‘I thought ‘hosepipe to the car, would that be the easiest way?’: Portsmouth legend Alan Knight was living in his car when he toyed with ending it all; now he’s joining Sportsmail in backing Reposm housing charity to help struggling stars
- Alan Knight considered ending his life amid struggles with depression
- Knight is now in a better place and has urged others to talk about their struggles
- He appreciates perils sportspeople face when they have to enter the real world
- The Portsmouth legend joins Sportsmail in backing the Reposm housing charity
Through the clear eyes of 11 sober years, Alan Knight can make perfect sense of his personal crash into the ranks of the homeless.
He acknowledges his mistakes with honesty and regret as he retraces his steps and he appreciates the perils awaiting professional sportspeople when age forces them into the real world. At the time, however, it was a high-speed blur.
Knight, a one-club legend with 801 senior appearances for Portsmouth, spiralled out of football, out of control and into depression via alcoholism, a broken marriage and a medical emergency in the USA.
Portsmouth legend Alan Knight toyed with the idea of ending his life when at his lowest point
Knight is a Portsmouth legend having made 801 appearances between 1978 and 2000
‘I’ve had those moments where you think about ending your life,’ he says. ‘I’ve done that. I was sleeping in the car when there was nowhere else to go and you would sit in there and think about all sorts of things.
‘Hosepipe into the car? Would that be the easiest way? All those things go through your head when you’re at your lowest.’
At 59, Knight is an ambassador for Pompey and active in their community projects in a city where homelessness and addiction are prevalent. Who better than someone who can empathise and offer proof of a way out?
The former shot-stopper says agencies like the PFA and Sporting Chance helped him greatly
The key for him was to overcome the embarrassment of talking about his predicament and accessing the support network. He was fortunate to have family and good friends on hand, and agencies such as the PFA and the Sporting Chance addiction clinic.
There are gaps in the system, however, and Knight believes Reposm, a new charity established to help former sportsmen and women with affordable housing highlighted on these pages on Tuesday, will go a long way towards closing one of them.
‘It’s very easy to slip through the grid,’ he says. ‘More common than people realise. It comes down to pride with a lot of lads I see, and that was my biggest problem. People told me I needed help, that I was an alcoholic and I should go to the PFA but I wouldn’t accept that.
Knight’s life spiralled out of control via alcoholism, a broken marriage and a medical issue
The ex-goalkeeper joins Sportsmail in backing Reposm, a charity that helps struggling stars
‘I was wrapped up in myself and there’s fear and embarrassment. Where to go? Who will help? I know lots of footballers who have struggled to access help they needed.’
When Knight’s playing career ended in the late 1990s, he was on about £50,000-a-year and dropped to £25,000 to become the club’s goalkeeping coach. There had been a windfall from a testimonial in 1994 and another benefit match a decade on
The £30,000 it generated soon disappeared to repay debts. ‘A lot of people worked hard and people paid to come and watch,’ says Knight. ‘I’m grateful and I feel I let them down.
‘Unfortunately, my personal life was unravelling. I split from my wife and I was haemorrhaging money. I lost the house and instead of sorting the finances, I buried my head in the sand and tried to make out everything was going well.
‘My drinking had escalated. I can look back now and see that I was a functioning alcoholic when I was playing. There was a big drink culture but you couldn’t drink two days before a game.
‘As a coach, I didn’t have those rules. I’d go out on a Friday or, if it was an away game, I’d stay up drinking in the hotel with some of the staff and I’d be kicking balls at the goalies in the warm-up still half-drunk. I was losing self-control.’
Knight admits that when he was a goalkeeping coach he was kicking balls while half-drunk
From Portsmouth, Knight accepted a job coaching in the USA with Colin Clarke, a former team-mate who was in charge of FC Dallas. It was going well until his appendix burst and he needed emergency surgery. ‘They found it was infected and I nearly lost my bowel. Then came the conversation about who was paying the $100,000 bill. My contract said medical care was covered but Dallas hadn’t put it in place and the hospital said that was my problem. It was settled in the end but it created a bad feeling.’
