Football left Paul Anderson isolated, maligned and in need of counselling, but he can’t imagine life without it
In a rollercoaster 14-year career in professional football, Paul Anderson has experienced high peaks and deep troughs, from the dream of signing for Liverpool as a 17-year-old, to training with a League Two youth team in his 30s.
The worst spell of his career forced him into counselling for mental health problems yet also, somehow, rekindled his love of the game.
Melton Times sports editor CHRIS HARBY discovers why the 32-year-old winger can’t imagine life without football.
“I was at Liverpool at 17 and I sometimes think if I had just done something slightly differently, or played slightly better on a certain day, or at a training session with the first team, would I have got an opportunity?
“It’s human nature to think like that sometimes.”
Most of us will have experienced ‘Sliding Doors’ moments in our lives: defining decisions or events which have taken us in a fateful direction.
It’s almost inevitable we look back at those turning points and wonder whether we picked the right path.
In November 2005, Rafa Benitez turned Paul Anderson’s life on its head, taking him the full length of the M62, from the Hull City academy to every schoolboy’s Anfield dream.
He starred in Liverpool’s FA Youth Cup triumph, and made sizeable enough waves for Reds great Phil Thompson to describe him as a Michael Owen in the making.
But fighting a diminishing battle for first team action in a squad packed with senior internationals, and having tasted senior football amid loan spells with Roberto Martinez’s rapidly rising Swansea side and Nottingham Forest, Anderson had his first sliding doors moment.
“I made a decision to leave Liverpool because I wanted to play first team football - I had a couple of years left there when I left for Forest,” he explains.
“I had 50 first team appearances by the time I was 19 - I wasn’t going to go back to Liverpool waiting to play in a couple of Carling Cup matches every season.
“There is a little bit of me that thinks the year I left (Roy) Hodgson went in and started giving English lads a chance and could that have been me?
“But you make your decisions and you live with them.”
This pragmatic response is typical of a rational, thoughtful and self-aware individual.
More than 14 years on from signing for the 18-time English champions, Anderson has been immersed in an industry anything but rational or thoughtful.
The 32-year-old is the first to acknowledge professional football is more than handsomely renumerated, and it is a career that also fits into the bracket of hobby or passion.
But he is also well-versed in its cutthroat and exploitative side, images far removed from the cup-lifting Wembley scenario of that schoolboy dream, or the power-wielding showpony stereotype that blanket Premier League coverage conjures up.
“People think football is this amazing lifestyle and this perfect life.
“Don’t get me wrong, I have lived my dream, but there are far more lows than there are highs. It is such a rollercoaster.
“Every day there is the pressure to perform and to push your body to the absolute limit.
“And as difficult as it is physically, it’s more mentally draining.
“All I do all week is work and work to play on a Saturday.
“All I want to do is play the 90 minutes, and most of the time you don’t know whether you are going to get to do that, and sometimes it gets taken away.
“It’s a really difficult profession, but I’m really fortunate Northampton gave me an opportunity after the last couple of years.”
There is little doubt that Anderson’s time at Mansfield Town marked a low point in his career.
After seven seasons in the Championship, and a couple more in the lower tiers, he became one of the Stags’ biggest name signings in 2017 amid a spending spree sanctioned to win promotion to League One.
But Steve Evans’ departure later that season sparked another turning point.
He quickly found himself frozen out by new manager David Flitcroft, and played no competitive football in the next 10 months.
Anderson, mystified by what he had done wrong, was cut out of the first team squad and reserves, and made to train with the club’s academy at Brooksby Melton College.
“I was training at Brooksby for six months with the under 18s and with a couple of pros, and then, when they weren’t in, went in with the college kids.
“They were good kids and allowed me into their changing room, and the guys that were coaching down there were absolutely brilliant with me. They kept me quite sane.
“Then I would go to Mansfield to do a bike session on my own and then drive home again.”
With a new young family now to support, Anderson was soon back at those increasingly familiar crossroads.
“It was a case of, ‘Do I sit here for another six months and get paid, or do I take a pay-up, which is a much smaller percentage of my wage, and try to get my career back on track?’
“So I cut my contract short at Mansfield with six months left.”
Aside from repairing damage to his CV there were more pressing personal reasons that made the choice straightforward.
“I had to make a decision totally for my mental health to leave a situation which I couldn’t cope with.
“My mental health was more important than the money, and so was my career, so I had to take a risk that I was going to sign for another team, even though there wasn’t a club lined up.”
Years of that constant pressure to perform and ever-present physical demands, together with the insecurity of keeping your place ahead of new signings and a conveyor belt of emerging talent, had taken their toll.
Isolation at Field Mill and a hard fight to uphold his reputation in the game, while others dragged it through the mud, proved the tipping point.
“If you talked to me 18 months ago I would have been in a completely different head space. A lot of it was negative.
“When you’re in a dark place and in a hole you can’t see a way out.
“You just don’t want to leave the house sometimes; it was that bad.
“I wouldn’t say I was depressed, I didn’t have to take medication, but I had counselling.
“The PFA (Professional Footballers’ Association) were very good and got me help when I needed it. It helped talking about it to someone neutral.”
Football authorities are now keen to promote mental health issues, particularly among young men, although some feel only lip service is being paid to the problem.
