you can possibly imagine. You have to dress for it but I do wish I still had my hair, I have to wear a beanie hat for about four months. You don't do much outdoors when it's like this. The sky, however, is bright blue, and sun blazes down on some stunning scenery."

Having previously kept his options open, Peacock has now chosen the Associated Gospel Churches as his future home, a Christian denomination similar to the Baptists. "They preach from the scriptures and have a certain demeanour, a gravitas," Peacock says.

He recently passed a two-hour interview for the AGC, which means he should be ordained in two years' time, after a period as an assistant to pastor Norm Derkson at Banff Park Church. "We've got a good chemistry and he gives me the pulpit from time to time," he says. If he maintains his progress, he will become the Reverend Gavin Peacock in 2012.

There will come a time when Peacock needs to start earning again, as he has been living off his savings and his footballing pension for the past two years, along with support from the Professional Footballers' Association. He says: "I have not worked since I left the BBC and became a student. I am very grateful for the PFA benevolent fund that helps me with the costs of the course."

As he builds his new life in Canada, Peacock's former incarnation as a footballer becomes less and less important. "The guys at my five-a-side team all know about my previous career," he says. "And I do get recognised from time to time. Banff is quite a touristy place and there are quite a few English visitors.

"The kids sometimes go on Google and YouTube to see some of the old goals and games. They are good memories and I don't feel like I wish I was playing again. I had a full career and was blessed I didn't have any injuries. I was a good player, as good as I could have been, and I felt I achieved as much as I could have done."

Peacock has taken that attitude into his new career and will give everything to become the best he can at his new vocation. It goes without saying he has no regrets about his decision to up sticks and take the family to Canada.

The key factor for Peacock has been the spiritual development of his family, an indicator perhaps of just how far he has come since he left England two years ago. "My faith has deepened, and as a family we have grown spiritually," he says. "Life in our consumer society can be very lightweight. People need to be fed meat rather than candyfloss. Hopefully, we are shepherding our children towards God, who is eternal."

Gavin Peacock's footballing life

1967 Born 18 November, Eltham.

1984-87 The midfielder begins his career with Queen's Park Rangers, making his debut on 29 November in a 2-2 home draw against Sheffield Wednesday, aged 19.

1987-89 After a brief loan spell, he completes a full transfer to Gillingham, joining his father, Keith, who is manager. Peacock Snr is sacked soon afterwards but Gavin remains with the Gills for nearly two years.

1990-93 Following a year under Harry Redknapp at Bournemouth he is signed by Newcastle United. Peacock plays a crucial role as they win the 1992-93 First Division title, scoring 12 goals. Despite promotion to the Premier League with the Magpies, he joins Chelsea in the summer for £1.5m.

1993-96 Peacock scores on his Chelsea debut, a 2-1 home loss to Blackburn Rovers, and is one of the star performers in an otherwise disappointing league campaign for the Blues as they finished 14th. Peacock hits the bar in the 1994 FA Cup final as Chelsea suffer a 4-0 loss to Manchester United at Wembley. He goes on to make over 100 appearances for the club.

1996-2002 Moves back to QPR for £800,000 following a loan spell. Goes on to make over 200 appearances and score 39 goals in total for the club, but was unable to help the side back into the Premier League. Has a brief spell on loan in 2001 at Charlton Athletic, where his father Keith was assistant manager, before retiring at the end of the 2001-02 season.

Tom Cooper

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