Clarke was sacked after losing on penalties in the 2006 play-offs and Knight returned home.
‘That was when things became really difficult,’ he says. ‘I had nowhere to live and getting a job in football proved impossible. I had no money for rent. I was running on empty.’
He lived in spare rooms and slept on sofas in the homes of friends and former team-mates, unable to offer rent, afraid he would outstay his welcome, and he picked up cash doing manual labour and occasional coaching sessions at Bournemouth, Havant & Waterlooville and Dorchester, but he was still drinking and unreliable.
‘I always ended up in a pub,’ Knight admits. ‘I could always go into a pub in Pompey and someone would look after me.’
He endured a very difficult time as he continued drinking and struggled to find a place to live
Then came the emotional breakdown. ‘I woke up one Saturday morning in Southsea in clothes I’d had on for a couple of days, a suit and a white shirt covered in dirt, and I walked over Fratton Bridge. Pompey were at home and supporters were in the pubs saying, “Come on in, Al”.
‘I must have looked like a bag of s***. I could tell by the looks people were thinking, ‘Look at the state of him’ and “Where’s it all gone wrong?”
‘I ended up in a pub and I just broke down in tears. I couldn’t do it anymore.’
Friends, family and the PFA moved in to help. The following day he borrowed £5 to buy 10 cigarettes and half a pint of lager, which he left untouched. It is the last drink he bought.
By Thursday he had spoken to counsellors at Sporting Chance and the following Monday was starting a 28-day rehab course. He emerged clean. ‘I had an epiphany, I think,’ he smiles, but stepping back into society was daunting.
‘I can’t thank Sporting Chance and the PFA enough, so I don’t want to sound disingenuous but the big bit for me was at the end. Where are you going to go? I didn’t know where I was going to live. I didn’t have a job. I was lucky to have some very good friends and family who supported me.’
Knight says that pride stops a lot of players from admitting to others that they have problems
Knight found a job doing groundwork on construction sites. ‘I wasn’t very good, but at least I was reliable because I wasn’t drinking.’
And he returned to coaching, first at Horndean in Wessex League Two, step seven of the pyramid, and later at Aldershot with Kevin Dillon, another former team-mate, and as manager at Dorchester.
The labouring took priority, however, because it paid more. Eventually he could afford rent on lodgings to call his own and regain some control. ‘I was in a bed, with a better sleep pattern,’ says Knight. ‘It didn’t feel like I was sofa-surfing. I had the stability of my own space.
‘I met my wife, Heather. She has been a massive help with my sobriety. I got my head straight and started to face my issues.
Now Knight is in a much better place and says his wife has been a major help with his sobriety
‘There were times when I thought it never would, but my life changed. I have a better relationship with my two daughters. I have three grandkids. I have a wife, a stepson and stepdaughter, a new life and it has been great to get back into football.’
Knight returned to Portsmouth as goalkeeping coach in 2013, before becoming an ambassador.
Uncertainty lies ahead, once again. He was on furlough through the pandemic and volunteered delivering food parcels with Pompey in the Community. He knows clubs in League One are facing difficult decisions.
But Knight is safe in the knowledge he has faced greater fears and survived.
To donate to the charity go to uk.virginmoneygiving.com and search for Reposm
The money can dry up fast
By Chris Sutton
There is a perception that football players earn ridiculous amounts and see out their days living in mansions.
Some do. But supercars on driveways and swimming pools in back gardens are exceedingly rare.
Careers in football are short and, for various reasons, that money can soon go. It might be because of poor financial advice. It might be because that business you opened suddenly collapsed – something which has become even more of a risk in this time of coronavirus.
It leaves older generations vulnerable, some without a home of their own and forced to move in with family members. Former players, managers, coaches, scouts, those who operated at the top level and those who circulated the lower leagues – it can happen to anyone.