But Anderson’s praise for the PFA’s support is encouraging, and comes second only to that reserved for loved ones.
“It’s not just tough for you. It’s tough for your family.
“I was going through all of that, coming home with two young children, having to try to be positive around my children and my wife.
“I have nothing but admiration for my wife and how she dealt with the situation, how she was there for me when I was in a difficult place.
“She got me through it more than anyone.”
He adds: “I don’t think I spoke to that many of my friends at the time.
“I don’t think I told my dad how bad it was. I didn’t even speak to my mum about it because I didn’t want her to have that burden.”
Cutting Mansfield out of his life lifted much of the pressure and anxiety, and an offer to spend the rest of the season in League One with Plymouth proved a tonic.
Although a nine-hour round trip to Devon twice a week, while spending days away from his young family, left life some way short of ideal.
“For three months I had to sacrifice being around my family, but being back in training really helped me to get out of the place I was in.
“I only played four times, all off the bench, so again I didn’t know what was going to happen in the summer.
“Then the manager who signed me got sacked with one game of the season to go so I had another summer of looking for another club.”
Underperforming players in late season are often described as already imagining themselves on the beach, conjuring up images of long lazy, carefree weeks on overseas sunbeds. This may be the case for those within the top flight, snugly secure among the luxury of five or six-year-deals.
But for most pros in the EFL’s lower tiers, uncertainty and estate agents are as much a part of summer as sun cream and sand between your toes.
“When you go into the lower leagues you probably only have a one-year deal,” he says..
“If you don’t perform you won’t have a club next season.
“I have two months left on my contract - what if I got injured, what if I don’t play in the games?
“If you don’t play and then you are out of contract, what other teams are going to sign you?
“I’m fortunate to have had a few highs in my career, but I go into changing rooms where lads haven’t played in the Championship and they are scrapping around in League Two trying to get a contract and it’s difficult.”
Such insecurity would have been light years away from the thoughts of that super-confident, ambitious 17-year-old.
Headhunted by one of the world’s biggest clubs, with pace to terrify full-backs, England Under 19 caps fleshing out the CV, and comparisons with the latest global star, the future was nothing but enticing.
Back then he was fuelled only by the certainty of youth, mercifully unaware of life in its harsher shades, yet to be scarred by nature’s nasty side.
While there are said to be seven ages of man, the footballer can condense these down further.
“When you’re younger you are caught up in it and you just get on with it.
“When you get to your mid-20s you have the experience now and understand how the game works a little bit and that football isn’t a given.
“You could be there today and gone tomorrow; it’s a cut-throat business.
“You begin to realise it’s more of a business than a sport and you have to do things for yourself more.
“Then when you get to 30 you think about what you’re going to do after football. That worry is horrible.
“You are only five years away from having a job that you are no longer capable of doing. That starts playing on your mind quite a bit.
“People will stab you in the back to get where they want to go in football, but I haven’t got that in me.”
Yet then comes a surprising curveball.
Despite having dreams unceremoniously thrown back in his face, Anderson is keen to extend his stay in the game.
“I am still loving football which is crazy after all we’ve been through as a family, but that shows how much love you have for the game.
“I missed so much football from being isolated, it made me realise, ‘You know, I’m not as ready to give this up as I thought’.”
Worn down by football, coaching had been dismissed, but with time now ticking down on his playing career, Anderson is booked to take his UEFA B badges at St George’s Park this summer.
“I had been bogged down in it for 12 to 14 years and you get to the point where you think, ‘This is so much pressure and stress’, and you give up so much of your life for football.
“I always thought, ‘Do you want to be on the other side of that and give up even more of your life’?
“But now that I’ve missed so much football, I’m not sure I could live without football in my life.
“It might sound sad, but it’s my life.”
He adds: “I’m still as fit as I’ve ever been and I want to play on as long as possible.
“Thirty-five is where you aim for, but I feel I’m fitter than most, so I like to think 36 or 37 potentially, depending what opportunities come up.
“A manager may say, ‘Come and be a player-coach with us’.
“I think I’m four games off 400 appearances so I have so much to offer, particularly young kids, on and off the pitch.
“I have worked under some great managers and experienced pretty much everything you can experience in football.”
If coaching is indeed the chosen direction when Anderson arrives at the next crossroads, two of the biggest beneficiaries could be his two young children.
Despite everything that has happened he would still endorse a football life, if that’s the path they take.
“I want my kids to do whatever they want to do and just enjoy it.
“I think my son is going to be okay at football, you can see how he kicks a football and how he runs.
“He is probably going to go down that road, so I would tell him to work hard and enjoy it because you never know when it’s going to end.”
Perhaps Anderson’s experiences may help his future protégés avoid some of football’s pitfalls. To focus on appreciating the positives, more than regretting what life could have delivered.
And in a sport which can laud you to the stars in one moment, but just as quickly dump you on your backside, to take nothing for granted.
“People tell me I was fortunate to be on the bench for the Champions League, but I don’t really remember anything about it. It’s a shame.
“I never really saved any photos or videos of me at Liverpool or when I was winning things.
“I never thought of it as important at the time because I thought that was the norm.
“There are a couple of things I wish may have gone my way a little more but I have had an amazing career, and there is time to get even better so I have to be thankful for that.”