Former Celtic striker Chris Sutton stressed that the money players earn can soon run out
Life doesn’t always go according to plan and those who once made headlines in the sports pages can find themselves falling on hard times.
As one can imagine, this causes mental anguish and it’s wrong of a sport to turn its back on those who gave it so much.
That’s why this initiative by the Reposm Sporting Housing Trust can only be a good thing. It is a genuinely heartwarming scheme which Sportsmail is supporting and going to be donating towards.
Hopefully, this can help anyone out there who’s lost their way to get back on track. I’m backing it, and so are Sir Alex Ferguson and David Pleat to name two others. I hope you will be, too.
A way home for the retired in horseracing
By Matt Barlow
Those who provide a housing lifeline in the horseracing community are certain there is nothing to stop other sports succeeding with similar models.
‘I see absolutely no reason why it wouldn’t work if there is the will and funding to do it,’ said Dawn Goodfellow, chief executive of Racing Welfare, the charity supporting those who work in British racing.
‘It could be a really exciting prospect and there’s all sorts of potential.
‘When you’re building new stadiums, why couldn’t there be some sort of social housing with an area reserved for retired elite sportsmen?’
Racing Homes is the housing association that owns and manages 155 units in racing hubs such as Newmarket and Lambourn on behalf of Racing Welfare.
Dawn Goodfellow, chief executive of Racing Welfare, says the housing lifeline the charity provides could work in other sports
There are bedsits for young people, although more than two thirds is housing for the sport’s retired community, including former jockeys and trainers, stable staff, stud staff and ground staff from the racecourses.
Last year, a new block of 21 two-bed retirement flats was built in Newmarket for £3.5million. There is a points system for eligibility and rents set below social housing levels. None of it is sheltered housing but there is a close link between the housing team and welfare officers.
‘Traditionally in racing there was a lot of tied housing,’ said Goodfellow. ‘Homes went with the job, and that would have been the genesis for it. There is less tied housing these days but the pressures are different.
One of the great values of the housing provided by Racing Welfare is that it enables people to live within the racing community
‘Newmarket is becoming a dormitory town for Cambridge and property prices are going up. In Epsom you’re talking London prices and that’s a challenge. A lot of our retired people have to move away and we know social isolation damages mental and physical health. There’s research to show being lonely can be as bad for health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
‘One of the great values of our housing is that it enables people to live within the racing community.
‘We’ve moved people into Newmarket from places where they were socially isolated and into a community with people who understand what they’re going through.’
It’s a struggle for so many in cricket
By Chris Cowdrey
Cricket has some awful statistics when it comes to mental health and levels of divorce, bankruptcy and suicide among former players.
It is not a sport awash with money. Cricketers have never been looked after for life, although the Professional Cricketers’ Association do an increasingly good job.
Things are better than they were but I know plenty from my generation who have really struggled and some are still struggling. They could do with the help of Reposm.
I hope that all sports can come together and get this up and running to help as many people as possible in different stages of their lives.
Former Kent and England captain Chris Cowdrey is backing Sportsmail’s campaign
I am firmly behind this Sportsmail campaign. These problems are more widespread than people realise. Circumstances are different but life can throw you a few tricky deliveries and it is hard to get moving again. It is OK to hold up your hand and say you need help.
David Bairstow was a great friend of mine who tragically took his own life at the age of 46, while Graeme Fowler, who suffered terrible mental health problems for 20 years, has done well to confront his issues and help others.
Cricket is an all-embracing lifestyle. You are among friends, surrounded by groups of people. Although the travelling could be a hardship, it was fun because you’d go to play at Yorkshire and you knew on the close of the first day you would go out for a few beers with ‘Bluey’ Bairstow, which was something to look forward to.
It was a social game. Then, all of a sudden, you retire and you don’t have a team around you. The fraternity is gone and the money stops. It would be great to know Reposm was there to help those who struggle to cope.
Cowdrey stressed that cricket isn’t a sport that is awash with money; with many struggling
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